Susan Aldworth: the artist as anatomist

Catalogue essay for Susan Aldworth: The Portrait Anatomised
National Portrait Gallery, London. 2013

Gill Saunders

The Portrait Anatomised
National Portrait Gallery, London
7 March – 1 September 2013

Though there is as yet “no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” [1], artists continue to reinvent the portrait in their efforts to get inside someone else’s head. Now, thanks to the advances of modern neuroscience we have access to extraordinary insights into the mind’s construction: scans of the living brain have revealed the very processes by which we think and act. Since her first-hand experience of undergoing a diagnostic scan, when she could watch her own brain in real time, Susan Aldworth has made a succession of works exploring the relationship between the brain and an individual’s sense of self. Adapting imagery from scans and EEGs, she has sought to picture this idea of self, and to give us illuminating visual metaphors for the unfathomable mysteries of human consciousness.

In earlier etchings with evocative titles such as ‘Matter into Imagination’, ‘Birth of a Thought’, and ‘Apoptosis’ (a medical term meaning ‘programmed cell death’) in which the neural pathways of the brain appear to bloom, explode, pulsate, cluster and fragment, she crafted apt analogies for the mind’s creativity, consciousness and emotion. The chemistry of etching itself – and Aldworth’s inversion of the process, working in white line rather than black – mirrors the chemical and electrical activity of the brain, producing images which read like maps of the mind.

These ideas have been further developed through new bodies of commissioned work which reflect on epilepsy: a series of lenticular prints for St Thomas’s Hospital, Westminster, and three large-scale portraits of individuals affected by different forms of epilepsy. As an illness of the brain, epilepsy is the subject of particular prejudice and widespread misconception. There is a stigma attached to the condition which seems to trigger an almost medieval level of superstition and fear. Yet epilepsy, of which there are many different degrees and manifestations, ranging from the mild, even benign, temporal lobe epilepsy to the trauma of full blown ‘grand mal’ seizures, is a common condition affecting 1 in 200 people. As one of the subjects, Max, has said of his condition, you don’t “have epilepsy, you are epileptic” [2]; in other words the condition is a defining characteristic, not a temporary affliction. Yet many people still choose to conceal their condition, and in Aldworth’s portraits this conflict between concealment and revelation is dramatised: the white lines spark and pulse against the pull of the dark ground, and we see the disparate elements of the portrait surfacing in the way that a photograph comes gradually into being in the bath of developing fluid.

In many ways these portraits mark a departure from the conventions of the genre, but consciously or otherwise the artist also draws on earlier modes of portraiture, both printed and painted. These are not traditional likenesses yet they tell us a great deal that the conventional portrait cannot; using means both literal and abstract they give us much that is intimate, interior, private. Perhaps the nearest equivalent in contemporary portraiture is Marc Quinn’s portrait of the geneticist Sir John Sulston, in which Sulston is represented by a sample of his own DNA [3]. But Aldworth combines both the objective and the subjective, using real medical data to frame signs of mental, physical and emotional life.

An examination of the iconography is instructive. The allusions to other ways of representing the body, and other kinds of portrait are multiple. Dark, mysterious, almost Gothic, these prints conjure up associations with everything from tomb sculptures and death masks to anatomist’s models and diagrams. One inescapable comparison is with images of the Crucifixion, given the cruciform emphasis of the composition and the position of the abject naked feet. Max’s feet have a corpse-like greenish pallor and a dark circular mark on his right foot – perhaps an instance of stigmata, designating Max himself as a martyr, wounded by his seizures. Indeed Max has himself characterised his epilepsy as an absence, a physical lack: “When you ask me what epilepsy means to me I think of it as being something that is a constituent part of what I am. It’s a constituent part of me in the same way as if I’d been born with one leg.”

The analogy with Christian iconography continues; at the centre is a photographic image of Max’s face, his eyes closed, and a crease of pain, or of concentration between his brows. Aldworth took hundreds of photographs of Max, wanting a picture unlike any other existing photographs of him, one which would show Max a version of himself that he can never see. [4] She sees it as a reference to memory, showing “a man in contemplation.” [5] But again it is tempting to see here allusions to death, for Max suffers from the kind of epilepsy which involves what he has described as “a temporary absence”, but also from the more extreme ‘grand mal’ kind: “and then you’re gone.” It might even be read as a reference to a death mask, a plaster cast taken of the face of the deceased shortly after death, in which case we might see this portrait as a pre-emptive memorial. Equally it may refer to Max’s observation about the exhausting effects of seizures when he said “I have not felt awake for years.” His crossed hands, poised in a gesture of blessing, appear as a deliberate allusion to the pose of the prostrate figures on monumental brasses or the sculptures on tombs, resting in the ‘sleep’ of death.

