- Category: Essays
William Utermohlen - the Late Pictures 1990-2000
Copyright by Patrice Polini. Psychiatrist - psychoanalyst.
The world represented by the artist is a subjective world, the result of the specific story of an individual in permanent interaction with his environment.
The last works of William Utermohlen (1990-2000) constitute a rare testimony to the inner life of a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
His technique will be increasingly affected by the symptoms of dementia as they unfold:
-Trouble with memory and concentration,
-Disorganization of temporal and spatial mental representation,
-Difficulty in recognizing objects and in understanding their function,
-Inability to make decisions or anticipate movement,
-The gradual dimming of clear thought and judgment.
These disorders will undermine his technical abilities and render painting and drawing impossible in the end. The neuro-pathological aspects of the late works are therefore a unique clinical journal of the evolution of the cognitive disorders of his disease.
Utermohlen’s late oeuvre, however, is particularly precious in our view because it also constitutes the narrative of the artist’s subjective experience of his illness. The images show the gradual modification of his perception of the world, both of his external environment and of his psychic universe. Through them we share his terrible feeling of dereliction, progressive isolation and loss of self-control.
Anosognosia, the almost total unawareness by the patient of his symptoms is a clinical characteristic of the state of Alzheimer’s dementia. Considered at times as a defensive mechanism against the distress caused by an eroded self-image, it is also the consequence of a neurological disorder. Utermohlen’s last works clearly show, however, that an awareness of his pathological disorders appears well before the medical diagnosis of dementia was established in 1995. This awareness also persists much longer than is usually believed. It is, doubtessly, the artist’s ability to depict his experience of illness visually rather than verbally - to paint words - that allowed him to continue to represent his mental and sensorial condition for such a long period (1990-2000) through his art.
Artistic creation is for William Utermohlen also an attempt at self-healing. Painting tries to fight off the process of psychic disorganization by maintaining the existential bearings of the painter and his sense of identity. We witness here a relentless struggle by the artist to preserve his life through the creative process. To the extreme limits of his ability he has succeeded in preserving his world, to depict himself so as not to disappear.
Maida Vale 1990. Oil on canvas
Premonition… To get one’s bearings, to mend oneself.
THE CONVERSATION PIECES
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was established in November 1995. William was then 62 years old. However, the first disorders were spotted four years earlier: trouble with remembering recent events, a tendency to gradually forget one thing after another, a constant looking for his belongings. On a trip to Paris William is unable to find his way back to the apartment he is staying in, after visiting the Louvre. Later still, he forgets to show up at appointments or his own art classes. He frequently loses his way in the subway. His wife notices he can no longer knot his tie, that he has trouble finding his words, reading the time, counting change.
Faced with a vanishing present and an increasing difficulty in naming things, William will feel the need to in some way take stock, to make a spatial and temporal inventory of his world.
In six paintings executed between 1990 and 1993 and titled as a series “The Conversation Pieces”, William describes his immediate environment in an attempt, no doubt, to mentally fix it. By inscribing it on canvas he is trying to stop time and to maintain his spatial and temporal bearings.
In Maida Vale, the artist paints his wife Patricia sitting across the dining room table from one of her students. The central foreground is taken up by an empty chair. It leans to the left as if addressing us a sign. A sign of the artist’s absence?
W.9. 1990Oil on canvas.
The Frozen Image.
All the scenes in the Conversation Pieces are set in the artist’s apartment in central London and define its rich atmosphere.
The titles all refer to space or time: the name of the district (W9) or neighborhood he lives in (Maida Vale), the time of day (Night), the season of the year (Snow), the room in the house (Bed), the event taking place (Conversation). These are the spatial and temporal bearings he is trying to fix on the canvas.
Like a snapshot, every painting tries to freeze the instant and suspend time so that its flow can be reversed. To seize things is to re-create what was. It is to resist the inexorable degradation, the return to nothingness.
The richly decorated and detailed interiors are rendered with great care and recreate the atmosphere of the artist’s domestic environment: the pictures on the walls (many by him, old and recent) the fine furniture, his familiar objects.
This domestic environment is paired in the paintings with an equally familiar exterior world composed of the views from the windows: the back gardens, the ducks paddling in the canal in front of the house.
The paintings are powerfully sensory: along with the intense colors and visual stimuli of W9, the artist also evokes the sounds of voices of the conversing figures, the smell of cigarettes, the taste of coffee and wine, tactile sensations, the warmth of the room (see also Night and Snow).
The paintings also attempt to fix specific emotional moments; we are confronted by the artist’s closest circle of relations and friends. His wife, Patricia who is an art historian, is the principal heroine of the paintings and of his life. She is represented absorbed in conversation with friends or pupils (W9). The relationships between the figures seem intimate and are sharply rendered. Their stories are silently narrated to us, and their emotional ties defined. We can guess at the existence of a subtle range of emotions and complex affective relations (see also Night) that the artist perfectly analyzes and reconstitutes for us.
By knotting together in his compositions images, beings, objects, emotions and symbols the artist creates an envelope that is filled out with his whole personal world and that helps to preserve him from the creeping confusion he feels growing within.
By transcribing on canvas the events of his daily life, his routine and his bearings he strengthens his ties to the world, and inscribes on the paintings a visible trail through which his lost memory can find him.
Like echo chambers of the his senses and emotions, the Conversation Pieces try to maintain an overall and coherent interpretation of reality in which William can continueto represent the world to us and to himself.
The artist’s jacket posed on the back of a chair in the foreground of W9 underlines his presence/absence in his world in the same way that the inclining chair did in Maida Vale.
Conversation 1990 -1991. Oil on canvas.
Introduction of time in the image
Conversation - what are they talking about? Are they talking about art and its history, which is the passion of the artist’s wife? Can we see in this picture an allusion to the couple’s way of functioning? To her, the realm of words and communication, to him, always reserved and often silent, the language of images.
Could we also see here the ironic reaction of the artist when faced with the disquisitions of the critics or the chatter of the public? Or even more, his bafflement before contemporary art which cannot be apprehended other than through explanation and theory whereas for him
Art has always been figurative and directly accessible? Perhaps.
But what might be even more essential here is the need to stay within the flow of language, to maintain an inner discourse that helps him to interpret reality. Soon the slowing down of the thinking process and the loss of the meaning of words will make him a stranger to verbal communication. Soon speaking will only induce helplessness and a feeling of estrangement.
Even familiar words will become indecipherable riddles.
These depictions of a silent narrative describe William’s struggle to keep up with language, since language is the only way to make sense of and give meaning to life. Sensing he is about to lose language he must recount his story in the paintings as the only way to give meaning to the flow of his life.
Will the black cat pawing at Patricia in Conversation be noticed by his mistress?
Will she respond to his silent appeal?
Night 1990-91. Oil on canvas
The wind of oblivion.
The memory disorders get worse and the inner perception of time falls apart.
At the heart of William’s familiar domestic world, at first insidiously and then more and more markedly, appear signs of disorganization and a disquieting strangeness.
Space is dislocated as if taken over by a whirlwind and the artist openly expresses his sense of disorientation in time in space. Points of bearing reel as the fishbowl floats up, perspectives unwind as the table rises, we tip over as the walls incline and we’re overtaken by vertigo. Objects float away in all directions as if freed from the laws of gravity with no apparent relation to each other or the space around them. Merely perceiving and naming them is now enough, organizing them is beyond the artist’s capacity.
The artist has tried, as we have already seen in the earlier pictures, to freeze the events of his life, to suspend passing time, to re-establish its wholeness and continuity. In weaving together past, present and future he has tried to patch up the torn framework of his sense of time. But nothing can resist the acceleration of fleeting time. As in a clinical diary the pictures record the gradual failure to stop the process of inescapable degradation of memory and reason.
The wind of oblivion has risen and is threatening to carry all in its path. William has entered the realm of Night. The skylight is cut up into three black rectangles suspended above the figures like guillotine blades. This is the first appearance of a death symbol we will see again.
For the time being, seen from without, life goes on as usual. Have his wife and friends not noticed anything? Can’t they see that for him the world will never be the same again? Can’t they see that he is lost? Can’t she see that she will lose him?
Snow 1991.Oil on canvas
The crushed world.
In Snow the artists represents himself for the first time in the Conversation Pieces and we can consider this work as the first self-portrait of a long series that will follow.
He is seated on a couch holding his cat in his arms. He is isolated as if excluded from the world of the chatting figures on the left: a stranger to their discussion, their thoughts, their language, their words, and their emotions.
The world has been flattened into a single plane. It is difficult to define what is up and what is down, to tell apart inside from out. Perception of difference has become very crude and is limited to violent contrasts of primary color and simplified forms. Figurative definition verges on abstraction. All becomes alike. The figures foreshortened from above are hard to identify and seem no more important than the objects and the décor. As confusion and disorientation grow the rational translation of sense perceptions is impeded. What was familiar and intimate becomes unrecognizable as if overcome by the empty landscape out the windows - a strange and disquieting effect.
The artist is now threatened by the appearance of a new world that is deserted: white and silent like the snow outside. As if caught in ice his thinking gradually congeals, ideas and words disappear. His figure is almost animal-like, one foot posed on the ground but the other turned up as if to leave.
The present doesn’t register anymore, only the past bursts in in spurts: in the mirror above the mantelpiece we see the reflection of an old friend who died a few years before.
The gaping green door in the background opens twice into another world, that of death and oblivion.
Bed 1991 Oil on canvas.
The time of dreams.
The artist is asleep in bed next to his wife. The outside is no longer shown: we are in the intimacy of the bedroom, in the midst of the artist’s inner world. Here we see the artist penetrate into a world of dreams. A world where waking reason is asleep, a world without causality or linear time. A moving, uncontrolable world with unstable surfaces.
To the artist’s world of dreams is opposed the world of knowledge, language and reason here embodied by the artist’s wife absorbed in her reading. Verbal communication has become difficult and the artist has the premonition that words will soon be no more than sound bites and random noise as to a man sinking into sleep.
Without words the only thing left will be to paint what he feels: fragmented memories of sense impressions whose intensity and organization are no longer controllable.
Bed is a witness to the moment when words cease to give meaning to what is felt by the body before its object – when body and object become one.
The artist shows himself only through his face, which he detaches from the body and projects into the mirror at bottom left. This is the last attempt to preserve the unity of the self, to fix an image of himself when physical and psychic self-consciousness becomes vague.
Bed shows the silent space in which the artist will soon be locked up, deprived of words and content like the cats dozing on the bed to lead an almost organic existence, which we can’t imagine. Is he also showing us his fear returning to maternal dependency, the utter regression and submission to another’s will?
The same green door as in Snow opens like a blade that will henceforth cut him off from reality. It is an opening into the unknown, darkness and nothingness.
Happy are men who yet before they are killed …And in the happy no time of his sleeping,
Can let their veins run cold…. Death took him by the heart…
Ten Poems. Wilfred Owen. 1994 Ten Poems. Wilfred Owen. 1994
In 1993-94 William Utermohlen will execute a series of lithographs to illustrate a book of ten poems by Wilfred Owen, the great British poet killed at the end the First World War.
This is not the artist’s first attempt to treat the theme of war, which also appears in the Dante, and Mummers cycles of the 1960s and the Vietnam paintings of the early 1970s.
But at this point in his life his art is focused on a new emergency: the threat posed by the dissolution of meaning. By illustrating a text, he again tries to anchor himself in the language he has lost, the language of others, through which he hopes to transcribe his own perceptions.
The interpretation of reality becomes precarious, uncertain and unstable. The process of deadlyloosening of life ties has truly begun. The very composition of the image comes apart. Things destruct as they are drawn. The drawing process on a lithographic stone cannot be disguised as on an oil painting or erased as on paper. It is here entirely spontaneous and often genuinely uncertain and awkward. We can follow line by line the making of the image. All of William’s subsequent works will be marked by this same expressive force whereby the power of the work will rest as much on the artist’s gesture, the trace of the creative process rather than the exactitude of his drawing.
Blue Skies 1995. Oil on canvas.
The Traumatic Moment. “I was getting out!”
A long fallow period will follow the Wilfred Owen project. He accepts a commission for a family portrait but is unable to go beyond the initial stages. He spends long hours facing his easel doing nothing. Every action is a burden. Every brush mark on the canvas is immediately erased. Nothing takes on form anymore. The background of the picture remains blank.
A doctor diagnoses depression and prescribes a treatment that has no effect. A neurological diagnosis is then undertaken. In August 1995 a magnetic resonance imaging scan reveals generalized cerebral atrophy. Formal neuropsychological assessment showed a global cognitive deterioration and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is made.
In Blue Skies the artist bears witness to the announcement of his illness and his degeneration.
Like an explosion or an implosion the revelation of a deadly illness shatters the self’s ability to see and think. The diagnosis of this ghastly psychic death before even real death produces a deep dread: the worst is confirmed, the end is now inexorable.
What is shown here is a crossroads, a key moment and a crossing over, after which the framework of the self dissolves. The will to life tips over and freezes like the studio skylight suspended above the artist in the picture.
Time has stopped. Space is laid bare. All is extinguished. Action is suspended. Words and ideas are gone. Life opens unto the steely blue emptiness of a dreadful future: an obliterating hole poised above ready to suck him in.
In order not to be engulfed by the darkness he hangs unto the table like a shipwrecked man unto his raft; or like a painter holding unto his canvas. In order to survive he must be able to show this catastrophic moment; he must depict the unspeakable.
Never has a painting spoken so clearly before of the ending of psychic life, the traumatism and desperate effort to continue to exist by continuing to depict the world.
Self-portrait with chair and geometric figure1996
The diagnosis is clear. The doctors are now testing his memory. They’ve asked him if he still knows the day, the month, the year, the place he is in. If he can still memorize a list of words. If he can still complete a simple subtraction, name ordinary objects, copy simple geometric shapes.
The humiliation of failing to answer these simple questions shatters his self-confidence.
