As we know, when an Italian Renaissance painter wanted to depict an “historical” scene, whether an episode from Greek mythology or the Bible, not only could he depend on his viewers knowing the story already but he could even present time with Einsteinian simultaneity. In one corner, Jesus is toiling up to Golgotha with a cross on his shoulder; in the middle, he swings on that cross; in another corner, he is rising from the tomb.
To my mind, in paintings like Falling Red Hat, Lethem employs an analogous use of simultaneity to convey history in visual narrative form, though in a much less promising circumstance. In this piece on display at the Maine Jewish Museum, Lethem references events from his life and childhood in Missouri and Nebraska, ones to which the contemporary viewer is not privy although such incidents were common to the period of the thirties.
How to communicate this story without resorting to irony or to literal realism? Lethem avoids both by synthesizing the narrative of the event into three symbolic visual elements that capture simultaneously the victim, the movement of the mob, and the code for failed justice in the falling power hat. In trying to capture the feeling weight of the event Lethem profoundly limits his choice of color and ingratiating surface. So, while the viewer will not be given the exact facts of the incident, instead, she or he will be presented with a thumbnail simultaneity which establishes the tragic mood.
A row of mean-spirited small town bigots leer down at (what seems) a black face in a coffin (?) as well as at some mutilated body parts, at the same time pushing the viewer’s eye to the left where the final action takes place. Just as in Giotto’s shallow space representations of movement utilize visual architecture to move the viewer’s imagination, the Falling Red Hat employs an upper and lower frieze that moves from left to right, not unlike the movement of frames in a comic strip. Need I mention that Lethem was influenced at an early age by Sunday comics, particularly the Dirks’ drawing of The Katzenjammer Kids.
The emotion is evoked through symbolic simultaneity. As Lethem said of the incident that inspired the depiction, “A young Black man, accused of rape-murder, is brought to the court house for arraignment by the county sheriff who wears a fancy red fedora. The mob depicted in the top frieze led by the angry instigator overpowers the sheriff… while the lower black passage shows the action of dragging the young man by a rope 5 miles to … a one-room schoolhouse, where he is tied to the roof and burned alive.”
But none of that is directly seen by the viewer. What is shown is a set of symbolic markers: the evil crowd, wallowing in sadism; the dismembered limbs of the black victim; the sheriff’s hat; all conveying the tense, frightening mood, not the specifics, of the scene.
What do we make of the red hat? On one level we see a vital interest in revisiting and acknowledging our history so as to inform the present moment. And at another level of symbolism, there is the sense that Lethem is throwing his hat in the ring as a legitimate heir who is lifting the drooping mantle of an art movement, and infusing his spirit into a newly charged and politicized American Expressionism.
Read Dan Kany’s review of Lethem’s exhibit at the Maine Jewish Museum here: