Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Sylvia’s juvenilia

Speaking of Sylvia Plath (see end of previous post, and note to recent post on Veronica Forrest-Thomson) …

Directed by a sixth sense to my local discount bookshop the other day, I was pleased to pick up a massively discounted copy of Eye Rhymes. Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (OUP, 2007). Old news to hardened Plath-followers, no doubt, but not to me. Anything discounted to this extent is usually the sort of book you find interesting but for which you wouldn’t want to part with any significant quantity of the hard-earned. And so it proves here.

This less than satisfactory study is built round a wholesale tipping out from the archives of Plath’s childhood drawings and art school exercises, none of which would have any real significance detached from the reputation of their creator. (And a prolific scribbler she was, too!) The great wadge of school essay illustrations, diary doodles, home made paper dolls, sketches in the margins of lecture notes and so forth is lovingly narrated in more detail than you could ever want by Kathleen Connors. Her plodding magnum opus looks like the original bulk of the book, rescued by the bolting on of a handful of sharper academic pieces. The academics, as academics will, have a good time erecting some very wobbly assertions around this inconsequential material, most of which appears to me considerably less parodic, satiric or even knowing than they would have us believe. (To give just one example, a Mother’s Day card drawn for her grandmother by Plath somewhere between the ages of eleven and fifteen, which includes images of herself, her brother and her mother, “strongly suggests,” by virtue of “this incorporation of the identities of both her mother and grandmother into one card” that “Plath had a sense of both women as products of a domestic regime – an arrangement in which any singular identity is denied.” Or so says Sally Bayley. There is a good deal more of such over-reaching, but I suppose it is only to be expected.)

Woman with folded arms

To be fair, Plath was serious about her art up to college level, where she realised that it might be a mistake to give up her day job as poet. Though later on she became a very able, if pedestrian, illustrator. And I like her Cambridge lecture-note sketch of Leavis at the podium; F R must have been on more than usually tedious form that day. But her college level exercises show too well the dangers of an early, complacent facility combined with a fearsome industriousness and a deep lack of real understanding; the lazy, decorative, pseudo-modernist pastiches, slapped together in bewildering patchworks of random colours (all different but all equally bright), are, if nothing else, an indictment of American art education of the era – at least at Smith College, Massachusetts. (Curiously, in with the mock-Braque, the mock-Expressionist and the mock-Cocteau, there is what might almost be a mock-Robert Colquhoun: Woman with folded arms, c 1948-50. Not that it is any more coherent than the rest.)

The dust jacket is given over to what must have been a standard directed exercise – Triple face portrait, a “tempera” (American for poster colour) painting of around 1950, in which intersecting (male?) profiles are made (rather awkwardly, and at some distance from Picasso) to form a (female?) frontal face. Naturally, the academics lap up this evidence of Miss Plath’s divided personality, making the piece stand well for the weaknesses of both Plath’s artwork and the book itself.

Triple face portrait

None of this, of course, detracts one jot from the luminous and spiky brilliance of Plath’s poetry. And all her artwork has an earnest honesty about it that makes it infinitely more bearable than, say, the irredeemably cringeworthy paintings of D H Lawrence. But it does raise the highly interesting question of why visual and verbal genius are so rarely combined. Which may renew our admiration for the authentic ambidexterity of those, like William Blake or Wyndham Lewis, whose brain hemispheres appear to have been held in perfect tandem.

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