Max is a writer, and for some years he has been working on a book about the Magna Carta; he is also a musician, and plays the piano. These skills and pursuits are vital aspects of his life, his individuality, and Aldworth incorporates references to them in this portrait in a manner reminiscent of the ‘attributes’ which feature in portraits of the medieval and renaissance periods. Notable people were commonly represented with an array of objects, emblems and inscriptions by which they were identified, and their profession, or their social position confirmed. Echoing this practice, Aldworth identifies Max with a series of attributes: the words ‘Magna Carta. 1215’ crown the composition, and at top left and right piano keys appear; centred at each side of Max’s head are the jagged staccato calligraphies of EEG print-outs which metamorphose into the gothic angularities of Latin script, one arcane code melding with another, both of them emblematic of Max’s mind, and the working of his brain.

These attributes and associative devices serve to amplify the portrait of Max; in representing Fiona and Elizabeth Aldworth, employs the sitters’ own body parts as emblems of their characters, and the impact of their epilepsy. In Elizabeth’s portrait her face is positioned where her womb would be, a reference to her expressed fear that, due to her condition, she would not be able to have children. Fiona’s wary eyes are at the centre of her portrait, and her disembodied ears feature on either side, signalling her worry that her epilepsy would make her the subject of gossip; for her the stigma of the condition is experienced as something which limits her life and relationships, and affects her ability to be open about who she is. Fiona’s is the most formalised of the three pictures, with a dominant ‘frame’ structuring the composition: an elongated ogee shape, this blurred pulsing line (achieved using a stencil and French chalk) was derived from one of Aldworth’s own brain scans. Adapted again, it provides the broad sinuous decorative line at top and bottom of Max’s portrait. Elizabeth’s portrait meanwhile incorporates one of Aldworth’s cerebral angiograms.

By including this evidence of her own experience of brain trauma, Aldworth not only puts herself in the picture, she also demonstrates an empathy with her sitters; though not an epileptic herself, she knows what it is to be fearful about brain illness, and to struggle with the concept of self. As she said after watching her own brain on screen, and in effect, watching herself think, “where is the ‘me’ in all of this?” By framing each portrait with evidences of her own physical and mental life, she makes clear that each portrait is her personal perspective on the sitters, and she emphasises the extent to which her insights and understanding of their experiences must be grounded in her own. But her presence in these pictures is not limited to this medical data; we see her again reflected in the pupils of the enlarged photographs of the eyes in each portrait, a shadowy hint that these portraits are also in some sense self-portraits of the artist.

Indeed the eyes are the most immediately compelling features of these prints. There is a persistent belief that “the eyes are the windows of the soul”, the most expressive, and the most ‘truthful’ of human features; the ability to hold another’s gaze is commonly a marker of trust, as in ‘look me the eye and tell me…’ The eye is also a medium of medical diagnosis, not only in conventional medicine, but also in iridology which reads the iris as a microcosmic map of the body, where signs of diseases afflicting specific body parts can be identified. Aldworth’s emphasis on the eyes in these pictures, the way in which she frames them, alludes not only to the cultural and emotional power of the eye as symbol, and as a unique marker of identity, but also echoes a specific form of portraiture – the ‘eye miniature’. A brief fashion of the 18th and early 19th centuries, these focused on a single eye. Framed with diamonds or pearls, they emphasized the soul-divining intimacy of the gaze; such miniatures were exchanged as love tokens, but they can appear disturbingly uncanny, as do the eyes of Max, Fiona and Elizabeth, staring out, disembodied, from the darkness.

