The Portrait Anatomised

Catalogue essay for Susan Aldworth: The Portrait Anatomised

Inga Fraser

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

The National Portrait Gallery aims to increase the appreciation and understanding of contemporary forms of portraiture. It is with this objective in mind that the Gallery is pleased to host a display of three works by Susan Aldworth. The Gallery has been aware of Aldworth’s work for some time through her residencies at the Institute of Neurosciences, Newcastle University, the Department of Neurophysiology, St Thomas’ Hospital, London and at The Royal London Hospital, culminating in the exhibitions Matter into Imagination in 2006 and Scribing the Soul in 2008 (both of which went on to tour nationally and internationally). Fittingly, the display at the National Portrait Gallery sits adjacent to a room of portraits surveying the fields of science and technology, including Jason Brooks’s majestic painting of the biochemist Sir Paul Nurse, 2008 (NPG 6837); Michael Gaskell’s portrait of the chemist and ecologist James Lovelock, 2011 (NPG 6928); and David Cobley’s portrait of stem cell research scientist Sir Martin Evans, 2011 (NPG 6897). Whilst such works function to commemorate the individual personalities working in the sciences in the present day, Aldworth’s works take a different perspective: focusing on the patient. Perhaps the most illuminating work from the Gallery’s Collection in this context is Marc Quinn’s Self, 2006 (NPG 6863): a sculpture comprising eight pints of the artist’s own blood. In the Cartesian tradition, Self questions the relationship between body and mind, asking what constitutes a person and is thus a legitimate subject for portraiture. Aldworth’s work goes further, to investigate this relationship in a pathological context. The balance in the accord between body and mind is tested for those living with a medical condition and in the past Susan Aldworth has worked with people with heart problems or epilepsy or schizophrenia to explore this.

Expanding a notion of contemporary portraiture, Aldworth utilises the illustrative vocabulary of science in her innovative printmaking process. Incorporating the graphic forms of medical textbook imagery, electroencephalograms (EEG) and angiograms, she asks how this material corresponds or contrasts with the subject’s sense of themselves and prompts us to reconsider how we might best understand an individual. The portraits on display at the National Gallery were produced as part of a commission for Guys and St. Thomas’s Hospital in Westminster. All three depict a person with epilepsy and each work is rich with content relating to their experience of living with the condition. The works combine EEG scans in tandem with photographs and freehand and imprint etchings, encompassing the three representational categories of sign (as defined by scientist and philosopher Charles S. Peirce) of ‘icon’, ‘index’ and ‘symbol’. Under the category of ‘icon’ (signs which resemble or exhibit their object) are photographs. Photographs are also, arguably, ‘indexes’, in that they bear a causal relation to the person. Providing a counterpoint to the photograph are the EEG prints: an index of the person certainly, but what is less clear cut is the extent to which they can also be considered ‘iconic’ under Peirce’s definition. Few outside the medical profession are able to ‘read’ such images but they are, nonetheless, individualised depictions that tell us specific things about a person. In a pathological context, of course, such scientific imagery proliferates and gains greater importance in the way the subject conceives a sense of self, but also in how others perceive the subject. Lastly, the portraits incorporate the ‘symbolic’. The sinuous lines, etched white on black like an x-ray, stand for the thoughts and minds of the three sitters. Diverging into vein-like forms and coalescing to join or evoke hands, eyelashes, Aldworth’s technique neatly appropriates the forms of science and medicine for use in a poetic or emotional capacity. It is especially fitting that she has arrived at certain shapes and effects by means of a more embodied nature. By using lengths of wool and leaves or splashes of fluid (indexically) in her etching technique, Aldworth alludes to the myriad forces and events that impact upon the psychology of a subject.

The time Aldworth spends with her subjects, and her innovative, mixed approach to printmaking, highlight the synergies and disparities between medical and emotional conceptions of what constitutes the self. It is the great conceit of portraiture that something of the inner self is revealed in outward appearance and Aldworth’s work foregrounds this assumption in relation to a contemporary visual culture that is, increasingly, informed by science.

Inga Fraser is Assistant Curator of Contemporary and 20th Century, at the National Portrait Gallery.