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."

Show Off Your Love of Art With a Frida Kahlo Action Figure

Frida Kahlo Action Figure
Frida Kahlo Action Figure
Today is Art Day

If you're in the market for an action figure based on a real person, you've got plenty to choose from: Everyone from Snoop Dogg to the Pope is getting their own figurine these days. Now, Frida Kahlo has joined the ranks of icons who have become immortalized in plastic.

In 2017, Canadian art website Today Is Art Day (known for its Vincent van Gogh action figure) started a Kickstarter to give Kahlo the action figure treatment. The toy features the artist with a monkey pal on her shoulder, as well as a detachable heart and the faint smell of roses. The packaging has fun facts about the artist, along with some miniature artwork that can be cut out and affixed to a miniature easel.

“Not that I don’t like the great books and reproductions of artworks but, I think it’s more engaging to have a Frida Kahlo action figure on your desk rather than an art history book on your shelf," ‘Today Is Art Day’ founder David Beaulieu told Lost at E Minor during the Kickstarter campaign.

The Frida action figure is available on Amazon for $30.

Frida Kahlo Action Figure

Frida Kahlo Action Figure

[h/t Lost at E Minor]

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

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Rare Audio Clip of Frida Kahlo Discovered in Mexican Sound Library

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Even if they're not experts in art, many people are familiar with Frida Kahlo's most famous paintings. The Mexican artist's style, quotes, and artwork are still iconic 65 years after her death, but few people know what she sounded like. As CNN reports, the National Sound Library of Mexico recently announced the discovery of what could be the only surviving recording of her voice.

The clip comes from the 1955 pilot of the radio show El Bachiller. The episode profiles Diego Rivera, a muralist and Kahlo's on-again-off-again husband. In one section, Kahlo can be heard reciting a text entitled "Portrait of Diego" that poetically describes the appearance and temperament of her spouse.

Kahlo had already died when the episode aired, and the radio show notes that the voice being broadcast belongs to a painter "who no longer exists." The original recording of her voice likely dates back to 1954 or 1953 (she died in July 1954).

In a press release, the director of the National Sound Library of Mexico Pável Granados said that audio of Frida Kahlo is one of the most common requests they receive. The authenticity of the tape has yet to be confirmed, and authorities are currently investigating to see if the voice in the recording really belonged to the artist.

Surviving audio of Kahlo may be rare, but the painter left behind many artworks and writings that paint a rich picture of her life. Here are some facts about the icon.

[h/t CNN]

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