Soon, he feels, he will be unable to answer any questions at all. All hope of a cure or even a stabilization of his condition is lost. Violently confronted by his own degradation the fall in his self-esteem is dizzying.
The wound to his vanity is so fierce that everything in him has broken into pieces. The self is associated to a broken, fragmented body. The self-image is dislocated, there is no sense left of a continuous identity. The ghostly figure to the right is like the drawn contour of a fallen corpse. A part of his life has been murdered.
Self Portrait 1 1996. oil on paper.
Face to Face.
William has now to face his dreadful fate. He knows the prognosis of his disease and he knows that its disorders are irreversible. How does one go on living when confronted daily by degradation and death?
In order to maintain a sense of continuity, an identity and also bear witness to his tragic experience, the artist will execute a series of self-portraits over the period of the next four years until the total loss of his manual and psycho-perceptive abilities bring all painting and drawing to an end.
The self-portrait tries to fix an image of the self, and to fill the breech that from now on separates the artist from himself. To paint yourself is a way of marking continuity, and the passing of time. The experience of seeing one’s own image in the mirror is a key moment in the development of one’s personality. Calling forth one’s double through the mirror reflection is usually a way of reducing the gap between the self and that strange other, and lays the foundation for future identity models. Through the self-portrait William attempts to regain his experience of being present, the reality of his existence, however terrifying and tragic.
He bears witness to his experience and we witness the poignant truth he shares with us: the world has shrunk as if behind prison bars. He is reduced to seeing life through a loophole in the form of a cleaver. All that’s left is to wait for the hour of his death sentence.
Self-portrait 1996. Mixte media on paper.
Mourning one’s self
It is with great anguish that William watches himself disappear little by little every day.
The artist mourns his lost self. His look is empty of all hope, the center of his pupil a blind spot. His reflection is coming apart, he can’t put himself back together. The double in the mirror sends back a negative, a death-carrying image that he had hoped to escape. He’s become a shadow of his old self and only the clothes floating on the ghostly body still show the bright colors of life.
Self portrait with Saw1997 oil on canvas
Cut away from the world
The scan imagery has cut up his head into slices. From what the doctors tell him he has retained that only an autopsy will allow a true diagnosis of his condition. The truth will be known post mortem.
This notion haunts him, he speaks of it constantly to those close to him.
The vertical saw like a guillotine blade symbolizes once more the approach of the prefigured death. It also points to that other death, that of his psyche. The split between what he feels, what he would like to do or say and that which he is actually reduced to doing is each day greater. Not able to find himself within himself, he senses a stranger lurking at the heart of his being. It is an encounter with the unknown within. His possibilities of expression are no longer adequate to the extreme nature of his experience.
Self portrait (yellow) 1997 oil on canvas Self portrait (green) 1997 oil on canvas
Forms are blurred. Motivation, attention, memory, visual recognition are disorganized and render all tasks uncertain and awkward. The artist now paints as if groping.
In these portraits sadness, anxiety, resignation, the feeling of feebleness and the shame induced by this experience are depicted with a remarkable expressive precision despite the crusty paint surfaces and the uncertain drawing.
What is captured here is the image at the center of an emotion, emotion at its purest, strongest and most exact. We are confronted by William’s reality, immediate and intense, true beyond all attempts at a manufactured “realism.”
Capturing through a fugitive facial expression the instant of experience of a specific emotion is another way of freezing time. If his experience of time is now nothing but a disjointed sequence of superimposed moments, it is still possible to assign to every one of these a singular sensation. Through the portraits the artist anchors his experience of the present to what is happening, to what he is doing and to what he feels at the very moment of painting
Portrait of Patricia Utermohlen (Pat) 1997 oil on canvas
He must continue recognizing himself. He must continue recognizing Pat, his wife, who takes care of him and on whom he now depends for all the motions of his daily life. He will paint a last portrait of her. He gives her the blue eyes of lovers. Her lipstick smears as if he had just kissed her. How long will he still be able to tell her that he loves her?
« Même quand nous sommes loin l’un de l’autre
Tout nous unit
Fais la part de l’écho
Celle du miroir
Celle de la chambre celle de la ville
Celle de chaque homme de chaque femme
Celle de la solitude
Et c’est toujours ta part
Et c’est toujours la mienne
Nous avons partagé
Mais ta part tu me l’as vouée
Et la mienne je te la voue. »
In La Vie immédiate
Self Portrait (with easel) 1998 oil on canvas Self portrait 1955 drawing on paper
For the last time the artist picks up his brushes and his palette. Alone in the studio he wants to experience again the old motions of painting. For the last time he wants to reconstruct a likeness. He uses again the pose of the oldest self-portrait he’s kept. He was 22 years old at the time.
He already had that same great, open gaze unto the world, that same perplexed and anxious, questioning note in facing himself and his future. But in the1998 self-portrait, the architecture of his psyche is shot to pieces, something the artist now expresses and enshrines in the very act of portraying himself.
