On display together at the Mayor Gallery for the first time, Plath's drawings cast an intriguing light on her poemsby Rosanna Boscawen / November 15, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Drawings by Sylvia Plath, copyright Frieda Hughes, courtesy of the Mayor Gallery
Although best known for her poetry, art was central to Sylvia Plath’s vision of the world. Several of her poems centre on great paintings by Rousseau, Klee and de Chirico. In “Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies,” she gives the girl from Rousseau’s The Dream (1910) a life beyond the painting by naming her. But for all that, the girl’s inner life remains mysterious, as the poem hinges on what “Rousseau told the critics.”
The connection between Plath’s own drawings and her poetry is similarly elusive. On display together for the first time—and probably the last as they are all for sale—at the Mayor Gallery, they show competent draftsmanship and an intriguing mind, but not a great artistic talent. One drawing, a pair of low-heeled shoes in pen and ink, bears the title of Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (Image 1 in the slideshow, above), while another, called “Cambridge: A View of Gables and Chimney-pots” (Image 2), was paired with an original carbon of her poem “Brasilia.” But none of the remaining 42 pictures in the exhibition—many written on her honeymoon in 1956—has been linked to any specific poem, whether by Plath herself, her husband Ted Hughes, or daughter Frieda.
This may leave some disappointed—what could the value of these works be, besides illuminating her writing? But that’s the joy of them—you interpret them according to your own reading. The sketch “Wuthering Heights Today” (Image 3) might recall Plath’s poem “Wuthering Heights” with its “hollow doorsteps that go from grass to grass.” Or perhaps the unfinished and withered-looking “Willow near Granchester” (Image 4) is a foil to her poem “I Am Vertical,” in which she envies the longevity of trees. What stands out most for me is that all of the drawings, with their confident, heavy black lines, carry the conviction of her poetic voice in, say, “Mirror”—“silver and exact,” she sees “without preconceptions.”