It has been 55 years since American writer Sylvia Plath’s suicide at the age of 30 – yet her cultural influence is as strong as ever. In Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) female lead Michelle wears a T-shirt with her black-and-white photo on it as a symbol of empowerment. A new film adaptation of her novel The Bell Jar directed by Kirsten Dunst is coming soon. Plath’s Facebook page has more than 430,000 members. Patti Smith wrote about the experience of visiting her grave in her memoir M Train (2015). Indie rock band The Antlers’ first concept album Hospice (2009) was inspired by her. The list is not exhaustive.
Why are we still obsessed with Plath over half a century later? Why are fans like me still honoring her with gestures such as painting our nails red frequently for it was her favorite color and getting tattoos of her quote “I am, I am, I am.” (http://sylviaplathink.tumblr.com/) The exhibition One Life: Sylvia Plath, currently showing at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, reveals why her hold on the popular imagination is showing no signs of loosening.
A celebration of Plath’s life through her artwork (she majored in art before making the pivotal switch to English), letters, photographs and other personal items, the exhibition reconciles her light and darkness, her frivolity and pensiveness, her zeal and morbidity, and redirects our focus from the dominant narrative of Plath as victim of depression to the many facets of the woman whose distinctive voice helped shapeshifters from actress Lena Dunham to poet Tracy K. Smith find their own.
The memorabilia exhibited serve up more than a few surprises. Contrary to what you might expect from the angst-ridden poet who gave the world the gift of Ariel, Plath’s poem handwritten as a child, complete with brightly colored illustration, was about the joys of spending quality time with her family at home one ordinary Sunday night. Plath’s ponytail, cut when she was on the cusp of adolescence, was kept by her mother with inscription detailing the date and her age, giving you a taste of just how close they were and how invested she was in raising her daughter.
The photograph of a 21-year-old platinum blonde Plath lounging on a sunny beach in a Marilyn Monroe-style white bathing suit, wearing her “exaggerated American grin for the cameras” (Ted Hughes’ Fulbright Scholars), shows that she took time out from over-achieving to enjoy her youth.
The most poignant item on display is Plath’s typewriter – think of all the poems only she could have written but didn’t. Yet the exhibition proves that hers was a life well-lived – she was a writer, an artist, a wife and a mother. She once said, “Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it.” She meant her words.
One Life: Sylvia Plath
2017.6.30 – 2018.5.20
11:30 – 19:00; open daily
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
8th and F Streets NW
Washington, DC 20001
Photo courtesy to Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery