Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Austin Osman Spare

Portrait of Sigmund Freud, 1955, Austin Osman Spare
I don't normally correlate what I write with all the various holidays during the year (Christmas and New Year's usually being an exception). Since I grew too old to embark on a trick-or-treat sojourn around town, Halloween has not been one of my favorite holidays. I've long seen it as a holiday to get out of he way in welcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, I recently stumbled upon the perfect artist to embody the deeply occult elements of Halloween. I know a little about Halloween's origins during the Post-Roman period, the Druids in England, etc., though I've never been drawn to the occult. But inasmuch as today is Halloween, let me welcome you to the art and mind of the British artist, occultist, and sensualist, Austin Osman Spare. I have to admit, some of the terms and phrases associated with Austin Spare's art and writings are quite foreign to me. I would consider him far from a favorite artist, but I can appreciate his excellent draughtsmanship and the mastery of lines and masses as seen in his work. However, for the most part, I confess, he's way too deep for me.
Austin Osman Spare--a man of many faces. His self-portraits abound.
Just seeing a few of his many self-portraits dating from his lifetime (above) the man appears sinister and mysterious. It's said appearances can be deceiving, but not in this case. How does a man become an occultist? In Austin's case, I'd say it developed from a teenage obsession. Spare was born in 1886 near the working-class section of London known as Snow Hill, but grew up in the Kennington and Smithfield precincts of London. His father was a London policeman, his mother the daughter of a Royal Marine. Their son, Austin, was the fourth and youngest of their children. Aside from an early display of art talent, Austin's childhood would seem to have been that of a typical Anglican Christian boy, though one with a vivid imagination. From the age of twelve, he began taking evening classes at Lambeth School of Art. Around the time he turned fourteen, Spare went to work for a printing company as a poster designer. Later he worked designing for a glass-making company while attending classes. In due time, Spare's drawings won him a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art. There he achieved additional attention when his drawings were exhibited in the British Art Section of the St. Louis Exposition and the Paris International Exhibition. In 1903 he won a silver medal at the National Competition of Schools of Art.

Intemperance, Austin Osman Spare
While still living with his parents and studying at the RCA, Spare became rebellious, dissatisfied with the teaching he received there. As a result, he was often disciplined for being truant. Influenced by the work of Charles Ricketts, Edmund Sullivan, George Frederick Watts and especially Aubrey Beardsley, Spare's artistic style focused on clear lines, in stark contrast to the College's emphasis on ephemeral shading. He began dressing in flamboyant, unconventional clothes, while developing a particularly strong friendship with Sylvia Pankhurst, a prominent women's rights Suffragette. Around the same time, Spare rejected his Christian upbringing in favor of something called Western Esotericism in-volving an amalgam of Hermetism, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and other exoteric philosophies developed as schools of thought distinct from mainstream Christianity. Basically he em-braced a sort of medieval neo-paganism.

Portrait of the Artist, 1907,
Austin Osman Spare
When Austin was still only seventeen, his father secretly submitted two of his son's drawings to the Royal Academy. One of them, a design for a bookplate, was accepted for exhibition at that year's prestigious summer exhibition. British journalists took a particular interest in Spare's work, high-lighting the fact that, at seventeen, he was the youngest artist in the exhibition. The American artist, John Singer Sargent termed Spare a "genius," calling him the greatest draughtsman in England. In a sense, fame came to easily for Spare. For the next ten years or so he became the "poster boy" of London poster design while at the same time publishing several books of his drawings starting with Earth Inferno in 1905, followed by The Book of Satyrs (1907), The Book of Pleasure (1913), The Focus of Life (1921), and finally, his downfall as an artist, The Anathema of Zos in 1927.

Just one of many self-published art books.
Each book of drawings, and later, his writings, seemed more mystical and mysterious than the one before. An anonymous critic in 1914 wrote in reviewing Spare's The Book of Pleasure: "It is impossible for me to regard Mr. Spare's drawings other-wise than as diagrams of ideas which I have quite failed to unravel; I can only regret that a good draughtsman limits the scope of his appeal." I guess I'm not alone in thinking of much Spare's work as being "over my head." Art may be more powerful than words. Perhaps the artist himself put it best in his Focus of Life: "Art is the truth we have realized of our belief."

Operating in a Regimental
Aid Post, 1918, Austin Spare
The war years found Spare serving in the Royal Medical Corps administering tetanus shots to men going overseas. The job was not a good fit. Spare was deemed too "scruffy" to be an orderly. I guess he was not "orderly" enough. Eventually he was appointed a staff sergeant and assigned to work with a whole studio full of other artists in "illustrating the war." After the war, Spare took up residence in a small, Blooms-bury flat where he continued illustrating his self-published books focusing on the occult. During the 1920s, Spare financed several unsuccessful publishing efforts involving chaos magic. Despite a poverty-stricken lifestyle, Spare continued publish very small additions of his books involving Automatic Drawing and the like, aimed at an ever-shrinking group of readers. His sketchbook of automatic drawings, Book of Ugly Ecstasy, which contained a series of grotesque creatures; sold but one copy.

Cats and Chaos during the war.
With the advent of Surrealism in the mid-1930s, critics took a new look at Spare's work and deemed him the "Father of Surrealism." For a time it looked as if Spare's star would once again rise. However with the arrival of the London Blitz in 1940, Spare tried to enlist but was deemed too old (he was 54 at the time). Worse still, the following year, Spare's tiny flat in South London fell victim to Luftwaffe bombing. He lost everything. He found housing in the Brixton basement of his friend Ada Pain, cramped confines where Spare was reduced to sleeping on two chairs surrounded by stray cats, which he fed (right). After the war, Spare made something of a comeback with a successful gallery show and renewed interest in his writings by well-to-do patrons. His Portrait of Sigmund Freud (top) dates from this latter stage in his life as does his Aida (below) from 1954.

Aida, 1954, Austin Osman Spare
Austin Osman Spare--a magician
who painter or a magic artist?
Spare's Aida is a pastel drawing on cardboard. The piece represents an excellent example of the artist's "automatic" drawing. The head and torso is of an enigmatic woman of regal bearing, wearing an Egyptian headdress, which dominates the center of the composition. She peers haughtily to her left, breasts bared at the lower edge of the painting. Aida's line of sights seems to be directed at a weird facial image emerging from the chaotic field to her left and front. To her right background, unformed shapes swirl mindlessly upward. Despite the seeming lack of distinct focal points, the painting possesses a strong sense of depth, resulting from the forceful positioning of the queen, relative to the formlessness on the left, and to the emergent visage on the right front. The unformed void area is distinctly behind the chaos field while the and face is distinctly forward. The contrast between the crisply drawn features of Aida and the wild vagueness within further accentuates the visual depth of this work. This was one of Spare's last works. His health failing, Spare was admitted to a London hospital with a burst appendix in May 1956. He was also diagnosed with anemia, bronchitis, high blood pressure and gall stones. He died a few days later at the age of sixty-nine.


No comments:

Post a Comment