In pictures: Ethereal new illustrations for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

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Canadian artist Alexandra Levasseur talks about illustrating a new edition of Sylvia Plath’s legendary 1963 novel – and why a hot bath can indeed cure anything


“It’s the voice of an intelligent young woman looking for her place in the world. It’s a timeless theme,” says the Canadian artist Alexandra Levasseurrecently commissioned to illustrate the feminist roman à clef by Sylvia Plath, The glass bell. “Mental health is still taboo – many people suffer, feel alone and misunderstood – and Plath writes so well about it.” First published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in January 1963, Plath’s only novel finds its protagonist Esther Greenwood in New York, enthralled by Rosenberg’s execution, concerned about her virginity and experiencing increasing bouts of depression. deeper.

Released under his own name in 1966, the book was not published in the United States until 1971, eight years after his death by suicide. The story, borrowed heavily from Plath’s own life, has shaped literary culture ever since, inspiring a specific type of devotion that has left subsequent interpretation open to scrutiny: in 1979, The New York Times described the scenes in Larry Peerce’s film version as “appallingly flat, neither explanatory nor disturbing”, while a cover redesign in 2013 was widely acclaimed considered shocking. Instead, Levasseur’s seven illustrations, which appear in a new edition published by The Folio Society, approach Plath’s work with a compelling and touching tone.

“She has her own way of describing what she sees or thinks that is sometimes so surreal that it’s impossible to translate,” explains Levasseur, whose practice extends to painting, sculpture and animation, about the gigantic enterprise. “It’s a very special relationship. The elements of nature, like water, air, fire and vegetation are everywhere, and the way Plath describes them is unique and close to me. The glass bell exposes the personal and existential thoughts of Plath, which is also the case in my works; I illustrate my personal and existential thoughts, therefore my relationship [with The Bell Jar] is deep.

Levasseur found a passage from chapter two to be particularly relevant; Esther has just returned to the hotel where she lives, after leaving a precarious situation, and proceeds to run a bath. “There must be a lot of things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many…I’m lying in this bathtub on the seventeenth floor of this women-only hotel, high up on the over New York jazz and push, for almost an hour, and I felt myself becoming pure again,” writes Plath. “This passage feels so real to me,” Levasseur says. “The feeling of calm and security by a hot bath is in my opinion incomparable.”

This image of Esther in the bathtub is part of Levasseur’s new series, alongside one of Esther diving to the bottom of the sea, and another featuring the mini matches that appear later in the book. . Created on colored paper using gouache, crayons and oil sticks, the images have an ethereal sensibility tied to the weight of Esther’s thoughts. “I always started with an element of a scene that has a powerful symbolism and that would speak to me: the fig tree, the bath, the sea, the fire… These elements are often present in my own visual language, so the creation has very natural summer”, notes Levasseur. “On every page, there were so many images in my head.”

The Folio Society edition of Sylvia Plath The glass bell, presented by Heather Clark and illustrated by Alexandra Levasseur, is now available.

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