William Utermohlen - The Late Pictures 1990-2000
William Utermohlen - The Late Pictures
1990 - 2000
Patrice Polini, 2007. Psychiatrist - psychoanalyst.
The world represented by the artist is a subjective world, the result of the specific story of an individual in permanent interaction with his environment. The last works of William Utermohlen (1990-2000) constitute a rare testimony to the inner life of a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His technique will be increasingly affected by the symptoms of dementia as they unfold:
- Trouble with memory and concentration,
These disorders will undermine his technical abilities and render painting and drawing impossible in the end. The neuro-pathological aspects of the late works are therefore a unique clinical journal of the evolution of the cognitive disorders of his disease.
Utermohlen’s late oeuvre, however, is particularly precious in our view because it also constitutes the narrative of the artist’s subjective experience of his illness. The images show the gradual modification of his perception of the world, both of his external environment and of his psychic universe. Through them we share his terrible feeling of dereliction, progressive isolation and loss of self-control.
Anosognosia, the almost total unawareness by the patient of his symptoms is a clinical characteristic of the state of Alzheimer’s dementia. Considered at times as a defensive mechanism against the distress caused by an eroded self-image, it is also the consequence of a neurological disorder. Utermohlen’s last works clearly show, however, that an awareness of his pathological disorders appears well before the medical diagnosis of dementia was established in 1995. This awareness also persists much longer than is usually believed. It is, doubtessly, the artist’s ability to depict his experience of illness visually rather than verbally - to paint words - that allowed him to continue to represent his mental and sensorial condition for such a long period
(1990-2000) through his art.
Artistic creation is for William Utermohlen also an attempt at self-healing. Painting tries to fight off the process of psychic disorganization by maintaining the existential bearings of the painter and his sense of identity. We witness here a relentless struggle by the artist to preserve his life through the creative process. To the extreme limits of his ability he has succeeded in preserving his world, to depict himself so as not to disappear.
Maida Vale 1990, oil on canvas
Premonition… To get one’s bearings, to mend oneself.
THE CONVERSATION PIECES
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was established in November 1995. William was then 62 years old. However, the first disorders were spotted four years earlier: trouble with remembering recent events, a tendency to gradually forget one thing after another, a constant looking for his belongings. On a trip to Paris William is unable to find his way back to the apartment he is staying in, after visiting the Louvre. Later still, he forgets to show up at appointments or his own art classes. He frequently loses his way in the subway. His wife notices he can no longer knot his tie, that he has trouble finding his words, reading the time, counting change.
Faced with a vanishing present and an increasing difficulty in naming things, William will feel the need to in some way take stock, to make a spatial and temporal inventory of his world.
In six paintings executed between 1990 and 1993 and titled as a series “The Conversation Pieces”, William describes his immediate environment in an attempt, no doubt, to mentally fix it. By inscribing it on canvas he is trying to stop time and to maintain his spatial and temporal bearings.
In Maida Vale, the artist paints his wife Patricia sitting across the dining room table from one of her students. The central foreground is taken up by an empty chair. It leans to the left as if addressing us a sign. A sign of the artist’s absence?
W.9. 1990 Oil on canvas.
All the scenes in the Conversation Pieces are set in the artist’s apartment in central London and define its rich atmosphere. The titles all refer to space or time: the name of the district (W9) or neighborhood he lives in (Maida Vale), the time of day (Night), the season of the year (Snow), the room in the house (Bed), the event taking place (Conversation). These are the spatial and temporal bearings he is trying to fix on the canvas.
Like a snapshot, every painting tries to freeze the instant and suspend time so that its flow can be reversed. To seize things is to re-create what was. It is to resist the inexorable degradation, the return to nothingness. The richly decorated and detailed interiors are rendered with great care and recreate the atmosphere of the artist’s domestic environment: the pictures on the walls (many by him, old and recent) the fine furniture, his familiar objects. This domestic environment is paired in the paintings with an equally familiar exterior world composed of the views from the windows: the back gardens, the ducks paddling in the canal in front of the house.
The paintings are powerfully sensory: along with the intense colors and visual stimuli of W9, the artist also evokes the sounds of voices of the conversing figures, the smell of cigarettes, the taste of coffee and wine, tactile sensations,the warmth of the room (see also Night and Snow).
The paintings also attempt to fix specific emotional moments; we are confronted by the artist’s closest circle of relations and friends. His wife, Patricia who is an art historian, is the principal heroine of the paintings and of his life. She is represented absorbed in conversation with friends or pupils (W9). The relationships between the figures seem intimate and are sharply rendered. Their stories are silently narrated to us, and their emotional ties defined. We can guess at the existence of a subtle range of emotions and complex affective relations (see also Night) that the artist perfectly analyzes and reconstitutes for us. By knotting together in his compositions images, beings, objects, emotions and symbols the artist creates an envelope that is filled out with his whole personal world and that helps to preserve him from the creeping confusion he feels growing within. By transcribing on canvas the events of his daily life, his routine and his bearings he strengthens his ties to the world, and inscribes on the paintings a visible trail through which his lost memory can find him.
Like echo chambers of the his senses and emotions, the Conversation Pieces try to maintain an overall and coherent interpretation of reality in which William can continue to represent the world to us and to himself. The artist’s jacket posed on the back of a chair in the foreground of W9 underlines his presence/absence in his world in the same way that the inclining chair did in Maida Vale.
Conversation - what are they talking about? Are they talking about art and its history, which is the passion of the artist’s wife? Can we see in this picture an allusion to the couple’s way of functioning? To her, the realm of words and communication, to him, always reserved and often silent, the language of images. Could we also see here the ironic reaction of the artist when faced with the disquisitions of the critics or the chatter of the public? Or even more, his bafflement before contemporary art which cannot be apprehended other than through explanation and theory whereas for him art has always been figurative and directly accessible? Perhaps.
But what might be even more essential here is the need to stay within the flow of language, to maintain an inner discourse that helps him to interpret reality. Soon the slowing down of the thinking process and the loss of the meaning of words will make him a stranger to verbal communication. Soon speaking will only induce helplessness and a feeling of estrangement. Even familiar words will become indecipherable riddles.
These depictions of a silent narrative describe William’s struggle to keep up with language, since language is the only way to make sense of and give meaning to life. Sensing he is about to lose language he must recount his story in the paintings as the only way to give meqning to thee flow of his life. Will the black cat pawing at Patricia in Conversation be noticed by his mistress? Will she respond to his silent appeal?
Night 1990 - 1991. Oil on canvas
The wind of oblivion
The memory disorders get worse and the inner perception of time falls apart. At the heart of William’s familiar domestic world, at first insidiously and then more and more markedly, appear signs of disorganization and a disquieting strangeness. Space is dislocated as if taken over by a whirlwind and the artist openly expresses his sense of disorientation in time in space. Points of bearing reel as the fishbowl floats up, perspectives unwind as the table rises, we tip over as the walls incline and we’re overtaken by vertigo. Objects float away in all directions as if freed from the laws of gravity with no apparent relation to each other or the space around them. Merely perceiving and naming them is now enough, organizing them is beyond the artist’s capacity.
The artist has tried, as we have already seen in the earlier pictures, to freeze the events of his life, to suspend passing time, to re-establish its wholeness and continuity. In weaving together past, present and future he has tried to patch up the torn framework of his sense of time. But nothing can resist the acceleration of fleeting time. As in a clinical diary the pictures record the gradual failure to stop the process of inescapable degradation of memory and reason.
The wind of oblivion has risen and is threatening to carry all in its path. William has entered the realm of Night. The skylight is cut up into three black rectangles suspended above the figures like guillotine blades. This is the first appearance of a death symbol we will see again.For the time being, seen from without, life goes on as usual. Have his wife and friends not noticed anything? Can’t they see that for him the world will never be the same again? Can’t they see that he is lost? Can’t she see that she will lose him?
