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.