Today’s Daily Telegraph – a serious and influential UK newspaper – includes a lengthy and well-informed review of the Maas Gallery AOS exhibition: Forgotten master who lived like a swine and painted like a dream
Alongside AOS are mentioned Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger and Jimmy Page.
The work did […] attract the attentions of “the Great Beast”, the magician Aleister Crowley, who commissioned drawings for his magazine, The Equinox… By 1914 Spare was making “automatic” drawings, swirling lines of the subconscious which some have seen as anticipating surrealism. For these he would either blindfold himself or induce a state of trance through hyperventilation… He has cult status within certain circles. Among the better known private collectors of his work are former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, filmmaker Kenneth Anger, punk supremo Malcolm McLaren, and the late Sir Paul Getty.
It’s also good to see Fulgur Press getting a high-profile mention.
For the full review, visit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2005/10/29/baspare29.xml&sSheet=/arts/2005/10/29/ixartleft.html
Forgotten master who lived like a swine and painted like a dream
Colin Gleadell reports on an exhibition of work by Austin Osman Spare, the artist who was obsessed by the occult
It is a brave art dealer who decides to open an exhibition on Hallowe’en. But when the subject of the show is the cult figure Austin Osman Spare, it is understandable.
Spare’s reputation in the art world is as something of a mystery man – a psychic weirdo whose obsession with the occult has somehow obscured his brilliance as a draughtsman. The son of a policeman, Spare was born in Holborn in 1886 and showed talent as an artist from the age of four.
He was an outsider from the start. His mother recalled that he didn’t play with other boys, preferring the company of a sorceress called Mrs Patterson, whom he described as his “witch mother”. In 1904, aged 17, he was hailed by the press as a “boy genius” when his work was shown at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Lionised by some of the foremost artists of his time – George Frederic Watts, Augustus John and John Singer Sargent – he received a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where one contemporary described 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, practising the black arts, taking drugs, disdainfully apart from the crowd”.
Spare’s early work, illustrative and intense with complete mastery of the flowing line and delicate wash, bears comparison with Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham but also, in its arcane references to Egyptian mythology, sex and other-worldly creatures, with the European symbolists. George Bernard Shaw thought “Spare’s medicine too strong for the normal man”.
The work did, however, attract the attentions of “the Great Beast”, the magician Aleister Crowley, who commissioned drawings for his magazine, The Equinox. But the association did not last long, and by 1914 Spare was making “automatic” drawings, swirling lines of the subconscious which some have seen as anticipating surrealism. For these he would either blindfold himself or induce a state of trance through hyperventilation.
For a while, through his books, magazines and exhibitions, Spare was a darling of Mayfair society. However, in the mid-1920s he reacted against the pinstriped snobbery and high commissions taken by West End galleries, and took lodgings in a poor area of Southwark where he lived “a swine amongst swine” for the rest of his life.
Here he continued to evolve as an artist, following whatever direction he chose without the trappings of comfort and success. Believing he could see ghosts and auras, he painted them. He developed a style he termed “siderealism” – elegant but distorted portraits of Hollywood stars gleaned from films and newspapers.
In 1936 he turned down a commission from Adolf Hitler to paint his portrait. Instead he took his models from the street life around him and exhibited their portraits in local pubs. These completely realistic studies provided him with the money he needed for beer and fags.
Although his home was hit by a bomb in 1941 and much of his work was destroyed, Spare stayed put, living through his art in the face of advancing poverty and malnutrition. He liked “rotting away in a dismal basement”, he said, surrounded by stray cats and a mouldy little yard where nothing grew. In 1956, suffering from anaemia, and treating himself with home-grown cures, he eventually succumbed to appendicitis.
Today, although his work has been collected by the V&A Museum, the British Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester and the Imperial War Museum, Spare is largely a forgotten figure. However, he has cult status within certain circles. Among the better known private collectors of his work are former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, filmmaker Kenneth Anger, punk supremo Malcolm McLaren, and the late Sir Paul Getty.
But London gallery-owner Rupert Maas believes that his visionary genius is equally accessible to anyone who can appreciate fine draughtsmanship. Among the 80 or so works he has assembled there are a lot, he says, that do not bear the obvious hallmarks of Spare’s obsession with the occult. Still, to be on the safe side, Maas has taken out insurance against any evil goings-on by inviting a Catholic priest to the opening bash.
# ‘Austin Osman Spare 2005’ is at the Maas Gallery, London W1 (020 7734 2302) from Mon to Nov 11, coinciding with the publication of ‘Borough Satyr: the Life and Art of Austin Osman Spare’ by Fulgur Press (www.fulgur.co.uk).