In Snow the artists represents himself for the first time in the Conversation Pieces and we can consider this work as the first self-portrait of a long series that will follow.
He is seated on a couch holding his cat in his arms. He is isolated as if excluded from the world of the chatting figures on the left: a stranger to their discussion, their thoughts, their language, their words, and their emotions. The world has been flattened into a single plane. It is difficult to define what is up and what is down, to tell apart inside from out. Perception of difference has become very crude and is limited to violent contrasts of primary color and simplified forms. Figurative definition verges on abstraction. All becomes alike. The figures foreshortened from above are hard to identify and seem no more important than the objects and the décor. As confusion and disorientation grow the rational translation of sense perceptions is impeded. What was familiar and intimate becomes unrecognizable as if overcome by the empty landscape out the windows - a strange and disquieting effect.
The artist is now threatened by the appearance of a new world that is deserted: white and silent like the snow outside. As if caught in ice his thinking gradually congeals, ideas and words disappear. His figure is almost animal-like, one foot posed on the ground but the other turned up as if to leave. The present doesn’t register anymore, only the past bursts in in spurts: in the mirror above the mantelpiece we see the reflection of an old friend who died a few years before. The gaping green door in the background opens twice into another world, that of death and oblivion.
The artist is asleep in bed next to his wife. The outside is no longer shown: we are in the intimacy of the bedroom, in the midst of the artist’s inner world. Here we see the artist penetrate into a world of dreams. A world where waking reason is asleep, a world without causality or linear time. A moving, uncontrolable world with unstable surfaces.
To the artist’s world of dreams is opposed the world of knowledge, language and reason here embodied by the artist’s wife absorbed in her reading. Verbal communication has become difficult and the artist has the premonition that words will soon be no more than sound bites and random noise as to a man sinking into sleep.
Without words the only thing left will be to paint what he feels: fragmented memories of sense impressions whose intensity and organization are no longer controllable. Bed is a witness to the moment when words cease to give meaning to what is felt by the body before its object – when body and object become one. The artist shows himself only through his face, which he detaches from the body and projects into the mirror at bottom left. This is the last attempt to preserve the unity of the self, to fix an image of himself when physical and psychic self-consciousness becomes vague.
Bed shows the silent space in which the artist will soon be locked up, deprived of words and content like the cats dozing on the bed to lead an almost organic existence, which we can’t imagine. Is he also showing us his fear returning to maternal dependency, the utter regression and submission to another’s will? The same green door as in Snow opens like a blade that will henceforth cut him off from reality. It is an opening into the unknown, darkness and nothingness.
Happy are men who yet before they are killed …And in the happy no time of his sleeping,
In 1993-94 William Utermohlen will execute a series of lithographs to illustrate a book of ten poems by Wilfred Owen, the great British poet killed at the end the First World War. This is not the artist’s first attempt to treat the theme of war, which also appears in the Dante, and Mummers cycles of the 1960s and the Vietnam paintings of the early 1970s. But at this point in his life his art is focused on a new emergency: the threat posed by the dissolution of meaning. By illustrating a text, he again tries to anchor himself in the language he has lost, the language of others, through which he hopes to transcribe his own perceptions.
The interpretation of reality becomes precarious, uncertain and unstable. The process of deadly loosening of life ties has truly begun. The very composition of the image comes apart. Things destruct as they are drawn. The drawing process on a lithographic stone cannot be disguised as on an oil painting or erased as on paper. It is here entirely spontaneous and often genuinely uncertain and awkward. We can follow line by line the making of the image. All of William’s subsequent works will be marked by this same expressive force whereby the power of the work will rest as much on the artist’s gesture, the trace of the creative process rather than the exactitude of his drawing.
A long fallow period will follow the Wilfred Owen project. He accepts a commission for a family portrait but is unable to go beyond the initial stages. He spends long hours facing his easel doing nothing. Every action is a burden. Every brush mark on the canvas is immediately erased. Nothing takes on form anymore. The background of the picture remains blank.
