EMMA DOEVE - Introduction to Austin Osman Spare

An introductory look at the Life & Work of Artist-Occultist Austin Osman Spare
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  An Introduction to AUSTIN OSMAN SPARE (1886-1956) If you were an art student in Britain in the last decades of the 20th century, you would have to have been extremely fortunate to have even been made aware of the existence of Austin Osman Spare, “one of t he greatest living draughtsmen ”  as he was described within his lifetime, and certainly “the greatest artist you’ve never heard of” as the cliché goes. In an item on the BBC’s The Culture Show   aired to coincide with a major retrospective of Spare’s work in 2010, no less a commentator than Andrew Graham Dixon introduced him as: “A n intriguing Edwardian artist of the magical, the otherworldly and the grotesque, whose claims that mystical practices lay behind his disturbing imagery brought him admirers and detractors in equal measure.”   As the subtitle of a recent highly acclaimed biography of Spare described him, he was truly London’s lost artist –    or perhaps even England’s...  If you had a talent for drawing, were deeply interested in representing the human figure  –   not  just by itself, but also within a meaningful, erotic and maybe esoteric context  –   you would not have had the inspiring and stimulating example of his art at your disposal. And you certainly would not have known about his later years, when he led an almost liminal existence but still created amazing images. There are the now well-known pictures of him in his dingy  basement flat, which doubled as his studio, surrounded by stray cats and his drawings and  paintings, looking like an old vagrant, which by all accounts he had almost become. You would most likely have been greatly moved by it, as well as shocked, perhaps.  But maybe you would have had a friend who knew someone in the occult-inspired underground bands of the 1980s, like Psychic TV or Coil, or the subculture that had sprung up around them, in which Spare was celebrated, rightly or wrongly, as an ‘outsider’ hero for apparently turning his back on the mainstream, and embracing his life of poverty, like some sort of Cockney ascetic. You might have heard that he was admired and collected by such unlikely figures as Barry Humphries, or guitarist Chris Stein from Blondie. Or else you might have caught wind of the emerging Chaos Magic movement, which claimed Spare as a kind of spiritual forebear: an artist shaman, a spiritual currency with ever-increasing status. The near-mythic image of Spare the arch-individualist, who had thumbed his nose at authority and worldly success and gone his own way, living only for his visions and his art, had something for everybody. If you knew about Spare in those early days and had a way with words, you would ever after  be remembered among the steadily growing number of admirers, because you were one of the first, when he was still largely unknown  –   unfairly relegated to footnote status, and the more for his esoteric interests than his artistic gifts, such as his dismissal as a “satanic occultist”  by critic Mario Praz in his study, The Romantic Agony  (Oxford, 1933.) Most likely it would have been through the books of Kenneth Grant, former acolyte of The Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, and tireless documenter of the 20 th   Century “magical revival.”  Grant and his wife Steffi, herself a talented artist, had known Spare the man and the artist  personally in the last years of his life, and were instrumental in supporting and promoting his work from the 1970s onward. Acclaimed author, graphic novelist, and self-confessed magician, Alan Moore, has acknowledged Grant’s contribution in his Introduction to Phil Baker’s fine biography ,  Austin  Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist   (Strange Attractor, 2011), in which he writes: “... without the tire less championing of Kenneth Grant the vast majority of us would, in all likelihood, have never heard of Austin Osman Spare.” Kenneth and Steffi were both magicians themselves, she working more with magic in her art, he in his writing: the nine volumes of “The Typhonian Trilogies”, which Grant wrote from the early 1970s up to the Millennium, and for which Steffi provided illustrations  –   nearly all featured artwork by and information about Spare, in addition to which the Grants produced two fine volumes dedicated solely to him: the now-classic  Images & Oracles of Austin Osman Spare  (srcinally published in 1975, but reissued by Fulgur in 2003), and a lavishly illustrated volume reproducing much of their correspondence with Spare, that gives a moving and insightful account of their friendship,  Zos Speaks!  (again from Fulgur, 1998.) In her Introduction to  Zos Speaks! , Steffi writes a vivid account of her first meeting with Spare at his address off the Brixton Road, a run-down Victorian terrace house that had narrowly escaped the Blitz. The old ma n in front of her was “bent and decrepit looking.” He was unkempt and wore tattered clothes he had probably slept in, and his hands trembled. The contrast could hardly have been greater to the precocious boy star who wooed the Royal College of Art many years before. Herbert Budd, an art teacher, in whose classes Steffi sometimes posed, told her that back in the day, Spare was considered: “  A god-like figure of whom the other students stood in awe, a fair creature like a Greek God, curly headed, proud, self-willed, practising the black arts, taking drugs, disdainfully apart from the crowd.”  In Australia, Nevill Drury wrote about Spare in his 1972 book The Search for Abraxas  (reissued by Salamander & Sons, 2013) co-written with Stephen Skinner. Drury was also keenly interested in Rosaleen Norton, the notorious painter and “Witch Q ueen of King’s Cross ” (in Sydney), and he may have regarded Spare as being her occult cousin. He would come back to them both, separately or together, a number of times, and one of his last books was the lavish  Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare , again produced in collaboration with Salamander & Sons in 2012. Part of the story of Austin Spare the ‘lost’ artist –   though apparently ‘lost’ no more,  judging  by the fact that his popularity is on the increase, and his work fetches ever-higher prices these days  –   and something that may partly explain why his life shows such a remarkable sweep, from early success and celebrity (brief though they were) to obscurity, is that he had a very unusual Muse. She was a local witch, apparently, Mrs. Patterson: an elderly woman, ugly but vigorous, who is said to have seduced him at a young age  –   though, of course, we shall never  be able to ascertain how much, if anything, of the story is true. She was not his only Muse,  but she played a vital role, introducing him to magic and witchcraft. She gave him his ‘ugly ecstasies.’ The impression given is that she ravished hi m, her special trick being the ability to “project a glamour” [the srcinal meaning of the word ‘glamour’ being a kind of spell or enchantment], in which she could transform herself into an alluring young woman. She could also project visualisations for fortune telling, and make forms srcinating in your mind appear as if they were tangible and real. Austin Spare certainly had the magical ability to make shapes and figures visible in front of your eyes through his extraordinary ‘witchy’ creative gifts. Even if there was no flesh -and-  blood ‘Witch Patterson’, Spar  e unquestionably ravishes us with his artistry. When the  prospect of a full-blown artistic career had disappeared below the horizon, She would still vividly materialize, if not in front of him, then certainly in his imagination and inspire him, as

Vijay Sapbi

Jul 23, 2017

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Jul 23, 2017
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