The rise and fall (and rise) of artist and magician Austin Osman Spare

If you haven’t heard of Austin Osman Spare — or even if you have — the video below makes for fascinating and revelatory viewing. It features author and magician Alan Moore, as well as other knowledgeable figures, discussing “the virtually unknown but enormously talented Edwardian artist and magician Austin Osman Spare on The Culture Show from the BBC.”

If you’re keen to learn more about AOS, I recommend the really excellent profile of him that appeared last year in The Guardian (“Austin Osman Spare: Cockney Visionary“) in tandem with the detailed article about him at Wikipedia. The former tells the least you need to know in its teaser: “Austin Osman Spare was hailed as the next Aubrey Beardsley, but died in obscurity. Since then, he has had a cult following, but his art is finally gaining wider popularity.” The latter fills in the other crucial aspect of Spare’s significance at the end of its first paragraph: “In an occult capacity, he developed idiosyncratic magical techniques including automatic writing, automatic drawing and sigilization based on his theories of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious self.”

Beyond this, a pungent paragraph from theGuardian piece condenses everything that’s really and enduringly fascinating about him:

However notable some of Spare’s art might be, his memory has been kept alive for many years more by cultists than art lovers. He was influenced by the supernatural currents of his early youth, including theosophy and spiritualism, and he was briefly an associate of Aleister Crowley, the self-styled Beast 666, before they fell out. Spare’s innovative approach to magic was a brilliantly self-educated attempt to manipulate his own unconscious, giving his wishes the demonic power of complexes and neuroses and nurturing them into psychic entities, like the old-style idea of familiar spirits.

As for his recent surge in popularity, the BBC program preserved in the video above is actually implicated in it:

Spare has been taken up by graphic novelists and experimental musicians, and it looks as if his art is finally gaining wider recognition outside the occult ghetto. A Spare exhibition late last year at the Cuming Museum in south London was so popular — helped by a piece on the BBC’s Culture Show — that timed admission had to be introduced, and there is a further documentary in the offing later this year. The serious recognition that largely eluded him in life seems to be coming at last. At the very least, he deserves to be recognised as part of what Peter Ackroyd has described as the “Cockney visionary tradition”. In the words of one of his obituaries (“Strange and Gentle Genius Dies” in the Evening News), “You have probably never heard of Austin Osman Spare. But his should have been a famous name.”

Against all odds, it appears that Spare’s star is really and finally rising.

About The Teeming Brain

The Teeming Brain is a blog magazine exploring the intersection of religion, horror, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture. It also tracks apocalyptic and dystopian trends in technology, politics, ecology, economics, the arts, education, and society at large.

Posted on August 3, 2012, in Arts & Entertainment, Paranormal and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I have heard of Spare, from Alan Moore’s Promethea. What you say about his star rising is refered to when Nietzsche says that posthumous men have to take their consolation and/or pride in being appreciated after death. But then one asks what makes an artist popular at all? Here’s where Jung says a work or creation has to be a symbol in the unconscious. The more collective it is, the more powerful and popular. It has to fulfil a need in the psyche of the group. It is like a new road or cabinet minister in a country. When you look down through history, Nietzsche’s saying is very apparent – society has worked that way most often than more. I had a similar idea as Nietzsche and I thought that it was just a matter of chance or some almost otherworldly skill, Jung changed my mind. But I have had experiences like Jung describes; even how I met Jung was symbolic.

    Reading Spare’s occultism, I realize it is quite similar to certain practices of mine; especially the part about affecting your complexes. I noticed from a young age that I could mindshift – I just created that term, mirroring ‘shapeshift’. That means I could gauge the ideas and emotions most predominant in a character and mimic it. That practice nearly broke me down mentally for I did it too much and almost got lost in my own mind.

    The popularity of an artist is not much related to his skill is how I see it. His greatness is divided in two – skill and popularity. William Blake was virtuoso but he’s still a minor figure in pop. No matter how much I denigrate Shakespeare, he’s the darling of all ages. Maybe my mind will change in the future but until now, I’ve not been able to shake Shakespeare’s hand.

    • Although it hails from a different philosophical frequency, I’m reminded by your final lines of a widely circulated Inspired Utterance by Robert Anton Wilson: “Like what you like, enjoy what you enjoy, and don’t take crap from anybody.”

      Very interesting to hear that you personally and intuitively stumbled into, and nearly got burned by, something akin to Spare’s deliberate practice of magical-psychological dissociation for creative enhancement. Your experiences with Jung also sound pointedly resonant with layers of meaning. Obviously, your lines of communication for synchronistic occurrences are clearly open and operating.

      Remember Patrick Harpur’s observation about synchronicities and a kind of dayworld eruption of daimonic initiatory events, which may as well be a warning as a celebration: “Unlike the shaman’s experience of the Otherworld as a daimonic realm entered during altered states of consciousness, this different kind of initiation happens the other way around: the Otherworld enters this world. Our everyday reality becomes heightened, full of extraordinary synchronicities, significances, and paranormal events. People who investigate the daimonic are particularly prone to these — although they can happen to anyone who is engaged on a search for some sort of knowledge or truth (every scholar, for instance, knows how the very book he requires can fall off a library shelf at his feet!).” I, like you, have lived the reality of this description.

