Fralin’s new Socialist Realism showcase presents eerie images
The old photograph hanging in the Fralin Museum wouldn’t seem special on its own. It’s just a 1930s group shot: a bunch of people on a ship deck, gathered around a lifebuoy that reads “SS Europa.” They are actually the African-American cast of a 1932 film, “Black and White,” en route to Moscow for filming. It’s the only thing in the exhibit “In the Shadow of Stalin” – which will be on display in the museum until Dec. 22 – that feels real.
The photo is not perfectly polished. Juanita Lewis is looking away from the camera, Langston Hughes seems bored and Mollie Lewis gives a relaxed grin from her deck chair. This stands in stark contrast to the staged perfection in the photo just to the right in the exhibit, where a blonde, attractive Soviet man and woman flash smiles as they hold the child of black set designer Lloyd Patterson and Ukrainian fashion designer Vera Aralova. Their smiles promise equality and acceptance, everything that brought the black film crew to the USSR in the first place.
Directly above this photograph is another of Patterson, Aralova and their three children with a census-taker. Stalin’s portrait is deliberately included on the wall in the background, a reminder of who to thank for the blissful life an interracial couple could find in the Soviet Union.
To the right of the small collection of photographs are posters for the 1936 movie, “Circus.” Propaganda in musical comedy form, the film tells the story of an American woman who emigrates to the USSR to escape her pariah status. A looped clip plays on a monitor, showing the protagonist marching along with her new comrades under banners of Stalin, Marx and Lenin, proudly singing “The Song of the Motherland.” One poster is done in an Art Deco style with a woman in a shimmering gold dress surrounded by admirers. Another is less geometric, but full of oversaturated colors and smiling faces with cherry red lips.
Across the room are more chromatically subdued propaganda posters, “The Whole World Will Be Ours” and “All the World’s Records Must Be Ours.” Their themes are evident from the titles. The former features a gleeful toddler pinning a Soviet flag atop a globe as he sits next to a toy tractor and a picture book. His face is eerily generic. Ditto in the latter, where running figures are all drawn with nondescript looks of contentment. The winner bursting through the finish line in the center isn’t the focal point, it’s the red star on her shirt. Socialist realism was developed to ensure nothing in the image distracted from its message: the youth have a duty to be healthy and productive.
The purpose of the exhibit isn’t to show reality, but rather to showcase the promises of community and egalitarianism that drew so many to communism in the 1930s. It serves as a reminder that, at the time, Soviet society could in fact offer a better a life for blacks than they could find in the United States. The perspective that Patterson and other members of that film crew must have had on the USSR is relatable to the way the United States appeared to European immigrants. Although the USSR may be remembered for oppressive Stalinist policies, this exhibit serves as a reminder that it was also a symbol to millions of freedom from oppression.