The two women couldn’t have been more different.
Marlene Dietrich was an internationally known movie star who radiated sexual magnetism. She was also unapologetically androgynous and bisexual, at a time neither was openly accepted. A married woman whose list of lovers seemed endless, Dietrich was defeated only by aging, which made a dent in her prodigious selfconfidence.
Sylvia Plath was a shy but influential poet and novelist. While she captured the public imagination of other artists and lovers of her art forms and won a Pulitzer Prize, she never became the household name Dietrich was. Plath is also known for her turbulent relationship with husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes. After several bouts of depression and suicide attempts (possibly due to bipolar disorder), Plath took her own life at the age of 30.
Dietrich and Plath are now posthumously “sharing the same space,” in exhibitions dedicated to them at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Dietrich’s exhibit, “Dressed for the image,” is the first major presentation about the cinematic star in the United States, while the Plath exhibit, “One Life: Sylvia Plath,” is also a first to explore her visual imagination in an art and history museum.
Despite their striking differences, the two women had at least one commonality: they consciously chose the image they wanted to project and strove to control it. “It was Josef von Sternberg, the Austrian-American filmmaker, who photographed Dietrich her in a certain light that emphasized her cheekbones and other features, but she perfected and sustained it,” said Kate Lemay, a Smithsonian historian. The Dietrich exhibit includes photographs from her life, movies, film clips, and correspondence. It derives from one of the actor’s signature statements: “I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.”
In keeping with this vision, Dietrich bought a full-length mirror to every movie set, said Lemay. Plath, more subtly, would often change her looks, typically through different hair colors and styles, to manipulate her physical image, said Dorothy Moss, co-curator of the Plath exhibit. “Plath had many sides to her personality,” Moss continued. “When she applied for Smith College and for a Fulbright Scholarship, she was her natural brunette. But in her famous “Marilyn Monroe” pose, taken for a boyfriend on the beach, she was a seductive blonde.”
Plath had a talent, even a passion for, the visual arts – as shown in this exhibition through her drawings and self-portraits, most notably in "Triple-face Portrait," circa 1950- 1951.
Though not an activist like Dietrich, she did speak openly about politics, sex, and misogyny at a time when ambitious women were expected to be silent.
The Plath exhibit includes an interactive installation of seven bell jars that make musical sounds when touched. These are a reference to Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.
Other items in the exhibit include photographs, letters, magnified book covers of Plath’s works, her paper dolls, the writer’s Girl Scout uniform, and Plath’s childhood ponytail, saved by her mother.
Both women were complex.
Strictly professional in her career, Dietrich threw caution to the wind with her lesbian kiss on screen, cross-dressing, and provocative dressing in general.
“(Dietrich) got away with things because of her charm.,” said Lemay. “Men liked her; women liked her.”
German-born, Dietrich was also a staunch anti-Nazi. When asked by Hitler’s propaganda minister to make films for the regime, she refused and applied for American citizenship. She spent the war years performing with the USO and received the Medal of Freedom for her efforts Despite Plath’s dark moods, chronicled frequently in her writings, “she had moments of joy and a sometimes-overlooked sense of humor,” said Moss.
The Dietrich exhibition runs through April 15, 2018; the Plath runs till May 20, 2018, at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F Streets, NW Washington, DC. https://www.si.edu/museums/portrait-gallery
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