The aim of a portrait is often to uncover essential truths about the subject’s character, but Aldworth takes this further, to look within in a literal sense, at the brain, the nervous system, and consciousness itself. In pursuit of this inner reality, she approaches her subjects in the spirit of an anatomist, inspired perhaps by her earlier residency at the Gordon Museum of Pathology [7]. Each of Aldworth’s sitters is offered up like a specimen: splayed, dissected, x-rayed, exposed. Formally, she references the kinds of models and diagrams which have historically been prepared as teaching aids in the study of anatomy; the portrait of Elizabeth for example, with its filigree network of nerves linking the skeletal hands and feet, looks back to such devices as the 17th century anatomical tables in which varnished human arteries map the human figure as a dense branching tracery. This presentation eloquently conveys a sense of vulnerability, as the innermost workings of mind and body are exposed – just as the epileptic is exposed and vulnerable in the throes of a fit, when the mind abdicates and the body is at the mercy of uncontrolled muscular spasms, and again in the investigations of the doctors, and finally under the probing gaze of the artist, and now, an audience.

In Elizabeth’s portrait – of the three, hers is most obviously a complete body pieced together, if oddly proportioned – we sense something of the epileptic experience: the senses scattered by the trauma of a seizure, the sense of a self fragmented which has then to be painstakingly recovered and restored to wholeness. Max has spoken of this process of recovery – by which he means both recuperation and the re-building of one’s identity after a fit – saying “What is happening now is that over the next two, three days – even a week – is that your identity is beginning to crystallize again. It’s being boiled up, all the bits have dissolved, and then all the salts begin to crystallize as they come out and they form themselves into these nice complicated lattice patterns. And by the end of it you’re the person you were before plus another fit.”

But there is also a feeling in these portraits that epilepsy can be in some sense a gift as well as a curse, endowing the epileptic with a view of the world from a different perspective, however vertiginous the vantage point. We see Elizabeth’s brain haloed by an aura of activity, a reference perhaps to a particular form of the condition, temporal lobe epilepsy, which is often manifested as a hallucination or an ecstatic aura. The writer Fyodor Dosteovsky, himself an epileptic of this type, described his own experiences in the person of Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of The Idiot. For Myshkin (and his creator) the instances of epilepsy, though alarming and physically draining, were also elating:

He was thinking, incidentally, that there was a moment or two in his epileptic condition almost before the fit itself (if it occurred in waking hours) when suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire at brief moments…His sensation of being alive and his awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning. His mind and heart were flooded by a dazzling light. All his agitation, doubts and worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of understanding…but these moments, these glimmerings were still but a premonition of that final second (never more than a second) with which the seizure itself began. That second was, of course, unbearable. [8]

Aldworth is adept at finding visual metaphors for the epileptic condition and the experiences of epilepsy. In the ‘lenticulars’ for example, the prints were overlaid with a screen of cylindrical plastic lenses; this makes the underlying image appear to move as the viewer changes position, alluding to the flickering of flash photography or strobe lighting which can trigger a fit in those who are susceptible, but also to the agitation in the brain waves when a seizure occurs.

In these three portraits she has combined etching with digital print and chine collé to create unique prints. The etching medium itself, an alchemy of acids and inks, and the resists used to stop out parts of the plate, is exploited to brilliant effect here, the reactive liquids pooled and spattered to imitate the brain’s own volatile chemistry. The printed photographic elements, isolated like pathology specimens, are framed and linked by a variety of marks, inventively achieved. None of these are drawn in the conventional sense; instead the artist has used imprints from fragments of skeletal leaves to suggest fragile capillaries, or tissue samples, and the blurred fizzing lines, which read as nerves galvanized by electrical activity, are impressions from lengths of wool or fibrous string. The happy accidents which are so much a part of the narrative of printmaking also contribute to the subtle inflections here – Aldworth has reused her printing plates, and in some instances faint traces remain of the earlier imagery, producing shadowy palimpsests when they are reworked and reprinted, thereby enhancing the sense of ‘process’, of time unfolding, as one experience succeeds or informs the next, and the mind and body act and react.

[1] Duncan, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I, Sc. IV.

[2] This and the subsequent quotes from Max come from ‘Anatomizing A Portrait: An Epileptic Journey’, broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Saturday 21 May 2011, or from an unpublished transcript of his conversations with the artist.

[3] NPG 6591

[4] A 1997 photographic self-portrait by the artist Gavin Turk, of his face with closed eyes, is called “Portrait of Something I’ll Never Really See”.

[5] Susan Aldworth in conversation with Gill Saunders, 22 December 2011

[6] Quoted on BBC Radio 3 website:

[7] Part of Kings College, London; an important historic collection of diseased body parts preserved in formalin, demonstration models, illustrations and instruments.

[8] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (1868-9), II, V.

Gill Saunders is Senior Curator (Prints) in the Word & Image Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.