A doctor diagnoses depression and prescribes a treatment that has no effect. A neurological diagnosis is then undertaken. In August 1995 a magnetic resonance imaging scan reveals generalized cerebral atrophy. Formal neuropsychological assessment showed a global cognitive deterioration and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is made.
In Blue Skies the artist bears witness to the announcement of his illness and his degeneration. Like an explosion or an implosion the revelation of a deadly illness shatters the self’s ability to see and think. The diagnosis of this ghastly psychic death before even real death produces a deep dread: the worst is confirmed, the end is now inexorable.
What is shown here is a crossroads, a key moment and a crossing over, after which the framework of the self dissolves. The will to life tips over and freezes like the studio skylight suspended above the artist in the picture. Time has stopped. Space is laid bare. All is extinguished. Action is suspended. Words and ideas are gone. Life opens unto the steely blue emptiness of a dreadful future: an obliterating hole poised above ready to suck him in.
In order not to be engulfed by the darkness he hangs unto the table like a shipwrecked man unto his raft; or like a painter holding unto his canvas. In order to survive he must be able to show this catastrophic moment; he must depict the unspeakable.
continue to exist by continuing to depict the world.
The diagnosis is clear. The doctors are now testing his memory. They’ve asked him if he still knows the day, the month, the year, the place he is in. If he can still memorize a list of words. If he can still complete a simple subtraction, name ordinary objects, copy simple geometric shapes. The humiliation of failing to answer these simple questions shatters his self-confidence. Soon, he feels, he will be unable to answer any questions at all. All hope of a cure or even a stabilization of his condition is lost. Violently confronted by his own degradation the fall in his self-esteem is dizzying. The wound to his vanity is so fierce that everything in him has broken into pieces. The self is associated to a broken, fragmented body. The self-image is dislocated, there is no sense left of a continuous identity. The ghostly figure to the right is like the drawn contour of a fallen corpse. A part of his life has been murdered.
William has now to face his dreadful fate. He knows the prognosis of his disease and he knows that its disorders are irreversible. How does one go on living when confronted daily by degradation and death? In order to maintain a sense of continuity, an identity and also bear witness to his tragic experience, the artist will execute a series of self-portraits over the period of the next four years until the total loss of his manual and psycho-perceptive abilities bring all painting and drawing to an end.
The self-portrait tries to fix an image of the self, and to fill the breech that from now on separates the artist from himself. To paint yourself is a way of marking continuity, and the passing of time. The experience of seeing one’s own image in the mirror is a key moment in the development of one’s personality. Calling forth one’s double through the mirror reflection is usually a way of reducing the gap between the self and that strange other, and lays the foundation for future identity models. Through the self-portrait William attempts to regain his experience of being present, the reality of his existence, however terrifying and tragic. He bears witness to his experience and we witness the poignant truth he shares with us: the world has shrunk s if behind prison bars. He is reduced to seeing life through a loophole in the form of a cleaver. All that’s left is to wait for the hour of his death sentence.
It is with great anguish that William watches himself disappear little by little every day. The artist mourns his lost self. His look is empty of all hope, the center of his pupil a blind spot. His reflection is coming apart, he can’t put himself back together. The double in the mirror sends back a negative, a death-carrying image that he had hoped to escape. He’s become a shadow of his old self and only the clothes floating on the ghostly body still show the bright colors of life.
Self portrait with Saw 1997 oil on canvas
The scan imagery has cut up his head into slices. From what the doctors tell him he has retained that only an autopsy will allow a true diagnosis of his condition. The truth will be known post mortem.
This notion haunts him, he speaks of it constantly to those close to him.
The vertical saw like a guillotine blade symbolizes once more the approach of the prefigured death. It also points to that other death, that of his psyche. The split between what he feels, what he would like to do or say and that which he is actually reduced to doing is each day greater. Not able to find himself within himself, he senses a stranger lurking at the heart of his being. It is an encounter with the unknown within. His possibilities of expression are no longer adequate to the extreme nature of his experience.
