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Thursday, 28 June, 2001, 23:45 GMT 00:45 UK
A portrait of Alzheimer's
William Utermohlen - showing difficulties in reproducing his perception of his face
William Utermohlen - showing difficulties in reproducing his perception of his face
An artist's self-portraits, as he battled against Alzheimer's disease, have given doctors a remarkable insight into how the condition affected his brain.

Art has been a way for William Utermohlen to express himself since childhood.

So it is fitting that, under the eyes of scientists, he has documented the progression of his Alzheimer's disease over recent years through a series of self-portraits.

They show how a painter who was noted for his ability to paint detailed figurative work now produces pieces which are far less structured.

A self-portrait painted before the onset of Alzheimer's
A self-portrait painted before the onset of Alzheimer's
Scientists say the portraits show how his perception and spatial awareness has been affected by his condition.

And both they and the artist's wife Patricia say the fact Mr Utermohlen continued to produce paintings shows the desire and ability to paint remained despite the effects of dementia.

The researchers, from the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, say this study may shed light on where in creativity is based in the brain.

The painter, now 66 was diagnosed five years ago as having Alzheimer's.

Mrs Utermohlen, 73, herself an art historian, told BBC News Online the spatial awareness problems, which affected his art, also had more practical ramifications.

"If I say 'pick up a glass of water', he can't really find the glass."


In a paper in The Lancet, the researchers say the self-portraits show how Mr Utermohlen found it increasingly difficult to reproduce the image he saw in the mirror on paper.

A portrait painted last year
A portrait painted last year, showing how Alzheimer's has affected William Utermohlen's art
Simple tests were used to test the disease's effects on drawing abilities to account for the fact that artists can decide to change their style.

Images that Mr Utermohlen was asked to paint early in the progress of his condition also showed how he was able to draw features such as arms and legs, although they were inaccurately positioned.

He said he knew there was a problem with the image, but not how to remedy it.

Mr Utermohlen said he had wanted to show what was happening to him in his art: "Artists see something and they grab it. I grabbed this."


Recently he has been unable to paint, after creating art since his childhood, something he says has greatly distressed him.

Patricia Utermohlen believes this portrait shows her husbands fears about his illness
Patricia Utermohlen believes this portrait shows her husbands fears about his illness

His wife points to a self-portrait her husband painted of himself sitting at a table underneath an open skylight, painted before the onset of the disease.

She believes painting it shows the fear and isolation he felt about what he already knew was happening to him.

She said she believes he had an awareness of what was likely to happen to him when he painted it.

Professor Martin Rosier, who was involved in the research said: "The rapidity and extend of change in the artist's creative ability is indicative of the process above and beyond normal ageing, particularly given his relatively young age at onset."

The researchers wrote in The Lancet: "This example of continued artistic endeavour at a stage when Alzheimer's disease has blunted the craftsman's most precious tools offers a testament to the resilience of human creativity."

An exhibition of William Utermohlen's work is to be held at the Two 10 Gallery in London, between August 1 and 31 - supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Alzheimer's Society.

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