The artist’s head is tightly framed by the rectangle of his easel. The red and yellow lines narrow into the shape of a guillotine.
Let loose, the destructive forces split the space of the picture and break up this last portrayal of the self. All signs allowing the naming, the depiction and definition of the self disappear one by one. It will soon become impossible to sign his name at he bottom of the canvas. Very soon he will stop recognizing his name.
Notebook of W. Utermohlen c. 1996 Notebook of W. Utermohlen c. 1996
Self-portrait. 08. 30. 2000. drawing on paper Erased Self-portrait. 2000 oil on canvas
Effacement. The fleeting shadow.
Time is no more but a sequence of instants. Time has devoured itself and the drawing is erased as soon as it is drawn. The image changes and is dismantled as it is being structured.
Neither totally present nor totally absent, the subject of the image is like a fleeting form constantly redrawn. The artist has assimilated his drawing method to his destiny: to subsist while dissapearing. Perception can still call forth a primal image. But what emerges is also foreign and threatening to the artist’s sense of self.
A self-destructing construction: to preserve the self, the artist must constantly reconstruct it as he is taking it apart. He must constantly become an object that by the nature of its condition is vowed to disappear.
Mask 2000. watercolor on paper Mask 2001. Watercolor on paper
These last colored traces suggest a mask more than a portrait. Does the artist still want to depict and recognize himself? If that is the case then his mode of representation is that of a negative hallucination, where what is perceived is immediately erased. There is hardly anything left but painting the transition from being to non-being. Painting the instant in which the self turns away from itself, melts away, leaving only silence behind.
« Dust in the air is suspended
marks the place where a story ended ». T. S Eliot
The last works of William Utermohlen constitute a clinical document, which allows us to observe the evolution of the deterioration of the cognitive functions of a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia. They also show that the creative process allows a subject whose identificatory abilities are impaired, to maintain a sense of self and a sense of presence in the world.
We are grateful to William Utermohlen because he has succeeded in an exceptional, indeed unique way in depicting the reality and the pain of his experience of the disease. Through these images of pure feeling, the artist has managed to define and share with us the unspeakable suffering and sense of dereliction of a patient afflicted with dementia.
In regarding them our whole being is moved – for a long time.
- Maida Vale, William Utermohlen, 1990 Maida Vale, William Utermohlen, 1990
- W.9., William Utermohlen, 1990 W.9., William Utermohlen, 1990
- The Conversation, William Utermohlen, 1991 The Conversation, William Utermohlen, 1991
- Night, William Utermohlen, 1990-1 Night, William Utermohlen, 1990-1
- Snow, William Utermohlen, 1990-1 Snow, William Utermohlen, 1990-1
- Bed, William Utermohlen, 1991 Bed, William Utermohlen, 1991
- The Show, William Utermohlen, 1994 The Show, William Utermohlen, 1994
- Asleep, William Utermohlen, 1994 Asleep, William Utermohlen, 1994
- Blue Skies, William Utermohlen, 1995 Blue Skies, William Utermohlen, 1995
- Broken Figure, William Utermohlen, 1996 Broken Figure, William Utermohlen, 1996
- Self-Portrait with Easel, William Utermohlen, 1996 Self-Portrait with Easel, William Utermohlen, 1996
- Self-Portrait Red, William Utermohlen, 1996 Self-Portrait Red, William Utermohlen, 1996
- Self-Portrait with Saw, William Utermohlen, 1997 Self-Portrait with Saw, William Utermohlen, 1997
- Self-Portrait Yellow, William Utermohlen, 1997 Self-Portrait Yellow, William Utermohlen, 1997
- Self-Portrait Green, William Utermohlen, 1997 Self-Portrait Green, William Utermohlen, 1997
- Patricia, William Utermohlen, 1997 Patricia, William Utermohlen, 1997
- Self-Portrait with Easel, William Utermohlen, 1998 Self-Portrait with Easel, William Utermohlen, 1998
- Self-Portrait, William Utermohlen, 1955 Self-Portrait, William Utermohlen, 1955
- Notebook: I Cannot, 1996 Notebook: I Cannot, 1996
- Notebook: WU, 1996 Notebook: WU, 1996
- Head, William Utermohlen, 2000 Head, William Utermohlen, 2000
- Erased Self-Portrait, William Utermohlen, 1999 Erased Self-Portrait, William Utermohlen, 1999
- Mask Green Neck, William Utermohlen, 1996 Mask Green Neck, William Utermohlen, 1996
- Mask Blue Eyes, William Utermohlen, 1996 Mask Blue Eyes, William Utermohlen, 1996
- Category: Essays
William Utermohlen, was on born December 4, 1933 in South Philadelphia, the only son of a first generation German family. His father was a baker, the family’s occupation, but through a series of mishaps by the time William’s father was ready to enter the trade the option was working in a factory producing standard white bread, thus he took no joy in his occupation. In 1951 his son, also called William won a scholarship from his High School to The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, at that time the most prestigious art school in America. Here he received a thorough grounding in the traditional academic skills particularly draughtsmanship for which the school was famous. Already moving from the family environment this was exacerbated when he received a scholarship to travel to Europe in the summer of 1952. Like so many students before him he was swept away by the glories of the museums of France, Italy, Germany and England and the general lifestyle of Europe. In 1953 he was called into the American army for his national service, although he loathed every day of it , his time in the army provided him with ‘The G.I. Bill of Rights’ and therefore the financial ability to continue his studies. Remembering his sense of comfort in Europe he returned to take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad and arrived in England in June 1956 where he enrolled in the Ruskin School of Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the only English establishment agreed by the US educational services. Unsurprisingly he found himself in the company of other American ex army students, one of whom was RB Kitaj who stayed on in England after his time at the Ruskin. Upon the completion of the course William returned to Philadelphia in 1958 and found work in a frame shop, continuing to paint when ever he was able. Saving very hard he returned to England in 1962 determined to paint and stay for as long as he could. He found a flat quickly from a friend he first met at Oxford, who was giving up her flat to be married. She happened to be a friend of mine and it was here I met William.