Self portrait (yellow) 1997 oil on canvas ________ Self portrait (green) 1997 oil on canvas
In these portraits sadness, anxiety, resignation, the feeling of feebleness and the shame induced by thisexperience are depicted with a remarkable expressive precision despite the crusty paint surfaces and the uncertain drawing.
What is captured here is the image at the center of an emotion, emotion at its purest, strongest and most exact. We are confronted by William’s reality, immediate and intense, true beyond all attempts at a manufactured “realism.”
Capturing through a fugitive facial expression the instant of experience of a specific emotion is another way of freezing time. If his experience of time is now nothing but a disjointed sequence of superimposed moments, it is still possible to assign to every one of these a singular sensation. Through the portraits the artist anchors his experience of the present to what is happening, to what he is doing and to what he feels at the very moment of painting
He must continue recognizing himself. He must continue recognizing Pat, his wife, who takes care of him and on whom he now depends for all the motions of his daily life. He will paint a last portrait of her. He gives her the blue eyes of lovers. Her lipstick smears as if he had just kissed her. How long will he still be able to tell her that he loves her?
Même quand nous sommes loin l’un de l’autre
Tout nous unit
Fais la part de l’écho
Celle du miroir
Celle de la chambre celle de la ville
Celle de chaque homme de chaque femme
Celle de la solitude
Et c’est toujours ta part
Et c’est toujours la mienne
Nous avons partagé
Mais ta part tu me l’as vouée
Et la mienne je te la voue.
Sans titre, Paul Eluard, In La Vie immédiate, 1932
Self Portrait (with easel) 1998 oil on canvas _____ Self portrait 1955 drawing on paper
For the last time the artist picks up his brushes and his palette. Alone in the studio he wants to experience again the old motions of painting. For the last time he wants to reconstruct a likeness. He uses again the pose of the oldest self-portrait he’s kept. He was 22 years old at the time.
He already had that same great, open gaze unto the world, that same perplexed and anxious, questioning note in facing himself and his future. But in the1998 self-portrait, the architecture of his psyche is shot to pieces, something the artist now expresses and enshrines in the very act of portraying himself.
The artist’s head is tightly framed by the rectangle of his easel. The red and yellow lines narrow into the shape of a guillotine.
Let loose, the destructive forces split the space of the picture and break up this last portrayal of the self. All signs allowing the naming, the depiction and definition of the self disappear one by one. It will soon become impossible to sign his name at he bottom of the canvas. Very soon he will stop recognizing his name.
Notebook of W. Utermohlen, I cannot, 1996 ______ Notebook of W. Utermohlen, WU, 1996
Self portrait August 30, 2000. Pencil on paper Erased Self-portrait 2000 oil on canvas.
Effacement, the fleeting shadow.
Time is no more but a sequence of instants. Time has devoured itself and the drawing is erased as soon as
it is drawn. The image changes and is dismantled as it is being structured.
The artist has assimilated his drawing method to his destiny: to subsist while dissapearing. Perception can still
call forth a primal image. But what emerges is also foreign and threatening to the artist’s sense of self.
it apart. He must constantly become an object that by the nature of its condition is vowed to disappear.
These last colored traces suggest a mask more than a portrait. Does the artist still want to depict and recognize himself? If that is the case then his mode of representation is that of a negative hallucination, where what is perceived is immediately erased. There is hardly anything left but painting the transition from being to non-being. Painting the instant in which the self turns away from itself, melts away, leaving only silence behind.
Dust in the air suspended
marks the place where a story ended.
The last works of William Utermohlen constitute a clinical document, which allows us to observe the evolution of the deterioration of the cognitive functions of a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia. They also show that the creative process allows a subject whose identificatory abilities are impaired, to maintain a sense of self and a sense of presence in the world.
We are grateful to William Utermohlen because he has succeeded in an exceptional, indeed unique way in depicting the reality and the pain of his experience of the disease. Through these images of pure feeling, the artist has managed to define and share with us the unspeakable suffering and sense of dereliction of a patient afflicted with dementia.