Art, Austin Osman Spare, Automatic Art, Book, Chaos Magick, Dark Spirits, Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare, Dr. Nevill Drury, Magic, Magical Art, The Book of Ugly Ecstasy, The Golden Hind, Zos / Kia cosmology
Part Two of Dr. Nevill Drury’s much-anticipated Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare consists of three chapters examining the life, art, publishing ventures, sigil magic, and occult cosmology of the substantially misunderstood British visionary artist, Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956).
Chapter Four details the early life of Austin Osman Spare, a true Cockney born at home in Snowhill, near Smithfield, London, on 30 December 1886, within the sound of the bells of Saint Mary-le-Bow. From his relationship with his parents and siblings, to his teenage artistic emergence and early accolades – including being proclaimed a genius by John Singer Sargent, then President of the Royal Academy, and other notable artists of the day – to his study at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington and early bookplate commissions and illustrations, Drury sketches a life of Spare as an independent, eccentric urban visionary:
From his art student days onwards Spare always emphasised that he sought to be his own person, developing his own style, and he disliked being compared to other artists. In an anonymous article entitled ‘Boy Artist at the R.A.’ published in The Daily Chronicle during 1904 Spare was quoted as saying, ‘I never copy other people. I prefer to take my subjects from my own imagination and to draw them according to my ideas of what they should be.’
Acclaimed as the ‘darling of Mayfair’, and with his artworks receiving significant public attention, Spare turned his back on an unsuccessful marriage to the actress Eily Gertrude Shaw and “the ‘hypocrisy’ of the fashionable art set” and ventured into self-publishing numerous works including Earth: Inferno (265 numbered copies, 1905); A Book of Satyrs (300 copies, first edition 1907; 300 copies, second edition 1909); The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): The Psychology of Ecstasy (380 copies, 1913); The Focus of Life: The Mutterings of Aaos (650 copies, 1921), and Anathema of Zos: The Sermon to the Hypocrites (100 copies, 1927).
Despite being compared to notable graphic artists of the day, like Charles Ricketts (illustrator of Oscar Wilde’s The Sphinx) and Harry Clarke (illustrator of Goethe’s Faust and Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination), Spare’s highly unconventional esoteric imagery was regarded by some as “medicine … too strong for the average man” and he was shunned by all but his most ardent friends and supporters – the latter including, most notably, the critic, editor, lyricist, translator, novelist, hymn writer, and poet Clifford Bax, with whom Spare co-edited a quarterly illustrated literary magazine entitled The Golden Hind; the journalist, drama critic and spiritualist Hannen Swaffer, with whom Spare would maintain a lifelong friendship; and his early patron Pickford Waller. Drury also elaborates upon Spare’s complex relationship with the so-called ‘Great Beast 666’ and self-styled messiah of the New Aeon, Aleister Crowley – a relationship which, he writes, “underwent dramatic shifts ranging from cordial friendship to passionate disdain.”
Drury describes how Spare “embraced his south London working class roots and maintained a series of studios in the Elephant and Castle region of The Borough,” and how during this period Spare created “an impressive body of realist portraits featuring ‘Southwark locals’,” along with “glamorous renditions of movie stars and celebrities, [painted] from existing photographs to create unusually slanted compositions that he referred to as ‘sidereal’ portraits.” Spare’s penchant for exhibiting his artwork in taverns or inns is also discussed:
Spare’s natural inclination to exhibit in popular drinking houses – a characteristic he shared with Rosaleen Norton – is indicative of his total lack of pretension during this phase of his life. With the Golders Green period now well behind him, he felt very much at home with ordinary run-of-the-mill workers, and this may be another reason why he eventually tired of Aleister Crowley who was, by contrast, very much an elitist and in no sense a man of the common people.
Having “suffered through a heavy German air raid which damaged his arm and utterly destroyed his studio in Walworth Road, along with much of surrounding Southwark,” during May 1941, Spare lived the rest of his days in Brixton with a female companion, Ada Millicent Pain. He exhibited works in London in November 1947 (paintings), October-November 1955 (paintings and drawings), and during 1952 and 1953. These would, however, be the last exhibitions of his lifetime. On 09 May 1956 Spare was rushed to hospital with a burst appendix, dying six days later due to complications arising from extensive abdominal inflammation.
Chapter Five consist of an extensive analysis of Spare’s Zos / Kia cosmology. According to Drury:
… Spare uses his concept of Kia to refer to the primal, cosmic life force which can be channelled into the human organism, Zos. In one of his later esoteric texts Spare refers to the life force as ‘a potency’, – and his magical technique for arousing the elemental energies latent within this life potency – a technique he termed ‘atavistic resurgence’ – involved focusing upon magical sigils which he employed as vehicles of his magical will. When the mind was in what Spare called a ‘void’ or open state – achieved, for example, through meditation, exhaustion or at the peak of sexual ecstasy – magical sigils could be used to send ‘commands’ to the subconscious mind. Later, these magical commands would be intentionally forgotten in order to remove them from conscious awareness but, in the meantime, according to Spare they would ‘grow’ within the seedbed of the subconscious mind until they became ‘ripe’ and manifested once again in the familiar world of conscious reality, thereby achieving the magician’s initial intent.
Spare’s magical philosophy is thoroughly examined, with influences ranging from archetypal mythic imagery from ancient Egypt and a fascination with the sexual energies of the subconscious mind to Taoism and the ‘reification’ of ideas and thoughts to visible, sometimes even tangible, appearance. The central importance of the ‘void moment’ to Spare’s magical process is also discussed, alongside his Death Posture technique and “creation and use of ‘sentient’ magical sigils that could act as vehicles or ‘messengers’ to the subconscious mind.” Spare’s influence upon the Pact of the Illuminates of Thanateros – often simply known as The Pact, or the IOT – and subsequent role as ‘grandfather’ of Chaos Magick is also described.
In addition to developing his concept of the Death Posture and the Zos / Kia cosmology, Spare also explored the spontaneous creative process of automatic drawing. In his exposition upon Spare’s automatic art in Chapter Six of Dark Spirits, Drury writes:
It has been argued that Spare can legitimately claim to be the first Surrealist artist because his earliest atavistic artworks preceded the 1924 Paris Surrealist Manifesto by at least a decade … his attraction to automatic drawing is directly linked to the psychic automata, or elementals, which he believed surrounded him at all times.
The contents of the two major limited edition collections of Spare’s automatic art published since his death in 1956 – A Book of Automatic Drawing (Catalpa Press, London, 1972) and The Book of Ugly Ecstasy (Fulgur, London, 1996) – inform Drury’s critique of Spare as an artist now acknowledged as one of the key figures of the 20th century Western magical revival and one of its most original thinkers.
A seventh chapter sets out the parallels between the trance states associated with the Zos / Kia cosmology of Spare and the trance magic of the Australian visionary artist Rosaleen Norton.
Some copies of Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare remain available. Both the Deluxe Edition and the standard hardcover edition will be published on 05 December 2012 in order to coincide with the 33rd anniversary of Rosaleen Norton’s death.