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Sylvia Plath, in full color

  • Karen Kukil, the associate curator of Smith College’s Special Collections and co-curator of the National Exhibit on Sylvia Plath, opening in Washington D.C., sits at her desk with items belonging to the college’s collection. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “ ‘Twas the Night Before Monday,” undated drawing by a young Sylvia Plath Image courtesy of The Lilly Library, Indiana University

  • Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire, England after their marriage in 1956 Harry Ogden— Image courtesy the Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College

  • A 1954 portrait of Sylvia Plath after she dyed her hair dark brown to accentuate her “serious, intellectual side.” Warren Kay Vantine— Image courtesy Mortimer rare Book Collection, Smith College

  • Kukil, holds a cradle painted by Plath for her daughter Frieda Hughes to play with. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Kukil, the associate curator of Smith Colleges Special Collections and co-curator of the National Exhibit on Sylvia Plath opening in Washington DC, sits at her desk with items belonging to the colleges collection. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Study of a Woman,” a painting done by Sylvia Plath. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Kukil, the associate curator of Smith Colleges Special Collections and co-curator of the National Exhibit on Sylvia Plath opening in Washington DC, talks about items of belonging to the colleges collection that got sent to the show. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Kukil, associate curator of Smith College’s Special Collections and co-curator of the National Exhibit on Sylvia Plath opening in Washington DC, sits at her desk with a painting done by Plath called “Study Of A Woman.” —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Triple-face Portrait,” tempera on paper, by Sylvia Plath, 1950-51 Image courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University

  • “A War to End Wars,” self-portrait by Sylvia Plath, 1946 — Image courtesy of Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College

  • Collage by Sylvia Plath, 1960 Image courtesy of Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College



Staff Writer
Thursday, June 08, 2017

Her basic storyline is well known: successful poet and novelist before she turned 30, one half of a literary couple who had a famously stormy relationship, and — sadly — a suicide in 1963, just as her work was beginning to achieve wider notice.

But many people don’t know that Sylvia Plath was also a talented artist or that she crafted specific visual identities for herself as she built a life as a writer, struggling against the barriers women of her era faced.

Plath, one of Smith College’s most famous graduates, has been the subject of any number of biographies, literary studies, and special exhibits and symposiums (as well as a major biopic, 2003’s “Sylvia,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow).

And on June 30, her life will be examined for the first time in an art and history museum when the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. opens a nearly year-long exhibit. “One Life: Sylvia Plath” will display a range of the writer’s work and personal effects — manuscripts, paintings and drawings, journals, a typewriter, even her ponytail from age 12 — in a visual biography showcasing different aspects of her life.

Fittingly enough, the exhibit is curated by two women with Smith College bonafides: Karen Kukil, associate curator of special collections at the college, and Dorothy Moss, a 1995 Smith graduate and curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery.

In addition, much of the exhibit is culled from Smith College’s collection of Plath’s papers; other material comes from Indiana University’s Lilly Library and private collections.

It’s the first time a writer has been profiled in a “One Life” exhibit at the Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. The shows, contained within one gallery, are a relatively new feature at the museum; people previously profiled include Babe Ruth, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Sandra Day O’Connor and Elvis Presley.

“This is a great opportunity to tell a more complete story about Plath,” Moss said during a recent phone interview. “People know about her poetry, her relationship with [her husband] Ted Hughes, but many don’t know about her art or her interest in visual self-presentation.”

Moss, who first studied Plath’s writing when she was at Smith, said she had not been aware until more recent years of the extent of her artistic background and portfolio. When she discovered that, she added, the idea for the Washington exhibit began taking shape.

“I definitely began looking at this from a visual art perspective,” said Moss.

Kukil is a leading expert on Plath and has edited collections of her papers, such as “The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath” in 2000 (she’s currently co-editing a new volume of Plath’s letters). She said she was intrigued when Moss contacted her in 2012 about the possibility of mounting a show.

It’s generally forgotten, Kukil noted, that when Plath came to Smith in 1950, she intended to major in studio art, and she took a number of art courses during her first two years there. She also taught art to children as a volunteer at Northampton’s People’s Institute (and she wrote press releases on college events for area newspapers including the Gazette).

“She was drawing and painting at an early age — she also made paper dolls, and she was interested in fashion,” said Kukil. “And her training as a visual artist influenced her writing. She used a lot of visual images in both her prose and her poetry.”

Multiple identities

Plath, born in 1932 in Boston, grew up in and around Boston and took art lessons as a young girl; she won a Scholastic Art & Writing Award in 1947 for her painting. At Smith, she switched her focus to writing — she had been keeping a journal for years — and later won a Fulbright scholarship to study poetry in Great Britain.

She’s best known for her dramatic and confessional poetry, particularly her posthumous collection “Ariel,” which has been celebrated in part as an early feminist tract, with poems that confronted the barriers society in general — and men in particular — had put in place against women who tried to move beyond their traditional roles.

She won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for “The Collected Poems.”

Plath, who had a history of depression — her 1963 novel “The Bell Jar” was based on her stay in a psychiatric hospital when she was 21 — also had a tumultuous relationship with her husband, English poet Ted Hughes (he cheated on her), that long has been the stuff of legend, a subject of intense academic and popular interest all its own.

But well before any of that, Kukil and Moss say, Plath was closely recording her thoughts about her life in her art and her journals. As a junior high school student in 1946, for instance, she painted a self-portrait of herself seated at a table, weeping as she reads an account about World War One.

Plath would go on to become a committed pacifist. The exhibit includes a collage she later made with anti-military images; these include a depiction of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower as a card sharp, an Air Force bomber obscuring the top of his head.

As a Smith student, Kukil notes, Plath experimented with her own image. After leaving McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Boston in late 1953, she dyed her light brown hair platinum blonde before returning to college. The exhibit includes a 1954 glamour shot — known as the “Marilyn Monroe” photo — of her on a beach, with blonde locks, a white bathing suit and a bright smile.

“It was like she wanted to establish a new identity, and she was fascinated with the way people responded to her with this different look,” said Kukil.

A photo of Plath as a blonde contrasts to one from later in 1954, with dark brown hair after another dye job. Plath saw her “brown-haired” personality as a more serious, intellectual one, Kukil notes — one more suitable for a Fulbright candidate.

And the Picasso-esque “Triple-Face Portrait,” which Plath painted around 1950-51, also explores her interest in the different images people can take on. As exhibit notes outline, Plath was working to “cultivate multiple identities for herself — intellectual, sensual, and creative.”

A life in perspective

The Portrait Gallery exhibit, which will run until May 20, 2018, has numerous other displays that help fill in the details of Plath’s life, like a manual typewriter she used at Smith, and a large slab of elm wood that her brother, Warren, planed for her for a writing desk when Plath and Hughes moved into a new home in England in 1961.

There’s also a thick lock of her hair, saved by her mother, Aurelia, when she cut Plath’s ponytail at age 12.

Early and finished drafts of poems, letters to and from Plath and photos of her, with her two young children or with Hughes, are also part of the show. So is a copy of “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” the inside back cover of which Plath used to make a detailed sketch of her French neighbors when she spent a month in France in late 1955.

“She did a lot of this — sketching in her journal or on things she was reading, on paper she was writing on, adding these interesting visual references,” said Kukil.

In the end, said Moss, she and Kukil “have tried to create a cohesive narrative and to look at her whole life in perspective.”

Deciding what to show of Plath’s life, with so much material to choose from, was “very difficult, a real challenge,” Moss added. “But it was a good challenge.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Information about the upcoming exhibit and the National Portrait Gallery can be found at npg.si.edu/exhibition/one-life-sylvia-plath