Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Self-Portraits with Alzheimer's

When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the age of 62, the American painter William Utermohlen (1933-2007) began a haunting series of self-portraits that documented his experience with the disease. “From that moment on, he began to try to understand it by painting himself,” said his wife, Patricia Utermohlen, a professor of art history. She noted with some poignancy that he became better known for this series than for any other work he had done, even at the height of his career.

Utermohlen painted realistically when everyone else was doing Abstract Expressionism. Yet, as his disease progressed, his images became distorted until his features melted into an indistinguishable mass.

There is some debate as to whether the change was a result of Utermohlen's cognitive decline, or whether he chose to paint in a more expressionistic style to convey the sense of disintegration he experienced. In his final years, he no longer painted at all. 

Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies artistic creativity in people with brain diseases, believes that some patients can still produce powerful work. "Alzheimer's affects the right parietal lobe in particular, which is important for visualizing something internally and putting it onto a canvas," Dr. Miller said. "The art becomes more abstract, the images are blurrier and vague, more surrealistic. Sometimes there's use of beautiful, subtle colour." 

Utermohlen's moving portraits continue to be exhibited, most recently at Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois; Loyola University in Chicago; and Trinity College Dublin.

(This post is based on an article from The New York Times. Thank you to James Gurney for bringing it to my attention.)

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