Meet the artist behind the Nobel portraits, how to avoid ‘nobelitus’


Nobel Portraits 2018
Going for gold: Elmehed’s golden portraits debuted in 2018. That year’s physics laureates were Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland. (© Nobel Media 2018. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed)

Since, 2012 the first pictures we see of Nobel prize winners are often portraits produced by the Swedish artist Niklas Elmehed. I find the simple drawings iconic and I always enjoy comparing them with the photographs of laureates that emerge later. For me, Elmehed’s portraits often capture aspects of a subjects’ personality that photographs cannot.

Just about everything to do with the process of choosing Nobel winners is shrouded in secrecy, so I had assumed that little information would be available about who did the portraits. After all, the artist would have to know about the winners well in advance, and could be targeted by those trying to discover the names of winners before they are announced.

Undaunted, Elmehed has written about the portraits on his website.

“The graphical concept behind the portraits is to give the portraits the expression of breaking news − a strong and unique visual impression,” he says.

Golden makeover

In 2017, the Nobel prize got a graphical makeover – with gold replacing blue and yellow as the main colours. Elmehed responded in his 2018 portraits by starting to use real gold (see figure).

“I experimented a lot with different gold paints and fell for the gold foil, a super thin metal foil that you can put on the painting with a special glue,” he explains.

In addition to being the subject of a golden portrait, life can get pretty weird for Nobel laureates thanks to all the publicity. In particular, winners are often portrayed in the media as polymaths whose opinions on wide-ranging topics must be listened to – regardless of whether a laureate has any expertise in that field.

This can lead to a condition called “nobleitus”, where this deference gives a laureate a platform for crackpot ideas. Perhaps the most infamous case of nobelitus in physics is William Shockley, who after winning a prize in 1956 became a outspoken proponent of “scientific racism” and eugenics.

Avoiding nobelitus

Writing in The Guardian, the British geneticist Paul Nurse – who shared the 2001 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine – explains how he avoids nobelitus with help from friends, family and colleagues.

Nurse also talks about the doors that his Nobel has opened to him and his projects – most notably the founding of the prestigious Francis Crick Institute in London in 2010. Nurse was a key proponent for the medical research facility and is its first (and current) director and CEO. In 2010 he also began a five-year term as president of the Royal Society, which is the UK’s premier scientific organization.

One thing that a Nobel couldn’t get Nurse automatically was a green card to reside in the US. His initial application was rejected because he did not submit a long-form birth certificate, which  includes the names of his parents. When he procured the document, he was shocked to discover that the person he knew as his sister was in fact his mother – that his father was unknown, and that his parents were actually his grandparents. Sadly, such arrangements did occur in an age when births out of marriage were stigmatized.

Nurse made his application after becoming president of Rockefeller University in 2003. If he had not won a Nobel, perhaps he would not have gone to the US and he may have never discovered the truth about his family. So winning the prize can indeed be life changing.

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