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."

If You Want to Be a Better Learner, Try Drawing (Even If You're Bad at It)

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iStock

Doodling all over your notebook while sitting through class or a meeting might not be so bad after all. According to design historian and art professor D.B. Dowd, even the crudest of drawings can facilitate learning.

Dowd recently spoke with Quartzy about his new book, Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice. In it, he aims to dispel the myth that drawing is only for skilled artists or crafty Pinterest-loving types. Whether you’re doodling a smiley face or penning a map while giving directions, drawing is suitable for everyone, he argues.

“We have misfiled the significance of drawing because we see it as a professional skill instead of a personal capacity,” he writes in his book. “This essential confusion has stunted our understanding of drawing and kept it from being seen as a tool for learning above all else.”

Science seems to back this up. Over a century ago, science students were required to take drawing lessons in order to “learn to observe.” With this in mind, biology professor Jennifer Landin started introducing drawing back into her lesson plans.

“Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she writes for Scientific American. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details. Since some species of dragonfly can only be distinguished from others by the vein patterns in their wings, skipping details is not an option.”

In addition to helping you become a better observer (and thus a better learner), one 2009 study found that drawing also improves memory. Test subjects who doodled while listening to a list of names and places scored 29 percent higher on a surprise quiz of the information than those who didn’t doodle. And while smartphones and laptops can be a distraction, doodling helps you concentrate. The researchers behind one 2011 study theorized that doodling may stimulate “default networks” in the brain, which promote activity in the cerebral cortex even when there are no outside stimuli.

Classroom research has also shown that drawing can be a useful learning aid. When a student is asked to draw a concept like sound waves, for instance, they’re forced to think about it more creatively. Plus, they often enjoy the assignment more, which can’t hurt. So go ahead—break out the pencil and paper and start doodling. It might be good for your brain.

[h/t Quartzy]

New Podcast Opens Up the Cold Case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Heist

Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images
Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images

One of the newest true crime podcasts gathering buzz doesn't involve a murder or kidnapping—instead, it investigates one of the most infamous art heists in history. Last Seen, a collaboration between WBUR and The Boston Globe, looks at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, a case that has gone unsolved for 28 years.

The story begins on March 18, 1990, when two thieves posing as policemen infiltrated the Boston art museum and stole 13 paintings off the walls. The works are from such master artists as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet, and are estimated to have a cumulative value exceeding $600 million.

The scope of the heist alone would have made it historically significant, but the story became even more interesting after the crime was committed. The case never moved forward, despite a drawn-out investigation and a $10 million reward for the return of the stolen pieces. That didn't mean there weren't suspects: Two unnamed men were identified, but they were killed shortly after the theft, and according to the popular theory, information regarding the location of the stolen artworks died with them.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum case is still filled with mysteries, but the new podcast aims to make the story a little clearer. Hosted by WBUR producers and reporters Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico, and with contributions from Stephen Kurkjian, who spent years covering the heist for The Boston Globe, Last Seen follows the saga from the night the crime was committed to today. It features interviews with investigators who worked on the case and people who were employed by the museum in the early 1990s, some of whom have never before agreed to speak publicly on the subject.

The first episode of Last Seen debuted on WBUR September 17, and the series will include 10 episodes in total.

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