Monday, August 4, 2008

William Utermohlen: Descent into Alzheimer's

In 1995, American artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. In an interview, Utermohlen's wife commented, “From that moment on, he began to try to understand it by painting himself.” He began a series of self-portraits that demonstrate not only the physical effects of the dementia on his brain, but also how he saw himself through the eyes of his illness.


The first self-portrait was done in 1967, while he was healthy. The other three were done after his diagnosis.


As his disease progresses, you can see how his artwork has less fine details. The lines are more blurred. In the second photo, Utermohlen's face is greyed, maybe showing what he felt was going on in his mind. Like there is a shadow cast over his face.


In the first, his eyes are wide open and looking out. In the second, they seem tired and almost covered by his brow. They are more sunken into his face. The lines and creases of his face become more prominent.


He also seems to focus on his face and head. The rest of his body becomes irrelevant. It's only his mind that matters. This becomes more obvious in the third and fourth paintings.


Later in his disease, his image becomes more and more distorted and abstract. His images also become more flat. They definitely lack the depth seen in the first.

In the third, he seems to focus on certain facial attributes, like his ear and nose. His eyes seem to be more prominent than in the second. His brow seems furrowed. The background looks almost architectural. Maybe attempting to create a space?


In the last painting, there are very few recognizable features left. The entire image is very abstract. His nose and ear are still somewhat prominent. His eyes are absent or distorted. His mouth is barely penciled in.


Per the New York Times article, William Utermohlen no longer paints. As of the time of the article, he was living in a nursing home. An exhibit of his art has been on tour around the world entitled ‘Inside Alzheimer’s: Portraits of the Mind'.

6 Responses to “William Utermohlen: Descent into Alzheimer's”

Anonymous said...
August 4, 2008 at 2:01 PM

Just wonder if anybody else sees a face inside the outer head of the last portrait? What a gift! Thanks for sharing.


Drew Rosielle MD said...
August 4, 2008 at 8:42 PM

Anon - what exactly do you mean by outer head - the lump to the lower left?

What strikes me is how each of these images is an utterly compelling self-portrait in and of itself. I would never 'guess' that the final is drawn by someone with advancing dementia (its broken cartoonishness is almost contemporary/hip).

Lined up, all together, however - they're devastating (at least to me) - but this comes out of the portraits' sequential narrative. It's the story, so to speak. Thanks for sharing Amber.


Christian Sinclair, MD said...
August 4, 2008 at 9:01 PM

Yes, I see two faces meshed into one another. One looks off to the reader's right and the other appears to be looking downward. I thought the same thing, so i am glad you brought it up.

The other thing that is profound in the last picture is the thick line splitting the center in an S shape. To me I just think 'fracture' or 'separation' when i see that.

The focus on the ear and nose is curious as well but a trend in the pictures.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
August 6, 2008 at 10:05 AM

I see what you mean. The 4th face does seem split. Interesting how everyone sees something different.
Thanks for your comments.


Drew Rosielle MD said...
August 12, 2008 at 3:12 PM

This week's JAMA's cover is a self-portrait by Klee painted in his last year of life: the commentary here discusses the portrait, his illness, and death (along with many other things).

Reminded me of this blog post....


Christian Sinclair, MD said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM

Yes, I see two faces meshed into one another. One looks off to the reader's right and the other appears to be looking downward. I thought the same thing, so i am glad you brought it up.

The other thing that is profound in the last picture is the thick line splitting the center in an S shape. To me I just think 'fracture' or 'separation' when i see that.

The focus on the ear and nose is curious as well but a trend in the pictures.