Saturday, August 25, 2012

Painting is Poetry: Sylvia Plath, Outlets, and Art

One of Plath's Paintings found in the Lily Library
"Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen." Leonardo da Vinci

"What do you think an artist is?...he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.  Painting is not done to decorate apartments.  Painting is war." Pablo Picasso

" know a lot of people I love pieces of, and to want to synthesize those pieces in me somehow, be it by painting or writing.  to know that millions of others are unhappy and that life is a gentleman's agreement to grin and paint our face gay so others will feel they are silly to be unhappy, and try to catch the contagion of the joy, while inside so many are dying of bitterness and unfullfillment...(Sylvia Plath, Unabridged Journals)  Sylvia Plath grabbed hold of America's popular consciousness when she committed suicide in her London flat in February of 1962, and she's yet to let go. Her work and biography have long been a favorite topic among feminists and academics, alike.  Literature students are required to study her poetry, and, in central Kentucky, librarians parade around with boxes (i.e., ovens) on their heads pretending to be Plath on Halloween (as somewhat cruel joke). However, while most people know Sylvia as the author of ARIEL and THE BELL JAR, they do not realize Plath was also an avid painter.  For her, both painting and writing were attempts at synthesizing parts of another individuals character into herself, just as Sylvia's novels and poetry were an extension of her own tormented life.

Personally, I find comfort in Plath's paintings.  Oh, I don't think they suggest a particular talent or aptitude, but that's not really the point.  In my opinion, when Sylvia painted or wrote, she was trying to express bottled up feelings.  In other words, when your pen stops working grab a paintbrush.  When you can no longer read than create.  The two pursuits nourished each other.  Perhaps, Sylvia was able to write her groundbreaking confessional poetry because she had multiple outlets for her emotions.  Maybe that method doesn't work for everyone, but for this Hysterical Historian that separate outlet is crucial.  Without it I'd explode!  To that end, this morning I marched myself over to Hobby Lobby, picked out a variety of oil paints from Ultramarine Blue to Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and began contemplating my latest project.  Because if you are like me and find Sylvia comforting, then you'll understand why I'm looking for release, but Sylvia puts it best: "I can laugh, if the occasion moves me (and, surprisingly enough, it sometimes does), and get pleasure from sunsets, walks over the golf course, drives though the country. I STILL MISS THE OLD LOVE AND ABILITY TO ENJOY SOLITUDE AND READING. I need more than anything right now what is, of course, most impossible, someone to love me to be with me at night when I wake up in shuddering horror and fear of the cement tunnels leading down to the shock room, to comfort me with an assurance that no psychiatrist can quite manage to convey.  The worst I hope, is over...Somehow, all this reminds me of the deep impression the movie "Snake Pit" made upon me about six years ago."


 In place of a plastered on smile, I think most of us need to hear "I will wait for you."  That's our light  at the end of the tunnel.

*Note: Sylvia Plath loved the color red.  She even decoriated with it.  The image of the color red shows up again and again in ARIEL, and, as you can see above, in her paintings as well.


  1. I was surprised to learn about those librarians. Is that really true? It wasn't Plath's suicide in itself that set off the fascination with her. It was Ariel, and then the American publication of The Bell Jar, and also a Time story, that made Plath suddenly a cultural figure. I write about all this in AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND ART OF SYLVIA PLATH, which St. Martin's Press will publish early next year.

    1. Yes, the "oven" has been a popular Halloween costume for quite awhile. I would argue that without her suicide, Plath's ARIEL would still have left a mark, but, probably not as quickly or in the same way. Ted Hughes writes about this in "The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother". In many ways, Plath's voice was lost to interpretation because she became the poster child for the feminist movement. Her poetry, her letters, and her journals show huge discrepancies in what she thought and how her moods changed. The sad fact is because Plath was no longer around to discuses her work, in some ways, it made her the perfect symbol for the feminist movement. I believe Janet Malcolm discusses this in THE SILENT WOMAN.