Alzheimer’s through the lens of Art
To people not acquainted with the field of biology, Alzheimer’s may sound nothing short of jargon. Alzheimer’s is a disease that leads to a continuous loss in brain function. That is because it causes the brain cells to slowly die, resulting in memory loss and deterioration of thinking, behavioural and social skills. In another sense, it is similar to dementia, but not quite so as it also affects other parts of the brain not associated with generating memory.
William Utermohlen was a victim of this disease. To most of you, that name would be unfamiliar. However, he was one of the wealthiest artists of his time. He was born in South Philadelphia in 1933 and was a Fine Arts student till 1958 when he graduated from Oxford. Afterwards, he settled in London and married an art historian named Patricia Redmond. Perhaps, two of his most famous works would be the murals for two great North-London institutions; the Liberal Jewish Synagogue at Saint John’s Wood and the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
The self-portraits were known as “conversation pieces”, and they started as a visual representation of his relationship with his wife (more specifically, the love he had for her). However, with time, the portraits started to lose their complexity which reflected his progressive loss of sense of self.
In 1995, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 61. He suspected something was wrong when he kept losing the way to his studio in Old Street, London. However, he still did not give up on drawing and kept doing so until his memory completely gave up on him. His self-portraits demonstrate the devastating deterioration of his mental health over time.
One can clearly see in the pictures above how William’s portraits slowly started to lose their facial characteristics that reinforced the fact that a patient with Alzheimer slowly loses their ability of facial recognition. Moreover, his paintings also became less and less colorful which is indicative of a loss of effect or feelings and some might even say, “Loss of sense of awareness of being in the world”. Someone with good observation skills may have even noticed how his paintings started to become more abstract and less specific.
William’s self-portraits were a visual representation of his growing health crisis that is helpful to doctors even today in understanding how an Alzheimer’s patient mind deteriorates and at what stage that patient might be. His work has also been assessed psychologically, and needless to say, it can even be used to deduce which areas of the brain the disease might be affecting.
William died in 2007, but as his wife, Patricia stated that he had already died in 2000 when he was no longer able to draw.