There are two free-standing objects in “One Life: Sylvia Plath,” the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery about the poet and novelist whose influence has burgeoned since her 1963 death. One is the Royal typewriter on which Plath crafted some of her raw, semi-autobiographical writings. The other is an installation inspired partly by Plath’s only novel, “The Bell Jar.”
Yet this is not just a show of Plath’s words and other people’s images, for the author was also an artist who painted and sketched, and who modeled very purposefully for photos. In one picture, a 21-year-old, bleached-blond Plath lounges on the beach. It’s a carefully considered pose, since Plath wrote a short story, “Platinum Summer,” about a young woman who dyes her hair and the reactions her new look engenders.
“She was one of those people who performed her identity,” says the Portrait Gallery’s Dorothy Moss, a curator who organized the show with guest curator Karen Kukil of Smith College, Plath’s alma mater. Smith College and Indiana University hold large collections of the writer’s artifacts, and both loaned items for this show.
Nearly everyone who knows Plath’s name is aware that she was sometimes gripped by depression — “The Bell Jar” chronicles a breakdown and recovery — and that she committed suicide at age 30. Yet there’s exuberance, and enormous self-confidence, in her youthful depictions of herself. “She could visualize joy,” Moss observes.
This became clear when Plath was barely old enough to read and write. The earliest items in the array include an illustrated poem produced for her family in 1940, the year she turned 8. That was Plath’s age when she both had her first poem published (in the Boston Herald) and when her father died, a shock often invoked in her writing.
At that point, Plath was considering careers as a writer or an artist, but also possibly as a fashion designer. The grown-up ambition of the adolescent Plath is embodied here by her Girl Scout uniform, festooned with the 20 badges she earned for such skills as writer, reader and bibliophile.
A few years later, around age 18, Plath painted a “triple face” self-portrait that demonstrates her familiarity with cubism and post-impressionism. The planes of the face suggest that she saw herself as a fragmented person. So does her senior thesis — a draft of which is on display — on split personalities in Dostoevsky’s “The Double” and “The Brothers Karamazov.”
Another self-portrait stresses Plath’s hands, which are equally animated in photos of her interview with novelist Elizabeth Bowen, when Plath was a guest editor at Mademoiselle, a disenchanting experience she lightly fictionalized in “The Bell Jar.”
A Fulbright scholarship took Plath to Cambridge in 1955, and early the next year she met Ted Hughes, also an aspiring poet. They married just a few months later and had two children, yet the relationship was difficult. Plath attempted suicide at least once before Hughes left her for another woman. (Hughes became the United Kingdom’s poet laureate in 1984; his treatment of both Plath and her posthumously published writing remains controversial.)
There are no paintings from Plath’s post-Smith days, but she kept representing herself visually. Inside the back cover of her paperback copy of “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” is a sketch of the scene at a French cafe, with a bit of herself in it.
Most of Plath’s success came, of course, after her death. “The Bell Jar” was published, initially under an alias, in 1963 (and not until 1971 in the United States). Her second volume of poetry, “Ariel,” followed in 1965. Plath didn’t win a Pulitzer until 1982, for her Collected Poems, published posthumously.
That her work continues to motivate readers is attested to by “Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath),” composer Jenny Olivia Johnson’s interactive installation. It was inspired by lines from Plath’s “I Thought I Could Not Be Hurt”: “How frail the human heart must be . . . so deep/ and tremulous an instrument/ of glass that it can either sing,/ or weep.”
Inside Johnson’s bell jars are lights and sounds that respond to tapping, and potentially make a collective experience of Plath’s chronicle of isolation. Blue, red and green LEDs light up, accompanied by snippets of Johnson’s composition, inspired by both Plath’s and Hughes’s verse.
The sound and light show is surrounded by everyday items from an extraordinary life: paper dolls, letters from Plath’s psychiatrist, a slab of elm once used as a desk. Even the writer’s dedicated admirers are likely to be surprised by something. “I hope,” Moss says, “people will leave feeling that they didn’t know her before.”
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. 202-633-1000. npg.si.edu.
Dates: Through May 20.