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Published: 7 June 2013

Epilepsy at the National Portrait Gallery

Writer Max Eilenberg told a packed audience at The National Portrait Gallery's Late Night Shift on Thursday, that the first time he had ever spoken openly about his epilepsy was when he was sitting for artist Susan Aldworth. Max's portrait is one of three featured in Aldworth's show The Portrait Anatomised at the London gallery.

The portraits represent a break in tradition for the gallery which historically features portraits of  people who are well known for their cultural and scientific contribution. Max and the other two sitters, Elisabeth and Fiona are not celebrities and only Max is instantly recognisable from his portrait.

Through The Portrait Anatomised, Susan uses her sitters' personal narratives alongside their anatomical narratives, to explore the concept of 'self'. Using MRI scans and EEGs she combines art and neuroscience to provide three unique perspectives on epilepsy.

But Max admitted to the artist that his own experince of epilepsy made him sceptical about the concept of a sense of  self or identity.

'During a fit, the "self" parks itself while the body continues without you,' he told the audience.

Epilepsy is discontinuity, silence, blankness. It's no wonder history has tried to fill that void with myth.

'After a fit you can lose a total sense of your "self". It can take a long time to reconstitute yourself. I recognise myself in Sue's portrait but I don't necessarily recognise my "self." '

Sue and Max were joined on stage in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre at the gallery by neuropsychologist Paul Broks. The Portait Anatomised is running until 1 September 2013. Admission is free.

Pictured above

Left: Epilepsy Society supporters join artist Susan Aldworth in Room 38 where her art is on show at The National Portrait Gallery.

Right: In conversation with Susan Aldworth are Max Eilenberg, right, and neuropsychologist Paul Broks, second left, with the gallery's chair for the evening.