Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings, The Mayor Gallery, London
Plath the tortured poet's pictures are too polite to be a big draw
Friday 04 November 2011
This is the first time – and it is likely to be the last – that we will be seeing the drawings of Sylvia Plath on public exhibition. Frieda Plath, her daughter, has been their custodian until now. She has decided to let go all the drawings but one, a portrait of Ted Hughes, which is the most intimate of the lot. That drawing, alas, has been withdrawn from the sale. The second reason for the likely rarity of this show is that given Plath's fame, these drawings are relatively cheap for what they are, and consequently they are likely to be sold. Many people will want to own a bit of something by this extraordinary poet.
It is no secret that Plath and Hughes scribbled and daubed a bit. Hughes's Birthday Letters describes them doing so together in Paris, and some of these pen and ink drawings – most of them are in black pen and ink, just a few are pencil – are of street scenes: the local tabac, the ornate rooftops, views from a Left Bank window. Most of them were done when Plath was 24 or so but they often look, in their care and punctiliousness, as if they could have been done by someone younger.
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?
No. For the most part they show us a young woman who is serious about her art, but they don't reveal the dark underbelly of it all that the poems reveal. If anything, most of these works are polite and as well brought up as Plath herself was well brought up.
She was serious about it all right – she had drawing lessons, Frieda tells us in her catalogue essay – and she clearly worked hard to render the visual truth of things as she saw them in a fairly academic way. She loved drawing agglomerations of objects. She could capture a harbour scene very well, with its shoreline and yawing boats.
The fact that this part of her life seems to be set apart from all that terrible inner howling is itself of interest, of course.
To 16 December (020 7734 3558)
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