  2. Where’s the Harpur quote from? I’ll have to get one of his books, especially that on Imagination; he’s an interesting thinker. I have read his essay on mystical experiences at the Reality Sandwich.

  3. I will love it. I have been juggling with ideas of the kind at my other blog, Letters – I just went over to the wikipedia article on him.

    One other book I’ll have to read is Mercurius. Marriage of Heaven and Earth as Mercurius mirrors one of my projects at Letters. However, unlike Harpur, I take it as Heaven and Hell uniting in Earth. I choose that to complete the dialectic and to render Earth a morally neutral ground and raise this beautiful Earth that many are quick to contemn to sacred status. Besides, it’s more real because the essences represented by the words Heaven and Hell are right here on Earth. And along the lines of Mercurius, my character on that blog has adopted the persona, Il Divino Interprete.

    I wonder how much sense I made in the second paragraph; the blog is a work in progress and there will be some lapses in my thoughts on it.

    • Your second paragraph made perfect sense to me. Glad you’re finding fuel everywhere for your blog project.

      I haven’t read Mercurius either, but I’ve read a lot about it and know it’s in the cards for reading in the future, when the time is ripe. Sounds brilliant, especially since it’s a kind of record and catalyst of Harpur’s own alchemical awakening and transmutation.

  4. The thing about alchemy is that it seizes you. If you are born with the daimonic, you are bonded in sickness and in health. It’s like the idea of ‘spiritual marriage’ in African spirituality. Oftentime, I feel like I’m never going to write on the subject again but then I come up with better than before. And it goes hand-in-hand with the development of my own style. It has become like what philosophy used to be to me – an inescapable magnet. And I also have qualms about the work, I feel like I should just concentrate on philosophy and psychology but then I’m seized with some euphoria and all the doubts disappear and I’m already one with the world.

    On alchemical awakenings, I have gone through several. The first was through philosophic speculation upon which I encountered in fully vivid and spontaneous form, like something coming to me not me to it, ‘I Am’. In the second, it was poetic, through a redemption of the Divine Sophia; it was in that time that I created the whole Anarchist philosophy as well as the Kabbalah (unwittingly). The current one is the third and it sits between Thinking and Feeling but full-on Imagination. I recall another though, which came after the first, it was as if the world and I were one – it was a more tangible one.

  5. That’s all beautifully expressed and wonderful to read. I would hope that everybody with artistic and/or philosophical and/or spiritual inclinations or aspirations would encounter such awakenings and initiations. My own, as I’ve described here in the past (most recently in yesterday’s installment of my Liminalities column) occurred in the form of a cosmic fall into a combination of mystical nihilism and a dreadful and exhilarating state of Chapel Perilous-type quasi-schizophrenia that was part philosophical, part affective, and part existential.

    Tangentially, but relatedly, and certainly fascinatingly, religious philosopher Huston Smith, one of my most beloved and important influences, has described being struck one night with a rush of ideas that overwhelmed him as if they were pure visions or visitations of Platonic forms. They had to do with the core meanings of the world’s major religious and spiritual traditions, and he says the lasting impact of the experience can be seen in his life’s work of expounding the perennial philosophy with its chief tenet of the underlying unity of religions.

  6. Yours was a wondrous experience. How does the human manage that? Just plain wonder.

    Alchemy finds its expression in diverse ways. Without an initiation to it, it appears it is difficult to recognize it underlying the surface. As Jung says, it is just the symbolic or unconscious-drenched expression of individuation. In so far as one approaches life in an open and personal, authentic way, that is, allowing life to teach one, one excavates for the alchemical Gold. Because one, under such conditions, one has to solve one’s own problems by searching oneself. This search for answers is the excavation. And it is a process that perhaps only ends in death. It presents in different ways – scholarship, business, engineering – but the pattern remains same. It is related to Jung’s saying that whatever is not yet conscious happens as Fate. And relates to many religious beliefs of God preparing one for greatness.

    As I typed that second paragraph, a thought came that the crucial element is authenticity. Soon as one makes a genuine step, that is, toward a personal aim, the onslaught starts. Aim, authenticity are the deal.

    It appears Alchemy is in great demand in this 21st century. Selfishly, I am glad to be part of this fulcrum/backdrop of all human endeavor :). I was only asking questions ceaseless, looking for possibilities left, right, centre, it brought me here. Interestingly, I’m quite adept at this alchemy thing – there probably really is Fate in Freedom.

    • I think your focus on authenticity is insightful, excellent, and dead-on. That’s the key. The foundational flaw, the original sin, the source of the primal Fall, is duplicity, not just before God but before oneself, which deeply, mystically, ontologically, amounts to the same thing. All forms of deep reclamation work (as it were), including alchemy, might be collectively framed as exercises in reclaiming a primal authenticity of being.

      As for fate and freedom, they really do converge when one stands at the center of this stream, don’t they?

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