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."

Lost Sketches From The Little Prince Have Been Discovered in Switzerland

Oleksandr Samolyk, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Oleksandr Samolyk, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, published in 1943, has long been regarded as one of the most compelling books of the 20th century. Drawing upon Saint-Exupéry's own experiences in aviation, the book tells the tale of a pilot who crashes in the Sahara and befriends a little boy who claims to have come from outer space. The book is accompanied by a number of illustrations by Saint-Exupéry. Now, Smithsonian reports that some of the original preparatory sketches have surfaced.

According to France24.com, the sketches—of the titular Little Prince chatting with a fox, a boa constrictor devouring an elephant, and a character called the Tippler—were purchased at auction in 1986 by an art collector named Bruno Stefanini, who tucked them away in a folder. When Stefanini passed away in December 2018, the artwork—drawn on airmail paper—was uncovered by workers at his non-profit Foundation for Art, Culture, and History in Winterthur, Switzerland.

Aviator and 'The Little Prince' author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is photographed inside of an airplane cockpit in 1935
Aviator and The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1935.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The organization intends to share its findings with the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which currently houses the original book manuscript (including drafts of the book's most famous phrase, "What is essential is invisible to the eye") and 35 other sketches.

The Stefanini collection also includes a particularly personal piece of material. One of the sketches includes a love letter made out to Saint-Exupéry's wife while the pilot was in New York in 1942 following Germany’s invasion of France. It was there he wrote The Little Prince, which was published the following year. In 1944, Saint-Exupéry was shot down by a German pilot over the Mediterranean.

[h/t Smithsonian]

The Definition of Museum Could Be Changing

The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
roman_slavik/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve always casually defined museum as “a place to see art or historical objects,” you’re not necessarily wrong. But the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has a more specific, official guideline that defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.”

ICOM’s 40,000 members have been adhering to this definition for almost 50 years to represent more than 20,000 museums around the world. Now, The Art Newspaper reports, some members want to change it.

On July 22, the organization’s executive board convened in Paris and composed a new definition that Danish curator Jette Sandahl believes better suits the demands of “cultural democracy.” By this updated description, a museum must “acknowledg[e] and addres[s] the conflicts and challenges of the present,” “work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world,” and “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing.”

The proposal immediately elicited harsh reactions from a number of other members of the museum community, who felt the text was too ideological and vague. François Mairesse, a professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and the chair of the International Committee of Museology, even resigned from the revisory commission—led by Sandahl—earlier this summer when he realized the new definition wasn’t, by his standards, really a definition. “This is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant,” he told The Art Newspaper. “It would be disastrous to impose only one type of museum.”

The current plan is for ICOM members to vote on the definition at the general assembly on September 7 in Kyoto, Japan, but 24 national branches and five museums’ international committees have petitioned to postpone the vote—they’d like some time to create their own definition for museum and present it as a counter-proposal.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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