Harper Lee on Every Painter Paints Himself

Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s passing reminded me of a deservedly famous line in To Kill A Mockingbird: "You never really understand a person… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." To my mind she was not just portraying a wild imagination, as a surface reading suggests, but that what seems wild actually happens to all of us. Understanding someone can only be done through the imagination so, subconsciously, we climb into their skin to make sense of them. We then see that person as we are, or as what we'd like to be, or perhaps not like to be. We look out at others but, inside, we paint them as a version of ourselves. 

Likewise, in visual art, it has been said that Goya "could inhabit the body of a bird, a mythological god, a human corpse.”1 That leads to a similar conclusion if one thinks allegorically. In subtly depicting himself as a figment from a dream, he was like Lee passing on for our benefit an essential truth. Our minds are by nature self-representational and we do best to acknowledge that.

1. John Ciofalo, The Self-Portraits of Francisco Goya (Cambridge University Press) 2001, p.3

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