Lee Godie's self portraits

by Amy Sherlock, Reviews Editor of frieze

I have always found the question, “Who do you think you are?” (used rhetorically, as an accusation) to be an odd one. The implication is that one should know oneself, or know one’s place, as if it were ever a question of knowing, and not just imagining. Nowhere can the gulf between one’s own self image and external appearances be revealed with such brutality as in the self portrait: there is no better stage for one’s self delusions. Lee Godie had more reason than most to seek the succour of self-delusion. She lived out the majority of her later years homeless on the blustery streets of downtown Chicago. A self- taught artist, she drew and sketched, hawking her wares to passing business people and leaving the proceeds in the care a nearby department store.Her self portraits, many enlivened with paint or pen, some coquettishly flirtatious, others autographed like the calling cards of a budding starlet, were taken in a photobooth in a bus station in the city, which was also the location of the locker that housed most of her worldly possessions. I look at Lee Godie in these images and I think of Vivian Leigh’s Blanche du Bois in her worn-out Mardi Gras outfit – in that scene in A Streetcar Named Desire where she is so wide-eyed and fearful and Marlon Brando’s Stanley so devastatingly handsome – wrapping herself in her airs and her rhinestone tiaras to buttress a fragile sense of self. But I don’t pity Godie. She looks mischievous; she looks happy. She wouldn’t let any Stanley try to tell her that she wasn’t a queen.