Sylvia Plath: Drawings gives an insight into a world of the famed poet perhaps not known to many as a visual artist. Having suffered from depression for most her life,and having eventually committed suicide aged only 30, she is known best for her confessional poetry, her dark, harsh and even macabre themes. For anyone who enjoys her poetry —or simply enjoys art —you may find Sylvia Plath: Drawings to be a pleasantly surprising read.
The book opens with an introduction by Frieda Hughes, the daughter of Plath and the English poet, Ted Hughes. Her brief introduction gives light to the importance of visual arts to Plath, the influence it had on her literary work, the time frame in which the drawings of the book were produced and the Plath family’s relationship with her art.
Just as her drawings and sketches were generally little known, her fondness of the arts, her surprising skilfulness and also eagerness to incorporate her drawings into her career were also almost unknown. Plath describes herself as having had “dreams of grandeur”in relation to her illustrations, hoping that the New Yorker might feature them alongside her written work. In a letter to Hughes she says “It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”Her level of skill is on par with that of respected contemporary artists. This was not a just hobby, but a passion, a way to appreciate the world around her.
Anyone familiar with Plath’s written work will know of her colourful use of language, and indeed of her coded use of colour in her language. Like her writing, she painted, at least in part, in order that the viewer might understand her better. Browsing the pages of this collection, it’s not hard to see where she developed this descriptive style, and what influenced her. Impeccably detailed, Plath’s observational drawings leave little to the imagination: every texture, every curve, every shadow is represented. Typically, the cover of the collection features her ink drawings of horse chestnuts, complete with the nut’s spiny texture, its curved inside, and its shiny, polished core.
The works detailed here are far from just simple still lives though,but show a broad spectrum of subject matter in ink alone. Alongside her still life studies there are elaborate, detailed drawings of her environment: small English cottages and villages with the low sun casting heavy shadows, people relaxing in beautiful French cafes, cattle resting and grazing in fields and busy and worn out marinas full of all sorts of boats. Her careful hand shows us the weight of an old roof on a house, the wispy smoke of a chimney, and the breeze on flowers and plants in a field. While her confessional literary works may give us the impression of a woman largely immersed in her own world and mind, her drawings show us that she was anything but, clearly seeing the world and people around her and appreciating them through art.
The public image of Plath is of a persona is often influenced by her dark literary works, her struggle with depression and her untimely death —to most, her life likely seems quite bleak and depressing from start to finish. But as you progress through Sylvia Plath: Drawings, you’ll come across letters by Plath, detailing her stay in Spain and Paris, and her relationship with Hughes. Though this book is primarily a collection of her artistic work, the rawness of her observational drawings and deeply personal letters make it almost a documentary of her life between 1955 and 1957, showing her as a complex woman who enjoyed life just as much as she struggled with it.