04 November 2011

A Review of Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings

Michael Glover at The Independent coolly reviews the exhibition "Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings" which is now on at the Mayor Gallery in London. The subtitle to the review, "Plath the tortured poet's pictures are too polite to be a big draw" says all you'll need to read... But he just does not get it. Or, at least he does not get Plath.

Glover asks, "What we really want to know about this exhibition is this: how does it connect with the rest of her tragic life? Are these drawings pent, febrile and tortured in the way that many of the greatest of the poems are pent, febrile and tortured? Have the things that she is drawing – flowers, animals, bottles, trees – been turned into terrible symbols of themselves?"

Several of the drawings in the exhibit show a duplicitous or two-sided curiosity in objects, which directly relates to a large theme in Plath's writings. There are two drawings of the "Pleasures of Odds and Ends"; two of horse chestnuts (or conkers). There are two bulls, two stoves. Even two shoes in the same composition from different angles. Five sketches and drawings of boats.   Plath's speaker in "Death & Co." states right from the start: "Two, of course there are two."  That Glover fails to see this aspect in the drawings is an oversight of which perhaps he might be forgiven as he's clearly not really up on his Plath.  Plath's pen and ink drawings are every bit as inquisitive as the speaker of "The Applicant." Her selectivity of inspiration now on exhibit does indeed ask, "First, are you our sort of person?" But for person substitute in "subject." Her eye for detail direct relates to the fitting out of a spouse: 

"Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something's missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups..."

These images all could have easily fit into her drawings (a kettle actually did)... I ask Glover, Why do we want to focus on the tragedy of her life? What does that accomplish? This exhibit is an appreciation of her life & some of the things she created: something into which she put, temporarily, all of her heart and soul and concentration. Call me Captain Obvious, but Sylvia Plath's death was tragic. Not her life.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting! I stopped reading the review when he referred to FH as "Frieda Plath" ;-) Respect that you made it through!


Peter K Steinberg said...

You didn't make it very far! And, you didn't miss much...

This isn't the only time she's been called Frieda Plath in the media about this exhibit...Lazy journalism...


Anonymous said...

I went to the gallery today and unfortunately and tragically this unique collection of Plath's wonderful drawings are being sold off, it appears to separate bidders. Most have already sold for about £4000 each. This is not a public gallery, it is a private one that earns commission for selling artwork. Instead of Plath's detailed and beautifully rendered drawings being kept as a whole collection as they should be, they are being splintered apart, just as her first collection of Ariel was, and probably will not be seen again by the public. I can't understand why her daughter chose to sell her mother's drawings at all, they could have toured many public galleries and the interest would have been acute. And why not at least give first refusal to Smith College or Lilly Library which hold extensive archives on Plath? This is really a terrible loss both for the academic world and to all of Plath's fans. Her artwork gives great insight to how she creates an artistic piece, bit it visual or poetic, the detail, the shading, the focus and subtlety are all aspects of her perceptual process. There are two drawings left, if anyone wants to buy them before they disappear for good. AL

Anonymous said...

@AL: Totally agree; it's something I feel strongly about, too.

I wonder what FH's motivation could be? Does she - not forgetting that she is painter by profession - not value the drawings enough as artwork to save them for the archives, viewing them perhaps more as curiosity pieces? Or is the aim a more "mercenary" one?

I hope an archive somewhere (Smith College, Lilly Library, etc.) manages to snap up the last two via a private bidder...


Anonymous said...

I also went to Frieda Hughes's readings/presentation at the Cambridge Ideas Festival on Saturday 29th October in which slides of her large canvases were shown whilst she read her poems. The point of the multi-media presentation was that art and poems are complementary, so why she has chosen to sever the tie between her mother's artwork and poetry is a very poignant question. It seems unnecessary from a financial point of view, as she receives regular Royalties from book sales and has had grant money of significant amounts to carry out her own commissioned projects. The fragmentation of Plath's art work is a huge loss to the artistic and literary communities and it makes one question how much control a single family member should have over a world renowned artist's work and legacy. AL

Anonymous said...

Sources tell me that the prices of these drawings ranged from £950 to £9000.

I do hope that a large number will become a part of an archive, but I do not think this is too realistic.

@~VC, I suspect that as an artist she saw the potential for income for a minimal amount of work. I think the reason there for is monetary versus anything else...


Annika said...

I was also at the gallery Fridy, and when I was there there were about five drawings left (prices from £950 - but that drawing was basically just three pencil marks - and £4000), so if there were only two left later the same day, I'm guessing they're sold out by now. Compared to the prices of other art-work this gallery sold, I was surprised the Plath-drawings went for so little - they had paintings costing £30 000 in the adjacent room. I have to confess I was tempted - there were some lovely things left. In the end, I just got the catalogue for the bargain-price of £10. FH's introduction in it was a bit of a disappointment though, she didn't really have anything to say about the drawings.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks for your comments on the exhibit. That Plath's drawings were going for so also said by Michael Glover in his Independent review linked in this post. Are the drawings all done up in nice frames on the wall, or are they laid flat in exhibition cases? I wish I could see how the exhibit is laid out - for example are they in the same order as they appear in the catalogue?

I would hope that something with just three pencil lines or so would come with some kind of certificate of authenticity because for £950 that's a lot, it seems, even if/though it is something Plath created, or was in the process of creating at one time.

Agree about the catalogue's, which I received a copy of Friday and will post a review of in the next day. But one wouldn't necessarily buy this for its text (save for data about the drawings). Though one might expect that as an artist Frieda Hughes would have some kind of emotional reaction or connection to the pieces that manifested itself through the prose in her intro. We can't win!


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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.