A new show at the SoFA Gallery, on IU"s Bloomington campus, presents a fascinating "what if," showing paintings and drawings by Sylvia Plath, who up until college considered the visual arts a strong possibility for her career. Plath"s reputation as a child prodigy complicated her beginnings as a creative artist. Publishing precocious efforts in writing and drawing at a tender age, she was obsessed with parental approval and local praise.
"Nine Female Figures" by Sylvia Plath, part of "Eye Rhymes: the Visual Art of Sylvia Plath," is on exhibit at IU"s SoFA Gallery.
Through her teen years, Plath draws detailed mermaids, castles, fairy princesses and nursery rhyme figures. Her portraits follow illustration clichÈs of the time, N.C. Wyeth pirates and Betsy McCall button-nosed profiles. It"s amazing that anyone would save, preserve and treasure so much juvenilia, but such was the devotion of Sylvia"s mother, Aurelia. She embodied a second obstacle to her development. Has no one commented on the fact that her mother"s name, slightly scrambled, furnishes the title of her last collection of poetry? The child prodigy receives lavish praise for small accomplishment, and requires unqualified approval from authority figures. Great achievement in art demands a spirit that will not relent in spite of universal derision, such as CÈzanne or van Gogh. When we see the young Plath reach college age, her style becomes more experimental in response to her exposure to modern art. For a certainty, we know that praise will no longer be so automatic. After the quasi-cubist treatment of "Two Women Reading," a strong exercise in divided color, Sylvia describes harsh treatment from her art teacher over a dual assignment of patterned giraffes. He thought the first version superior, describing the second as "artificial and gaudy as bad wallpaper." Not surprisingly, the second is much the better version, made of strong color and design. In her temperamental inability to brook failure, Plath folded like a straw. The following year saw the end of her art classes and her first suicide attempt. Shakespeare paired his fairy figure Ariel with the earthy Caliban, two opposites who, taken together, provide a trope for wholeness. Alone, Ariel represents a mental extreme, intolerant of the body"s stains, messes and failures, as Plath sadly proved with her suicide shortly after her divorce. In conjunction with the Lilly Library, Eye Rhymes runs until Nov. 23. Contact the SoFA Gallery at (812) 855-8490 orwww.indiana.edu/~plath70/