Viewing Sylvia Plath Through a Different Lens
Smith Welcomes New Portrait of Esteemed Alumna
Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012
Updated: Thursday, December 6, 2012 14:12
Last Thursday, Ellen Dore Watson, director of the Poetry Center, officiated over a ceremony that welcomed artist Susan Seidner Adler ’57 and the portrait of Sylvia Plath she created on commission from classmate Esther C. Laventhol ’57.
Professors Cornelia Pearsall and Susan Van Dyne, both members of the English department and deeply involved with the Poetry concentration, joined Karen Kukil, curator of the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Watson and Annie Boutelle, the Poetry Center’s founder, in welcoming the portrait by reading various Plath poems, many from their own well-loved copies of Plath’s Ariel collection.
Adler’s oil-on-canvas portrait was hung prior to the gathering so that Plath herself attended the ceremony.
In the portrait, an amalgam of documentary and interpretation, stripes of pink brush up delicately into Plath’s frothy white blouse and tangle with her cropped blonde hair in Adler’s recreation of a college age photograph of Plath in which she sits demure but discontented. Though Plath’s clothing and hair blend into the bright backdrop of one of Plath’s drafts of the poem “Stings,” her face and her expression remain dimensional, distinct and disconcerted; Adler makes clear how Plath, though outwardly conforming, protested the conventions of her era.
Adler explained that she chose a pink background for the portrait to represent the world of gender expectations against which Plath defined herself as a woman and as an artist.
The conflict between the ostensibly “happy” pink and Plath’s fraught expression is not the only conflict that exists in the painting. Adler chose to copy Plath’s handwritten draft of “Stings,” one of her later poems, behind a college-aged photograph of Plath to invoke the sense that the sentiments that Plath later communicated in her poetry haunted her even in her youth.
Though Adler did not know Plath, who was two years her senior at Smith, Laventhol, who commissioned and donated the painting, did since both Plath and Laventhol lived in Lawrence House. In her remarks, Laventhol said she had always thought that Plath, one of Smith’s most interesting and well-renowned graduates, should have a portrait at Smith, and that this thought motivated her donation just as the skill and vision of Adler motivated her commission.
Jamie Samdahl ’15, who is herself a poet and was recently chosen to represent Smith at the Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Contest, said of the event, “I most definitely appreciate the sentiment of Esther Laventhol, who commissioned the painting, that Sylvia Plath ought to be honored, like so many other Smith alumnae, with a portrait. Adler’s painting is simply gorgeous, shocking to the senses at first, but it portrays Plath’s struggle with 1950s expectations of femininity beautifully. It was also incredibly generous of Karen Kukil to suggest that that portrait hang in the Poetry Center.”
Plath exists all over campus, said fellow attendee Yumna Marwan ’14J. “Her ghost is everywhere in many ways and I feel like that gets students aware of the poetry that goes on around campus today. I am in the Poetry Concentration myself and I try not to romanticize her too much, but sometimes even that is fun and quite nerve-racking for my own life and writing.”
Just before the audience dispersed to enjoy champagne and a buffet of desserts, Kukil played two clips of Plath reading her own poems, “Daddy” and “Fever 103,” so that the poet, alive on the wall and in the recordings, had the evening’s final say.