We began to live together in a flat in Highbury. I was at that time working in industry as a shop designer, busy and away all day. William, a total romantic was able to begin to work on his first long series of pictures choosing for his subject the 35 Cantos from Dante’s Inferno. The flat was in a decrepit Victorian house which had fallen into disrepair and now was separated into several flats. The rooms were very large and so William was able to use the bedroom as a studio and thus was able to work on large pictures, each measuring five by four feet, each one complete in its self but inevitably part of the whole . William was completely committed to the scheme but quite impervious to their final destination. London, in the beginning of the sixties was finally coming out of the tired greyness of the post second world war period, everything seemed to be changing rapidly, life had became lighter and more optimistic. Those of us interested in the visual arts became aware of the ‘Pop Art’ movement which in England had taken off at the Royal College of Art where William’s former colleague, RB Kitaj had became known as one of the leaders. Before this , England and really all of Europe had been overtaken by the last romantic American movement of ‘Abstract Expressionism’ epitomised by the tragic figure of Jackson Pollock. This movement was now being overtaken by the beginning of Hard-edged Abstraction and Pop Art . Before this Figurative painting was never seen, never shown in any gallery. William, who was a committed figurative painter, felt increasingly out of touch, perhaps this is why he decided to embark upon the Dante series believing he could combine his love of the depiction of the figure with a kind of romantic fantasy. I was busily working for an art history degree in the evenings and so he was free to work without restraint (we had married in 1965 to satisfy the requirements of our mutual families). In hindsight I believe William always considered himself as an outsider, continuing with determination to paint what he believed even if against contemporary fashion. Occasionally managing to have small exhibitions. In 1963 at the Traverse Gallery, Edinburgh Festival, in 1965 and 1967 at Bonfiglioli Gallery in Oxford and finally in the same year, a project which was approached with great expectation, an exhibition at the Nordness Gallery in New York, which was a disaster, completely ignored. The pattern of these exhibitions was always the same, although usually finding some admirers his work seemed unable attract the attention of serious critics. Of course in retrospect this is unsurprising because his work was so different in spirit from the current fashion, stressing as it did the independence and loneliness of the condition of the artist, an attitude at variance with the contemporary world which was celebrating the strident consumer led excitement of modern urban life.
The Dante series show quite directly, how quickly William had developed stylistically. He had always painted very thinly, first setting the drawing, then glazing over delicately with colour upon colour and tone upon tone, always firmly committed to a kind of verisimilitude, I remember helping to light a bonfire in the garden at Highbury so that he could study carefully the form and colour of the flames. All of our friends were drawn into appearing as the protagonists in the various Cantos. In the later ones in circa 1966 one can see the mature artist appearing with new confidence. The forms became simpler, the composition, bolder, the space flatter, all of which was influenced, no doubt by the pop art work of Kitaj and Hockney. In Highbury we had shared the old house with sets of friends, all originally ex Oxford students, it was a happy period, but one bound to be temporary. One by one we all dispersed, we to a charming flat in Highgate, full of light and surrounded by trees, the others out of London. The Dante series and that period of our lives were at an end.
Suddenly the great opportunity occurred, Frank Lloyd of Marlborough Gallery came to see the work, possibly alerted following the great critical success of an earlier exhibition by R.B.Kitaj. In 1969 William had his first one man show in this major gallery. Another disaster. The press hated it, and of course the sales dried up. For William the disappointment was devastating. He is an extremely quiet man, he just became more withdrawn, but continued to work obsessively. Luckily there was always his passion for drawing, so about this time he began to teach Life drawing for several small art schools. In the great wide world outside our English media began to bombard us with stories of the Vietnam war. This was the time of the student anti-war marches, in America and England. We were on holiday in Europe, driving from Paris to Amsterdam to visit an old friend of William’s from the Oxford days now living in Amsterdam and lecturing at the University. We stopped over in Brussels and after leaving dinner at a café we came upon a lighted window showing the television news of some sort of student riot. We continued our journey to our friend’s house where we found him in a great state of concerned agitation explaining that the night before we had seen the Kent State Riots and August Fry (our friend) was convinced that this was the beginning of the disintegration of our secure world . Dr Fry frequently came to London always visiting and often staying with us. Originally from Chicago he had married a woman from Holland and elected to stay in Europe. Both he and William were obsessed with the news from America, both relieved, but somehow guilty not to be serving in this unpopular war. This is the psychological background for the next large series William began to paint which he called ‘The Mummers Parade’.
William worked on these with great intensity, I now realise they combined his ambiguous attitude to his past life with his current obsession with the Vietnam war. In South Philadelphia, when William was a small boy there was once a year a time of great excitement, the Mummer’s Parade held on New Years Day. The procession still continues but it is much changed. In William’s pictures we see the men parading circa 1942-5, the time of the second World War . At that time in the parade only men took part, always dressed as women, blacked up and wearing overshoes painted gold and they danced to the tune of ‘Golden Slippers’ dressed in the most elaborate costumes. Marching in ethnic groups, often to the tune of black musicians. The men and boys who marched were white, mostly men working by day in the dockyards of South Philadelphia. But for this one day the city was theirs, they marched in the freezing cold up Main Street to City hall. The men had taken the whole year to practice the ‘strut’ and the wives, not allowed to take part, had fashioned the costumes. William longed to be part of it, learning the strut and begging his father to allow him to join in the celebration, but the older William was fearful that his beloved only child would have an accident, the young William could only stand on sidelines longing to be part of the excitement All of his current feelings about the poverty and the latent brutality of South Philadelphia is in these pictures, the frenetic dancing backed by the figures of the Philadelphia police with their truncheons at the ready, his almost brutal contemporary dismissal of his family, his longing to get away and the overwhelming guilt following his abandonment of his home and country, overlaid with his current anger and frustration over the war in Vietnam. This all culminates in a huge canvas ‘Old Glory’ circa (72x120 inches) The American flag,( post Jasper Johns) had become an ambivalent symbol. In William’s childhood, the days at school had always begun with the saluting of the flag. Now the flag seemed to stand as a symbol of imperial arrogance, and also a banner for anti-war protesters. In this picture William combines the heroic figures of the horsemen of the apocalypse with the tragic figures of the remembered dock workers, reminding the onlooker, in this war, young men could escape the carnage it if they had the money to continue their education, perhaps even leave the country to study abroad.
In 1972 a new opportunity occurred. I had finished my first degree and was anxious to change careers and had already begun to teach art history. William was offered a post of ‘artist in residence’ at Amherst College, a highly prestigious boys college in Massachusetts we accepted with alacrity During William’s time at the Ruskin he had become friendly with a fellow American, Harry Deutchbein, older than William, Harry had always been both friend and mentor. He had settled back in America and remarried. It was agreed that we should join the Deutchbeins at the Great Lakes where we would be given their car, a Volvo .I would drive the car museum hopping to Massachusetts. It was a miracle journey, enabling us to see so many great collections and was my introduction to America. William had never wanted to drive, although he finally managed to drive badly in order able to operate at all in that large country. Amherst was a splendid experience and William settled down to teaching the very bright and privileged students, but still continuing to paint soldiers and the war which was still raging. The peace and security of Amherst was shattered by a tragedy. A black student was drowned in the Olympic sized swimming pool. The reason for the disaster opened up, for William again the class and racial division in his country. The young black man who was exceedingly able had to pass a swimming test to finally qualify as a student of the College. It was overlooked by the faculty that black men often had not been taught to swim, and so the life guard was not alerted. The boy drowned with other students swimming above him, totally unaware of the tragedy. William painted a desperately moving painting of the event in which he uses the black figure as a pieta being lifted from the pool by his white fellow students.
We stayed at the College for two years, during which time I was able to attend Massachusetts University for an Master’s degree course in Art History. Harry Deutchbein had given William a nineteenth century barn on thirteen acres in Upper State New York, the remains of the family estate, William decided to turn it into a house, which he did with the help of one student. The plan was to stay half a year in the US and some of the time in London. Finally, both jobless we had to give up the dream and return to London, where at least I was sure of being employed. We returned to our Highgate flat, I became employed by Syracuse University and William began a new experimentation combining the photographic images with oil paint. We moved again, this time further into London, at Holborn to a really beautiful eighteenth century house, where William, for the first time had a large well lit studio.
Again our house was surrounded with friends, one of whom asked William to paint her portrait. He was astonished, never having expected to work for a commission, which was a new experience and of course meant that his work was to a large extent dictated by the client. William is an extremely witty man always quietly observing his companions, missing nothing behind the mask, often inventing names for the individual that summed the personality. The young woman who had requested the portrait came for a sitting in winter wearing a white coat with a hood lined with white fox fur, for us she was ever after known as ‘White Christmas’. The portrait he painted, sees her seated on her couch dressed in blue, backed by decorated blue cushions, her beautiful happy face glowing somehow golden, like the sun. After that success he would from time to time paint portraits of our friends, each individual carefully researched and identified by the objects that most determined their characters.
In the nineteen eighties William was commissioned to paint a large mural for the St John’s Wood Reform Synagogue, the subject chosen was the Seasons. It remains today as one of the most joyful and colourful of his works. In order to respect the tradition of the mural surface he changed his method of paint application. He had always admired Piero della Francesca, and when planning the mural he looked again at the master. He was painting a history subject, yet he wanted it to be current. The clothes were a problem, his decision was innovative, he dressed them like young healthy hippies, bathed in golden light. The paint quality was dry and mixed with a coarse substance thus, giving an overall wall texture reminiscence of fresco, fully in keeping with spirit of the work. He undertook another mural for the Royal Free Hospital, here his brief was the history of the hospital, it is not so successful in my opinion. During this time he was teaching at the City and Guild’s Art School on a part time basis, and I am told by his students he was an excellent teacher, responding to each individual and answering their specific needs with sensitivity and understanding.
In 1989 wee moved to our present address in Little Venice and here began, what was to be his last series. The flat is on the second floor of a large 1847 stucco house bordering the Grand Union Canal in Little Venice, opposite Browning’s pond. It was a lateral conversion, so the rooms are large. When we moved we opened the space and put in roof lights. The main room has windows front and back as well as three huge roof lights. It is lined with book- cases to hold some of our extensive library and we painted the walls yellow. I have gone into this detail to explain my explanation of the pictures William painted which have since been called ‘The Conversation Pieces.’ These are the pictures discussed so eloquently by Dr Patrice Polini, Psychiatrist and friend. I see them a little differently, there is no doubt that William felt completely comfortable in the new space, he had a good studio, well lit and in which he would gather a few friends together to draw from the model, a practice he kept until he could no longer manage to hold charcoal. I believe the pictures to be a celebration of our life together and until circumstances decreed differently, he painted persistently one after another, describing the warmth and happiness of our new flat and the joy we took together in the companionship of our friends.
Things changed a little, one of my part-time jobs altered and for financial reasons I was forced to begin to conduct classes on Art History in William’s studio. We found through the good offices of friends, a suitable studio in Old Street, East London. Here William was commissioned by Nova et Vetera (Paris) to illustrate a poem of his choice with suitable illustrations. William chose the poetry of Wilfred Owens, a First World War poet who perished in that war. He used lithography for the illustrations, most on the subject of death. Here the fragmentation and distortion of the figures are unsettling, but correctly echoing the sentiments of the poetry. However we were forced to realise that William was not well. He painted his last large picture, a self -portrait ‘Blue Skies,’ in 1995. Here the artist sits hanging on to the table in front of him desperately, holding on, while above him, the sky-light opens to a blue sky.
William was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1995 and was immediately put on to new drug which had to be monitored. We regularly attended the neurological hospital in Queen’s Square where we were fortunate to find in nurse Ron Isaacs who regularly assessed him, a sympathetic listener. William, bravely began to paint himself, desperately trying to understand what was happening to his mind , as the pictures progressed he showed them to Nurse Isaacs and other members of the group who were attending him, all of whom were part of Dr Rossor’s team.. They found them clinically interesting they asked permission to create a paper for the ‘Lancet’. In these pictures we see with heart-breaking intensity William’s efforts to explain his altered self, his fears and his sadness. The great talent remains, but the method changes. He sometimes uses water-colour and paints a series of masks, perhaps because he could more quickly express his fear. In both the oils and water-colours these marvellous self portraits express his desperate attempt to understand his condition. There is a new freedom of expression, the paint is applied more thickly, art-historically speaking the artist seems less linear and classical, more expressionist, and I see ghosts of his. German heritage. William is still alive, but can no longer draw and seems to have withdrawn into a solitary and private world, sometimes making sounds which I imagine for him is talking, and very occasionally, I believe he recognises me.
Pat Utermohlen September 2006