The Forgotten Occult Artist Who Refused to Paint for Hitler
A collection of works by Austin Osman Spare is on display at The Last Tuesday Society in London.
Self Portrait c. 1910. Courtesy of The Last Tuesday Society/The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History.
He was a man Alan Moore called, "One of the most overlooked British artists in art history," and now, 61 years after his death, an exhibition at London museum and cocktail bar, The Last Tuesday Society, is bringing Austin Osman Spare back to life. Held in the venue's emerald rooms, the show isn't huge (around 35 artworks), but it is magic. Viktor Wynd, The Last Tuesday Society's curator and co-founder, has wanted to exhibit Spare since opening in 2009, but due to complications, admits, "It has been the most difficult show I've ever tried to organize out of the 50 or so that I've curated, I'm extremely pleased that I've finally done it."
Born in 1886, Spare was a rising star in Edwardian London. The youngest entrant to the Royal Academy, with his draughtsmanship compared to Dürer and Michelangelo, it seemed Spare's star would continue to rise. But, as Wynd highlights, "Worldly success wasn't of much interest to him," and Spare's sexual and artistic perversions, often synonymous, led him to the sidelines of society, where he lived, he wrote, as "swine with the swine."
Spare often exhibited in local pubs, making The Last Tuesday Society an apt place to view his surviving work. Says Wynd, "For me these works need a lifetime of study and quiet contemplation […] this way people can come and spend several evenings, or days with them."
Attracted to what he himself described as "character and not beauty" in his subjects and company, Spare drew the workmen and women around him. Influenced by the mythological Cult of Pan, Spare would occasionally "satyrize" his Cockney workmen, imbuing them with goat-like qualities.
Spare fraternized with, and reportedly mocked, the notorious occultist, poet, and artist Aleister Crowley. "I suspect that Spare was serious and Crowley a charlatan, and Spare had no time for charlatans," says Wynd. Regardless, the two shared similar interests and Spare's art continued to become increasingly paranormal and surreal over time, even resulting in language—the 'alphabet of desire'—used to communicate with spirits. His graphical lexicon is visible alongside the sigils that frequently appear in his works.
In an era fascinated by Western eroticism and orgiastic states connected with the unconscious mind, