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The Art of Intelligent Ageing: Portraits of the Lothian Birth Cohort studies by Fionna Carlisle

ByRafaela Alford

Nov 28, 2018

In 1932 and again in 1947, all the 11-year-olds in Scotland participated in the ‘Scottish Mental Survey’, an intelligence assessment created to provide data for educational policy reforms at the time. After fulfilling its purpose, this data was soon left behind as research developed and the data became out-of-date. This was until 1999 when Ian Deary (Director of the University of Edinburgh Centre of Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology) and his research team recognised the untapped wealth of information into cognitive aging that this data could provide and began what is now known as the Lothian Birth Cohort studies.

This historical and scientific introduction may seem unusual for an art exhibition review. However, The Art of Intelligent Ageing is as much a curated piece of scientific history as it is an art exhibit. As a result, context is key to understanding the work as a whole. The exploration into the art and science crossover is always an interesting endeavour, and the collaboration of Ian Deary and Duncan Thomson (former Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) ensures the work of the research team complements and enhances Fionna Carlisle’s series of portraits.

Alongside the history of the Lothian Birth Cohorts are Fionna Carlise’s portraits of the participants, the researchers and Professor Peter Higgs (of the Higgs Boson). While the style, with a muted palette and sketchy brushstrokes, is not everyone’s cup of tea, the collection provides an interesting exploration into traditional portraiture. Rather than painting from a photograph, Carlisle has sat down with each of the subjects. This practice allows the artist to engage directly with the subject, an informative experience that creates a more personal, intimate and accurate portrait. It is also unusual to see such a large collection of portraits from a single artist. While this could be perceived as monotonous, a comparison of the selection illuminates the artist’s personal preferences and processes, from composition to technique.

Next to some of the portraits are snippets of Carlisle’s conversations with her subjects, ranging from mundane accounts of retirement to their biggest regrets. These played a large role in helping the viewer to engage with the paintings, so it was a shame that not all the paintings were accompanied by an extract.

While the Lothian Birth Cohort has been described as ‘one of the most intensively assessed groups of individuals in the world’, this reflects scientific attention. The exhibition engages with the participants, who are all volunteers, on a personal level in a manner that honours them as individuals as well as their contribution to the scientific community. The exhibition is an homage to art’s ability to capture a different quality of information from science but also highlights the importance of a collaborative, not competitive, relationship between the arts and sciences.


Image: Rafaela Alford

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