Catalogue essay for Realisation: recent works by Susan Aldworth and Jane Dixon
Fitzwilliam Museum, 2017

Craig Hartley

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
13 September 2016 – 5 February 2017 

‘O, she’s warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art[1]


This exhibition brings together for the first time remarkable works by two British artists who bring aspects of scientific imagery to the meaning and appearance of their art. [2]  The exhibition challenges the assumptions of reality and identity that we usually base on the evidence of our eyes and the way we suppose an image was made. Jane Dixon’s Evidence of Doubt appears to consist of photographic records of real organic forms, but proves to be imaginary and drawn by the artist’s hand. The intangible images in Susan Aldworth’s two series, Transience and Passing Thoughts, resist immediate recognition and identification, yet they actually derive from the physical touch of human brain tissue, portraying real people without a descriptive illusion of external likeness.

For many years Jane Dixon’s work has been concerned with the ambiguity of perception and a borderline state between artificiality and fact. [2]  In 2001 she curated an exhibition for Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (at the end of her tenure as Artist Fellow), entitled Solid State: reflections upon the real. The show posed questions about the physical and temporal nature of actuality and what it means for something to be ‘real’. It presented both historical and contemporary artworks in various media, including works by Anna Atkins, Naum Gabo and Cornelia Parker, and also various images deriving from scientific investigation, such as CT scans and false-colour infra-red photography.

When she came to make Evidence of Doubt in 2011, Dixon was directly inspired by the example of Anna Atkins’ pioneering photographic images of botanical specimens (fig. 1 ). [3] Atkins (1799-1871), an amateur botanist, wrote in 1843 that ‘The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves’. Cyanotype (blueprint) is a particular refinement of William Henry Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawing, in which a relatively flat object is placed against a light-sensitized sheet of paper and exposed to sunlight until the surface of the paper around the object begins to darken. Herschel devised a method of fixing the image, and in 1842 he discovered that water-soluble iron salts, when exposed to sunlight, form the compound known as Prussian Blue; unexposed areas remain unaffected, so that when the salt is rinsed away in plain water, a blue ‘negative’ image remains on the paper. As can be seen in Atkins’ plates, the forms are accurately depicted, not only in silhouette, but tonally, depending on their relative transparency.  [4]

A photogram is similar to a cyanotype except that a more modern formulation of photographic (light-sensitive) paper is used. As Jane Dixon has written, ‘The Photogram / Cyanotype as a process implies through its directness a quantifiable record of an object’s exact scale, solidity and presence. It is an empirical record of the real (as opposed to other forms of photography where the procedures allow for a faithful copy of the object in front of the lens but also the potential for deception).’ [5]  She considered making the images as cyanotypes, learning the process in order to do so, but switched to photograms to give the project a more contemporary feel (and with it the more direct import that an apparent photograph carries for a modern audience). Contemporary artists such as Cornelia Parker have used photograms to capture direct images of objects, just as Atkins did with algae. A notable example is Cornelia Parker’s series of photograms of feathers, Up Down Charm Strange, made in 1998, including Feather that went to the Top of Everest, Feather that went to the South Pole, Feather from a Wandering Albatross, in which the actuality of the photogram medium evokes the presence of the object itself, which is very much part of the concept and content of the work. [6]

So when we look at the photograms in Evidence of Doubt, it is the evidential nature of their appearance that informs our initial reaction. They are on glossy photographic paper and the implication is that they are black-and-white photographic images, actual-size, of various sorts of plants; or simple life-forms of some other sort, perhaps from the depths of the ocean or a remote forest. The blacker-than-black backgrounds and the way light seems to penetrate through to illuminate the texture of the forms lends them the otherworldliness of a negative image. Otherworldy rather in the sense that infrared photography renders the world in hues outside the visible spectrum, revealing an unfamiliar alternative world from the one we normally see. Still, the images in Evidence of Doubtseems rooted in the real world, elusive rather than illusive, and if we fail to recognize the life forms that they report, we initially put it down to rarity or exoticism, rather than doubting them as evidence.

Yet these are all products of the artist’s imagination and graphic skill. Dixon subverts the evidential nature of photograms by replacing real specimens with drawings. The drawings were made with a graphite pencil on textured, transparent polyester film, which was then laid on top of the photographic paper. [7]  The graphite marks blocked light when the photogram was exposed, so a fine, luminous, negative image is created. The use of actual pieces of sticky tape on some of the drawings, as though the tape is securing a specimen in place, reinforces the illusion that a real specimen is involved. But the subjects are not tied to what exists or is real, except by our subverted assumptions. Despite appearances they emerge not from the deepest oceans or furthest forests: they are creations from within the artist’s mind realised through the transforming properties of light. Their creation shares a deeper metaphor with Anna Atkins’ algae cyanotypes: it is through the life-giving properties of photosynthesis that algae exist in the real world, and it is through another sort of photosynthesis – light transforming a coating layer of chemicals – that these mysterious forms are ‘brought to life’ on paper. A biomimetic realisation, in that art imitates the processes of life to create new forms.

The usual role of photography in artists’ prints has been to capture an image from the real world, and then the artist/printer has translated it into a printmaking medium (screenprint, etching, etc), which usually implies that an artist has been involved. In the case of Evidence of Doubt, it is the other way round: the artist has made the drawing; no camera is involved; and a photographic printing process seems to remove the artist’s hand from the final result. But even here, Evidence of Doubt illudes us: the photograms are hand-printed, with chance, touch and exposure varying between the few versions that have been printed. The Fitzwilliam’s set is relatively dark. The delicately textured marks of the drawings emerge with a gossamer refinement of illusion and illumination. If anything, the beauty of the illusion and the force of the concept are enhanced by seeing the drawings displayed as a set in the same room. Even when the trick is explained, it only adds to the magic. [8]

In the introduction to the little book entitled Transience, produced to accompany the first exhibition of her two series Transience and Passing Thoughts, Susan Aldworth wrote: ‘Contemporary brain scans reveal the extraordinary anatomical landscape in the living brain which seems to map who we are. […] Brain scans are precise digitalised, scientific photographs showing the anatomy of the brain. However, they also signpost interiority. They seem to promise to show something of who we are. So in my recent work exploring human identity, I have developed a visual language … using the tracks of brain scans to reference the Self and its relationship to the brain. A sort of portraiture. A portrait is an artist’s impression of someone else, which conventionally depicts the external appearance in a particular context to portray the uniqueness of that individual. I wondered if I could get closer to someone’s Self or identity by also including their brain scans in the work.’ [9]  This resulted in her exhibition The Portrait Anatomised, in which she portrayed three people with epilepsy, using the sitters’ personal narratives together with a combination of traditional print processes, digital photography and neuro-scientific imaging such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans and electroencephalograms (EEG). [10]

This interest in the artistic implications of scientific investigation into the brain led to Aldworth accepting an invitation to observe a brain dissection at the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital in 2012. Before the dissection began, she was reminded of Helen Chadwick’s 1991 Self-Portrait, in which the viewer is placed in the situation of the artist looking down at her brain which she (impossibly) holds in her hands: the effect is that it feels also like the self-portrait of all who look at it. [11] Aldworth asked to hold the brain in her own hands: it was to prove profoundly affecting and significant – so unfamiliar to the touch, yet the organ that is at the centre of who we are: ‘Holding the brain was a moment of total connection with the brain as object … the cold rounded intestine-feeling outer edge of the brain feels etched in the memory of my hands. But it was not just an object – I cradled it like a baby, protective, respectful of holding ‘someone’ – someone very vulnerable in the disembodied state. The object momentarily became the person in my hands’. This moment was related to an earlier epiphany, when in 1999 Aldworth had a diagnostic brain scan and was able to observe her own brain, real time, on a monitor: ‘I honestly think that until this experience I thought of myself simply as an external surface; the scan was a revelation. Where was the ‘me’ in the physical matter of the brain?’

Given Aldworth’s long-standing philosophical interest in the theory of the mind, it was inevitable that these seminal experiences would find their way into her work. But the germ of an idea of how she might go about making the prints in this exhibition actually occurred to her while watching the brain dissection in 2012.

During the dissection, the brain was sliced and arranged on a metal tray: it reminded Aldworth (an experienced printmaker) of the way she worked with etching plates in the printing studio, and she wondered if it would be possible (or even ethical) to use human brain tissue as part of the printing process: to see if a human brain might leave its own imprint on a plate. She sought permission, and discovered that some of the donors had agreed to the use of their brains for the benefit of art as well as science. With the backing of Professor David Dexter, Scientific Director of the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank, Imperial College at Hammersmith Hospital, she was given approval to print directly from three human brains (including those from donors with and without Parkinson’s disease; unlike her portraits of people with epilepsy, Aldworth did not know who the donors were). Dexter had the vision to see that the involvement of an artist might lead to another sort of understanding of an individual’s relationship with the brain, and would increase public awareness of neuro-pathological research. The use of the brains was to be carried out under strict supervision and according to guidelines that preserved the specimens from damage and protected their potential for further medical research.

Aldworth enlisted the help of Nigel Oxley, a master printer with whom she had worked previously. They first experimented with a fresh lamb’s brain from Smithfield Market, and discovered that the fatty brain tissue would leave greasy marks when lifted from a zinc etching plate; these marks could effectively ‘draw’ the brain by acting as a resist when the plate was placed in acid. This could not only provide the suggestion of the outline of a brain, but model its surface according to the extent that the uneven fatty deposit resisted the acid. The surface of the plate was thereby roughened to a greater or lesser degree, and held printing ink in varying amounts. A dark background could be created by scattering resin-dust onto the plate around the brain: the acid would then etch between the grains of resin and hold ink to print as a dark wash or tint (‘aquatint’), from which the marks left by the brain would emerge in light.

Aldworth and Oxley were not sure that a human brain would act in the same way, as the surface was harder and smoother through the action of the formaldehyde in which it had been preserved. But the two days spent experimenting with the brain slices in the printing studio proved to be a series of happy discoveries. The brains did indeed leave their own marks – a sort of self-portraiture – and offered up ‘secret marks’ discovered through the etching process. Each brain behaved differently. Each has its individual features in terms of size, weight, shape and texture, and the shape of the sections varied depending on where the slices had been taken. The etching process added further unexpected and serendipitous variations, depending on the temperature of the acid at the particular moment, or whether a breeze drifted the aquatint dust as it was scattered by hand over the plate (see, for instance, the clouded drift of tone in Transience 7). Further elements of subtle individuality would arise during printing, according to the way the plate was inked and wiped, the pressure in the printing press, the type of paper chosen, and so on; all contributing intimations of transience and the fragile consequences of chance.

When proofing the five plates that made up the series Transience, Aldworth and Oxley experimented with the colour and tone of the ink. The two smallest plates were each used for two different prints Transience 1 and 3 are from the same plate, and Transience 2 and 4 are from another plate. Although each time they were printed with black ink in the (intaglio) marks etched into the metal, a coloured ink was also wiped over the surface of the plate by hand, so that there were two different colour versions from each of these two plates: one printed with blue ink, and the other with red. The visual sense is that the brains are illuminated by the colour. Aldworth felt that these intimate prints needed the glow and stimulation of colour to ‘come alive’, a use of colour to suggest – even recreate – consciousness. This stemmed from the two years that she spent with regular visits to observe a consultant taking scans from living brains: ‘I had used strong colour in my location drawings to suggest a consciousness at work’. These are not cold slices of fatty tissue, but ’a living working brain full of light, full of life’.

By contrast, the three larger etchings in Transience are printed only in Charbonnel black. These are starker, more dramatic images: they have more of a suggestion of a three-dimensional object floating in space. With the knowledge that they derive from brains, we can see their origin, but conversely (and with something of the same suggestive mystery that Dixon’s photograms evoke) they might also bring to mind rock-like meteors or planetary bodies in the infinity of outer space. Aldworth remarked that ‘A brain is three pounds or so of fatty tissue boxed inside the inky darkness of the skull – close your eyes and you will see what I mean’. These prints manage to convey that infinite and unknowable inky darkness – a sort of outer space within. Try looking at these prints and then close your eyes, and you will feel their force as self-portraits. They achieve this uncannily by inhabiting what Aldworth has called ‘this mysterious territory where objective form (the brain) and subjective experience meet.’

The other series of prints resulting from the experience of the dissection, Passing Thoughts, also depended on serendipity – a trick of the light – and an artist attuned to the opportunity of capturing a passing moment as both image and metaphor. When the brain slices were lifted from blotters in the printing studio, Aldworth noticed that they left a damp trace in the paper; she held one of the papers up to the sunlit window and saw an image shining through (fig. 2). With Oxley’s help she photographed each image digitally before the paper dried and the trace of the brain disappeared. Aldworth manipulated the colour in some of the images in Passing Thoughts before printing them (1 and 2), whereas others (3 to 8) were printed as they appeared: sunlight shining through the damp traces left on blotters by human brain tissue. The colour again introduces an element of consciousness, both by a glowing visual suggestion of life (as in Transience), and also because this was really the only conscious intervention that the artist made to adapt what the brains and the sunlight had created. The results are extraordinarily varied in form – some of them looking like clearly defined three-dimensional objects, molluscs perhaps (? and ?), or interstellar geology, or even brains; while others are evanescent, with a more elusive morphology.

By showing the other side of people (the inside!) Aldworth creates profound portraits by different means. When we confront a great portrait by Rembrandt, we look into the eyes, just as we look into the eyes of people in conversation, particularly at moments when we seek greater understanding of the person and the feelings within. The idea of examining, scientifically or artistically, a slice of brain laid on a plate might seem at first a cold and crudely-calculated approach to investigating the humanity behind a living pair of eyes. But the warmth and humanity that Aldworth brings to her art, from the concern for people and the way their minds work, to the sense of a human touch in the physical imprint of plate into paper, and the role of the hand (the hand that held the brain) invested in the inscription, close to the image of the brain.

The prints lay bare our own humanity as we realise that they evoke the living rather than the dead. The slab of brain tissue leaves behind a transient mark that in the hands and mind of an artist becomes a glowing metaphor for a living thought. As with Evidence of Doubt, there is a biomimetic element to the process of image-making. As the artist held up the blotter to the sunlight, the image – the trace of the person – is created through the transformational properties of light and moisture: fragile, fleeting, passing away as the paper dries, captured in the inkjet like the image of a ghost. It is no wonder that the images captivate us emotionally and conceptually. Their pull is surely primeval: humanity’s age-old attempts, swayed by belief or framed by science, to define who we are by what leaves us when we die; not the cold meat, but the living thought: we peer into the eyes and look not for the brain but what we might call the self or the soul, the living essence of the individual person. [12]

Intimations of fragility, the intangible, the evanescent, forms disappearing into light and appearing out of darkness. The conversation that takes place between the work of Jane Dixon and Susan Aldworth across the Shiba Gallery in the Fitzwilliam Museum is not difficult to overhear.

Susan Aldworth has said that she is ‘increasingly struck by human fragility – in particular the dependence of Self on the physical brain’, and this pervades much of her work. Coming back to Jane Dixon’s Evidence of Doubt, we also find it speaks of the fragility of life in relation to the human condition. The elusive plants or creatures that take shape in our mind’s eye may be imaginary, or perhaps they belong to a different time. New species are still being discovered, as others become extinct, or threatened (including our own). Some life forms that were real in Anna Atkins’ day can only now be known through images, realised in the mind’s eye, passing as evidence.


[1] Leontes, on realising that Hermione is alive, in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Act V scene iii.

[2] For biography and bibliography relating to each artist please see their respective websites cited there.

[3]  NYPL

[4] For comparison, see also the photogenic drawings of ferns by Cecilia Glaisher.


[6] Dixon included another of Parker’s photograms – showing the striking of a match – in her selection for the exhibition Solid State, Kettles Yard 2001.

[7] ‘True-Grain’ drafting film is often used as part of printmaking processes like photogravure.

[8] The idea and decision to display the drawings as a set emerged during the organisation of this exhibition, when it became clear that they were far more than just a means to the photograms, and had a life (or sixteen lives) of their own.

[9] The Portrait Anatomised, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2013.

[10] Susan Aldworth, Transience, 2013.

[11] Chadwick’s Self-Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery is a photographic transparency is mounted on a glass plate and lit from behind by an electric light. As in Jane Dixon’s photograms in this exhibition, the evidential nature of photography brings the element of actuality that is part of the content and meaning of the work.

[12] Examples of attempts to quantify the dying self as soul: the ancient Greeks’ psychostasia – the ‘weighing of souls’, as a method of determining fate; the Christian image of the Archangel Michael weighing souls on Judgement Day; and particularly recent film-makers and song-writers mythologizing the discredited attempt of doctor Duncan MacDougal in 1907 to claim the weight of the soul as 21 grams, having measured the supposed loss of weight in a body at point of death. See most notably Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2003 film 21 Grams, and for a varied list of songs with the same title see: In a different context, see also Susan Aldworth, Scribing the Soul, 2008.

Craig Hartley Craig Hartley is the curator in charge of prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Hartley has published numerous catalogues and articles on printmakers from the Renaissance to the present day.