Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A different kind of art history

New York Times / ©2006 Galerie Beckel-Odille-Boicos

At a casual glance, these works might almost seem to trace the history of modern art from 19h century realism through increasing degrees of abstraction in the 20th century. But instead, they are all self-portraits by one artist -- and all but the drawing at upper left, done in 1967, when the artist was 34, were done in his early to late sixties, when he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

The vast human tragedy of Alzheimer's disease inevitably raises the question of what remains when we lose our minds, and in the case of artists and writers, what relationship does it have to the sources of their creativity?

The illustrations are from a NYT story about William Utermohlen, an American artist in London who learned in 1995 that he had Alzheimer’s disease. The piece doesn't offer any conclusive answers but offers some tantalizing hints -- as well as a fascinating slide show of the changes in his work over time. If you read the story in print, be sure to check out the online version -- there are more illustrations, and they're in color.
“From that moment on, he began to try to understand it by painting himself,” said his wife, Patricia Utermohlen, a professor of art history.


The paintings starkly reveal the artist’s descent into dementia, as his world began to tilt, perspectives flattened and details melted away. His wife and his doctors said he seemed aware at times that technical flaws had crept into his work, but he could not figure out how to correct them.


Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies artistic creativity in people with brain diseases, said some patients could still produce powerful work.

“Alzheimer’s affects the right parietal lobe in particular, which is important for visualizing something internally and then 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 color.”
About the time Utermohlen found out he was suffering from Alzheimer's, British novelist Iris Murdoch was completing her last novel while battling the onset of dementia. A couple months ago John Updike wrote a fascinating New Yorker essay with the title "Late Works" about the creative output of older writers and artists. One of the writers he touched on was Murdoch, whose last book, "Jackson's Dilemma," was published in 1995.
The novel was well enough received by critics: the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle Review called it “the kind of poetical feast that Shakespeare provided in The Tempest. . . . She has never written more lucidly or more lyrically”; Harold Bloom in the Times Book Review said it demonstrated “Murdoch’s particular mastery.” I read “Jackson’s Dilemma” fearing that the author—who didn’t remember writing the book by the time she received finished copies from the publisher—had embarrassed herself, but the novel is not a steep falling off. It has wispy, stylized, and casually irrational elements, but so do her major works.
We end in Jackson’s head: “Is it all a dream, yes, perhaps a dream. . . . Death, its closeness. . . . Was I in prison once? I cannot remember. At the end of what is necessary, I have come to a place where there is no road.” Perhaps presumptuously, we imagine ourselves admitted to the mind of the author, as she feels her grip on the real world loosening. But her creative artistry lasted up to the verge of what Hawthorne called “a drawing away of veils, a lifting of heavy, magnificent curtains.”
Updike's essay also considers the late works of writers like Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, James, and Shaw. Unlike Murdoch, they did not suffer from brain disease. But by including Murdoch, Updike seems to be suggesting that artists with Alzheimer's, as long as they can still work, may have more in common with their healthier contemporaries than we usually realize. In both cases, older artists have important insights to share regarding time and memory and the approaching twilight. We ignore them at our peril.

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