Art Doc of the Week | A Study of Negro Artists

The 1936 documentary A Study of Negro Artists has the quality of an experimental film, one whose goal isn’t just to relay information, but to disrupt the ways we perceive and process. That’s not intentional, but a side-effect of watching the film in the 21st century without any aural accompaniment it may have once had. There’s no sound – no score, and (obviously) no organ playing for us, so it offers no nudging cues on what we should think or feel. (By 1930 the silent movie era was over.)

August Savage; courtesy the artist's estate.

August Savage; courtesy the artist’s estate.

The lack of audio accompaniment forces the viewer to more deeply engage the images: A dapper painter working at his easel on the riverfront in Harlem gives way to a series of close-ups on various hands (turning a car steering wheel; pushing a sewing needle through cloth; sweeping up trash; typing on an old-school typewriter), illustrating the point that these artists – like most artists through history – supported themselves and their art by working tedious, unglamorous jobs. The silence has a meditative effect, adding a reverential air to the commonplace jobs, elevating them in a way. But before the viewer can drift into romanticizing menial labor, a title card cuts in stating: “The leisure thus gained leaves him [the artist] free to work again for fame and self-expression.”

From there we see a montage of important Harlem Renaissance artists heeding their calling: sculptor Richmond Barthé; painter Aaron Douglas; sculptor Augusta Savage, and more. The film drifts back into hypnotic mode, but because we’ve been made privy to what it takes and costs the artists to create, there’s a soft tension at play throughout – underscored by the absence of sound, forcing us to stay sharp and stay focused. We’re pulled into the process of making art, bearing witness to the “magic” of creativity and the ordinary behind-the-scenes grind of making magic appear.

Top photo of Richmond Barthé courtesy the artist’s estate.