Austin Osman Spare. Forgotten Master.
Spare was born the middle child of five, on midnight, December 31, 1888, in Snow Hill, near Smithfield Market, London. He was not born into wealth, being the son of a City of London bobby. However, his father played a minor role in Spare's life, and his four sisters, mother and, especially, his "second mother," a Mrs. Patterson, played major roles. This mysterious person was a colonial repatriated, and she claimed to be descended from a line of witches that Cotton Mather failed to exterminate. Mrs. Patterson sparked Spare's intense interest in the occult arts at an early age, and that would birth his known legacy to our present generation: Chaos Magick.
At the age of 13 Spare apprenticed himself to a stained-glass works, and together with his parents scrimped enough money together to send him to Art College in Lambeth. At the age of 16 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, and in that same year had his first painting exhibited at the Royal Academy. His talent and skill did not go unnoticed. Even at this stage in his life his art was being compared to Michelangelo, Blake, Rembrandt and Durer. He would continue to haunt those old masters until his death. He was hailed as a genius at age 17, and quickly became a legendary figure, but not only for his art. One contemporary in Royal College characterized him as "a god-like figure of whom other students stood in awe, a fair creature like a Greek god, curly-headed, proud, self-willed, practicing the black arts, taking drugs, disdainfully apart from the crowd". Even at this young age Spare was exhibiting the rebellion that would mark his whole career, and indeed, his whole life.
At the age of 20 he exhibited at Bruton Gallery in London, and shocked the establishment but enamoured himself to the avant-garde set with his work full of grotesque, sexualized human figures and magical symbols. His work's resemblance to that of Aubrey Beardsley was duly noted. This exhibit brought him to the attention of Aleister Crowley, the Dark Magician Extraordinaire. Spare was initiated into the Golden Dawn occult society at about this time, but left it shortly thereafter, disenchanted with its focus. He joined Crowley in his dissident Argentum Astrum society, but soon left there as well -- and left Crowley as well. At the age of 25 Spare published his first book of magick, the Book of Pleasure. In it he introduced his methods of Sigil Magick, as well as other, less tame, magickal venues.
Immediately thereafter his life took an unexpected turn. World War I rained destruction on Europe, and Spare served as a War Artist from 1914 to 1918. He was stationed with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and his work reflects the horrible torture of war. His last duty station was in Egypt, where the ancient mysticism of the Nile had a profound influence on his arcane studies. Shortly after the war he published another magick tome, The Focus of Life, and became good friends with two other renegades of the art world of this time period: John Austen and Alan Odle. However, neither came close to approaching Spare's artistic mastery or his fierce independence.
In 1924 Spare cast himself as the irredeemable rebel when he published his "Anathema of Zos" – Zos being his moniker in arcane circles. In it he exposed all the sins of the upper classes, and condemned them and all they stood for. He then fled to sanctuary in South London, where he spent the rest of his life, living, in his own words, as “a swine with swine."
This is a poignant place to jump ahead to the mid-1930's, when an adjutant to Adolph Hitler saw a Spare self-portrait, and noticed Spare's genius, and also a striking resemblance to The Fuhrer, and told Hitler of the painting. Hitler then asked Spare to do an official State portrait for him. Having rejected the British art world and high society, a commission from the then rising power of Germany would have catapulted Spare into international circles. But Spare rejected Hitler, and did so in his own characteristic way. He sent Hitler a letter, noting: "Only from negations can I wholesomely conceive you. For I know of no courage sufficient to stomach your aspirations and ultimates. If you are superman, let me be for ever animal." Not content with mere words, Spare sent Hitler a sarcastic spoof of a self-portrait of himself as Hitler.
After moving back to South London, Spare earned a living teaching from January to June, and exhibiting works for sale in his living room, bedroom and kitchen, often in the company of his models, the common people of South London. He despised what he saw as the practice of selling amateurish art for high prices, and instead sold his work for mere pittances to the regular folk. He was convinced there was a great demand for pictures at 2 to 8 guineas each. He was a prolific artist using all manner of styles and media, and his art found itself distributed far and wide, but also far outside the circles of the so-called, art world.
He pioneered a unique form of art, which he called "Siderealism." He used a technique of anamorphic distortion that produced an otherworldly elegance. The distortion was based on precise geometric formulas. Other artists sometimes copy the basic effect of his siderealism, especially for trendy high-gloss magazines, but I could not find any artist after him that uses his specific technique.
Inevitably, his penchant for the wild life brought him to live in a series of tenements, and finally a basement. Wherever he lived, he would always be found with his many cats. Strangely enough, I did not find any artwork of his of any sort of feline or feline-like creature. However, some of his human studies do display a relaxed feline elegance.
Spare became a master of his own brand of magick, and unknown to him he has fostered an upstart branch of magick called, Chaos Magick, which came into vogue in the 1970's and is gaining popularity among the shock-value intellectuals of the Western World today. But Spare did not need to shock to create controversy, though shock people he did. Some of his art is of incredibly grotesque, demonic creatures with exaggerated sexual characteristics engaging in acts of perversion that proved true what George Bernard Shaw said of Spare's work at an earlier age: "Spare's medicine is too strong for the normal man." But much of his controversial art is filled with symbolism that flaunts the foibles of prim society, and extols the human earthiness of the poor. A favorite target was organized religion, and his anti-Church works would still be intellectually controversial today. He had no need of using animal excrement to get his point across. To him, the subject was excrement enough. A particularly insightful piece, which I unfortunately could not get a good scan for the presentation, is of the crucifixion. It portrays Christ as the cross, and nailed to his back and outstretched arms is a nude woman in the familiar pose reserved for the Christian Savior.
During the Second World War he was severely injured while on fire duty. A buzz bomb blew up the building he was in, and not only was his memory affected from the blast, but he lost the use of both arms. He eventually recovered, and did so through his technique of automatic painting, which he had pioneered decades before. Even with his arms disabled he was able to draw while in his trance states, and he attributed to this magick the impetus for his full recovery. In 1947 he exhibited his artwork for the first time since his war injury, showing 163 new paintings that he had done in the last few months.
His later years were taken up with his cats, the common folk around him, the seedy side of life he had always favoured, and an intense obsession with the occult arts. His whole life was lived in controversy created by his refusal to live within the bounds of gentle society dictated by cultural norms. He was always pushing the envelope, seeking new horizons. His art spans possibly every major style of his time, and his lifestyle was all his own. What strikes me the most about all the controversy he generated during his time is the aspect that would still generate the most controversy today, I think. That is his rejection of the accepted art world and rich patrons in favour of living in the slums and using his art to earn a basic living by selling his work to the neighborhood, just as any green grocer does.