A New Smithsonian Exhibition Highlights Sylvia Plath's Visual Artwork

Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, Ink and gouache on paper, c. 1946-1952, Estate of Robert Hittel, ©Estate of Sylvia Plath. 

Studio photograph of Sylvia Plath (with brown hair) by Warren Kay Vantine, Photograph: 1954, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. ©Estate of Sylvia Plath
Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, Ink and gouache on paper, c. 1946-1952, Estate of Robert Hittel, ©Estate of Sylvia Plath. Studio photograph of Sylvia Plath (with brown hair) by Warren Kay Vantine, Photograph: 1954, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. ©Estate of Sylvia Plath

More than 50 years after her death, Sylvia Plath—the American writer, poet, and scholar who committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30—remains as relevant as ever. Scholars discuss the author’s work at academic conferences, celebrities like Lena Dunham spark Twitter dialogues about her seminal 1963 novel The Bell Jar, and a character in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming even dons a T-shirt emblazoned with Plath’s image.

That’s why Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, became inspired to co-organize an exhibition devoted to Plath’s life and work—but with a twist: “One Life: Sylvia Plath,” which opened in June and runs until May 20, 2018, focuses not on Plath’s writing, but on her visual artwork.

"Triple-Face Portrait" by Sylvia Plath is an artwork on display in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition "One Life: Sylvia Plath."
Triple-Face Portrait by Sylvia Plath, Tempera on paper, c. 1950-1951 Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of Sylvia Plath

The popular narrative of Plath’s life focuses on her literary genius, her mental illness, and her tumultuous marriage to English poet Ted Hughes. But the author’s life—and talents—were far more complex, Moss tells Mental Floss. In fact, Plath, who attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, had originally intended to major in studio art.

“I think that once you know that she drew and painted and sketched constantly as a child, and realize that she went to college to major in art, you’ll start seeing how vivid her descriptions are, and how beautifully she put visual images into words,” says Moss, who co-curated “One Life” along with Karen Kukil, associate curator of rare books and manuscripts at Smith College. “I was very curious in her interest in the visual arts, and how that translated into her writing,” Moss says.

"A War to End Wars," an artwork on display in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition "One Life: Sylvia Plath.”
"A War to End Wars," Self-Portrait by Sylvia Plath, Paper, February 26, 1946 Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath

“One Life” features a selection of Plath’s self-portraits, collages, and drawings, culled from the Plath archives at Smith College, Indiana University's Lilly Library, and private collections. Completed at various stages of her life, collectively, they present a woman “who’s filled with joy as much as she was filled with moments of darkness,” Moss says. “She had a very wonderful, whimsical sense of humor. She also understood how to explore the depths of her fears and anxieties in writing and in images.”

"Twas the Night Before Monday," an artwork on display in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition "One Life: Sylvia Plath."
"Twas the Night Before Monday," by Sylvia Plath, Paper, No date, Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. © Estate of Sylvia Plath

An untitled collage by author Sylvia Plath, on display in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition "One Life: Sylvia Plath."
Collage by Sylvia Plath, Collage, 1960 Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath

An untitled, semi-abstract self-portrait by author Sylvia Plath, on display in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition "One Life: Sylvia Plath."
Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, Ink and gouache on paper c. 1946-1952, Estate of Robert Hittel, © Estate of Sylvia Plath

In addition to Plath’s artwork, the exhibition also includes letters, manuscripts, photos, and personal items like the author's writing desk, which was constructed by Hughes from a rough-cut piece of elm wood; her childhood ponytail, lopped off by Plath’s mother when she was 13 years old; and her typewriter, “as a reminder of the way that writing was a physical process," Moss explains. Together, they provide a nuanced view of an author who's commonly viewed as a dark, brooding intellectual.  

Perhaps best exemplified by The Bell Jar’s famous fig tree passage—in which character Esther Greenwood likens her many prospective futures to the tree’s branches—Plath’s work is often preoccupied with themes of self-identity. Her letters and journals are characterized by her efforts to “synthesize the various parts of herself,” Moss says, as is her artwork.

Contrary to popular belief, these parts aren’t necessarily tragic: “I really wanted her life to be seen as full, and not to be overshadowed either by her tragic death or her marriage to Ted Hughes,” Moss says. "She was much more than that."

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch

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In Bordeaux, France, a Former Nazi Submarine Base Has Been Transformed Into a Digital Art Gallery

Culturespaces
Culturespaces

When it opened on June 10, 2020, the Bassins de Lumières in France became the largest digital art gallery in the world. But history buffs may be more interested in the site's background than the art it contains: Before it became an art gallery, the concrete space held a fleet of Nazi submarines during World War II, Smithsonian reports.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bassins de Lumières's spring 2020 opening date was delayed to June. Now guests can visit and see the works of painters Gustav Klimt, Paul Klee, and Egon Schiele digitally projected over the concrete structures. U-boat pens, reaching up to 300 feet long and 36 feet high, are now canvases for colorful portraits, landscapes, and abstract scenes. The water filling the space's four basins reflects the artwork from below, while visitors look down from walkways woven throughout the 130,000-square-foot space.

The base looked very different in the 1940s. Nazi Germany constructed it off the coast of Bordeaux as a place to keep its submarines safe from enemy attacks during repairs. The site was abandoned in 1944, but because it's so enormous, the city of Bordeaux decided it would be cheaper to keep it than to tear it down.

Several decades later, the defunct bunker has been given new life. Culturespaces, the organization behind the project, spent more than $15 million transforming the base into a multimedia art gallery. After showcasing the current roster of painters for the rest of the year, the space will feature new artists in 2021.

Culturespaces art gallery.

Culturespaces art gallery in France.

Art gallery in Nazi submarine base.

[h/t Smithsonian]