Sylvia Plath is one of the literary greats from the 20th century. Married to Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, Plath tragically committed suicide at the age of 30. The themes of her work, with its often-alarming frankness and confessional nature, came to influence an entire generation of artists and writers. Plath’s renown stems mostly from her poetry, rather than her art.
Sylvia Plath, Bull near Grantchester, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com.
The Mayor Gallery are showing 44 never-before exhibited drawings by Plath, accompanied by an exhibition of 18 works by Dadamaino, one of the key artists of the Zero Group, characteristic of her style: cut-out monochromatic canvases and stretched, perforated plastic works.
Dadamaino, Volume, 1959. Image via www.mayorgallery.com.
Plath travelled in Europe and recorded it all through keenly observed drawings, many of from her time in Paris. These carefully constructed pen and ink drawings depict a relatively serene world where Plath seems to have enjoyed natural beauty and stillness, finding incredible harmony and precision in the everyday. There is a childish simplicity here that is certainly never evident in her writing. The drawings have an incredible feeling of purity with no trace of despair. They are not to be over-analysed but should be looked at in contrast to her written works; they take the form of escapism, showing a happier side to her character.
Sylvia Plath, Tabac Opposite Palais de Justice, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com.
Art had always been important to Plath and she received private tuition as a teenager. The drawings focus on an art form that gave her pleasure and inspiration. It was a form of passion that allowed her to flourish in a positive way in contrast to her decline into mental illness.
Sylvia Plath, Curious French Cat, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com.
Her early letters, diary notes and poems were often heavily decorated, and she hoped her drawings would illustrate the articles and stories that she wrote for publication. Ted Hughes mentioned Plath’s art in his last collection of poems, Birthday Letters where he directly refers to her drawings of Paris roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, and himself.
Sylvia Plath, Beaujolais bottle, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com.
Art features in Plath’s own poetry too and, in 1958, she wrote eight poems inspired by the works of her favourite artists, Klee, Rousseau and De Chirico. She admired, what she called, their primitive forms and was greatly motivated by their works. Plath described her imagination as visual and these paintings helped to spur her on.
Plath’s semi-autobiographical work, The Bell-Jar, is seemingly referenced in one of the drawings by the same name. The Bell–Jar tells of Esther Greenwood who travels to New York to work as a guest editor on a magazine. Far from being a routine coming-of-age story, Esther regresses into madness. For Esther, the Bell Jar itself symbolises madness. The drawing depicts a pair of red patent shoes (I’ve always rather fancied a pair myself) that recall a passage in the book, “I had removed my patent leather shoes after a while, for they foundered badly in the sand. It pleased me to think they would be perched there on a silver log pointing out to sea, like a sort of soul-compass after I was dead.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963. Image via www.mayorgallery.com.
Plath’s written work is often permeated with themes of death, redemption and resurrection. Here too, she uses details from everyday life as the raw material for her writing but transforms the mundane into actions charged with meaning, overwrought with images of rage, despair, love and vengeance. It is difficult to understand her work unless you understand her life.
Sylvia Plath, The Ubiquitous Umbrella, 1955-56. Image via www.mayorgallery.com.
The main question here is would these drawings been so admired if they were not by Plath? I think probably not but I don’t think that matters. They are not outstanding works of art in their own right but, this aside, they are beautiful. This simple exhibition is well-curated, showing a range of gorgeous and life-affirming works – everything that we would not expect from Plath.
Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings & Dadamaino: Volumes are at The Mayor Gallery until 16th December 2011, www.mayorgallery.com.