Monday, December 05, 2016

Austin Osman Spare at Atlantis Bookshop

The venerable but never stuffy Atlantis Book Shop in London, right by The British Museum is currently hosting an exhibition to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the death of Austin Osman Spare, artist and occultist. It is only on until the 18th of this month and being in the basement of a bookshop with an entry fee of a fiver, it is not the big, fancy London exhibition that it should be, but it is done with love and enthusiasm. It seems too, that this is the way Spare might have liked it: he spent most of his life avoiding the bright lights and big budgets of the London art world, which the quality of his work fitted him for, preferring instead to exhibit in pubs and to keep his secrets. 

There is barely an image or object here in this exhibition that doesn't speak to how astonishing this man was. The humble oil painting 'Self Portrait as a Magician' painted in his early 20s, shows a beautiful young man with an intense gaze and an ability to choose just a very few symbolic items to economically represent himself. The self-portraits from later life show a man who has lost none of the intensity of youth. The image above might not be the best choice for the cover of a program but in the flesh the two white specks in his eyes draw the viewers eyes into a netherworld behind the face. Spare's portrait of Crowley, his lover for a while, done from a photograph, is one of the many images that just leap from the wall: Spare draws Crowley's eyes as entirely black and it makes an intriguing contrast with the light in his own eyes. The paintings and drawings that come from Spare's magical work are compelling too as a kind of self-portraiture, a self-portrait of the very deepest recesses of a mind at its most atavistic.

As well as the artwork, the exhibition has two large cases of letters, artifacts and ephemera and it is here that glimpses of AOS's mind can be seen at work in a different way. There is a letter in which he requests the loan of one of these new-fangled "biros" for his "automatic work", presumably he had heard how a ball point pen glides smoothly across paper and wanted to harness that quality in his automatic drawing. As well as little insights of that kind there is also the opportunity to see his sketches and scribbles and manuscript writings, adorned as they are by the magical sigils that he reinvented as a part of his magical system, and one is struck looking at them that here is the very beginning of a hundred websites and probably more books all following his style. 

The exhibition is a must-see for anyone with an interest in outsider art, in 20th century art, or in 20th century occultism.


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