Portraits of Alzheimer’s

The New York Times has an interesting article about William Utermohlen, an American artist living in London. Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1995, and charted the progression of the disease in a series of self portraits.

The New York Academy of Medicine will be exhibiting Utermohlen’s self portraits tomorrow. To go with the exhibition will be a number of lectures about art and Alzheimer’s. According to Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California who will be giving one of the lectures, “Alzheimer’s affects the right parietal lobe in particular, which is important for visualizing something internally and then putting it onto a canvas. The art becomes more abstract, the images are blurrier and vague, more surrealistic.”

So, Utermohlen’s self portraits reflect not just the physical changes that are taking place in his brain, but also psychological changes which alter his self-perception. The two are, of course, very closely linked.

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(1967, 1996)

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(1996)

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(1998, 2000)

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4 thoughts on “Portraits of Alzheimer’s

  1. What I mean is that we don’t know what his self portraits would have looked like if he hadn’t had Alzheimer’s. It is not controlled in that sense. Maybe they would have looked just like the ones he painted with Alzheimers. There is nothing to compare them with except those he painted when he was younger. In other words, there are 2 variables: his age & his illness. Which made the self-portraits look the way they do?

  2. The fact that is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease has direct bearing on these visual representations. Many Elderly adults can still paint with great skill. We see great examples of the masters’ works,completed later in life, in art history. ALzheimer’s Disease effects one’s ability to perceive the environment around you, process these inputs, and translate them into meaning. It effect memory of the past, but also one’s perception of the present. THe creation of art involves both perception, imagination, and memory, each one building upon and perhaps dependent upon the other. These paintings are a poignant representation of this man’s struggle with a disease that effects perception, process, and memory. The portraits reflect the inner struggle, but also his outward expression and difficulty with perception and action(art process). If he still had great skill toward the end of the disease would the works have as effectively communicated the sense of despair, confusion and emptiness as the current works? Despite his illness, and even through it, I believe he communicates to the world the struggles in his life.

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