helpline 01494 601 400

Epilepsy at the National Portrait Gallery


17 April 2013

Artist Susan Aldworth with one of her epilepsy portraits at the National Portrait GallerySusan Aldworth’s exhibition The Portrait Anatomised at London’s National Portrait Gallery, explores the impact of epilepsy on the lives of three people – Elisabeth, Fiona and Max.  Here she talks about her work.

My portraiture works over the last decade have developed from my explorations into the question What is a Self? It has been an exciting artistic and intellectual journey that has led me to explore and question what a portrait might be.

I have worked with scientists, doctors and people with Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, epilepsy and Downs Syndrome in order to explore the question. I have worked with two inspirational master printers Stanley Jones and Nigel Oxley to develop new print techniques for these pictures.

My portraits are always of extraordinary people, but not celebrities. I am particularly pleased to be showing The Portrait Anatomised at the National Portrait Gallery both because it is a gallery I have always loved, and secondly it seems the right place to present these radical portraits.

If I had been working 100 years ago, I suspect that I would have been making expressionist portraits – exploring individual psychologies. The theories of Freud and Jung had a profound influence on the art of the 20th century. But we live in an age of neuroscience – neuroscience offers a materialist explanation of who we are. Neuroscience is a profoundly visual science – and the scans of the brain provide us with a new visual link between the external surface of the body and the subjective experience of being that person.

Aldworth’s portraits…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.

Gill Saunders, Senior Curator (Prints) at the Victoria and Albert Museum

In these three portraits in The Portrait Anatomised I include some of the many narratives which make us who we are – the anatomical narrative, the medical narrative and the personal narrative. I am curious to know what it feels like to be someone else.

My focus is on the relationship between the human brain and our sense of Self. So, as well as having an external anatomy – how we look on the outside –  I bring the imagery of our internal anatomy into my portraits. Neuroscience is beginning to unravel how the brain works. Contemporary scanning techniques give us access to the internal living body, with imagery that is both beautiful and vital. I would be crazy to ignore this new profound visual language as an artist.

“What is the subjective experience of having a fit like? How does epilepsy affect your life?” These are some of the questions I put to my sitters – Max, Fiona and Elisabeth.

The portraits contain something of the personal and medical narratives of each of them, and the images combine scientific technology (brain scans and EEG, which make it possible to visualise the activity of the brain), as well as photographs.

These works explore the definition of portraiture, and give an insight into identity, particularly for people whose lives are changed and shaped by epilepsy. The portraits represent some of the different aspects of living with epilepsy – emotional, physical, anatomical.  It was a privilege to get to know and to work with Elisabeth, Max and Fiona who trusted me to make these portraits. They are all truly extraordinary people.

I would like to thank curators Paul Moorhouse, Rosie Broadley and Inga Fraser, as well as my agent Robert Devcic of GV Art, London, for their support in bringing this work to the gallery. The exhibition is supported by Epilepsy Society.

National Portrait Gallery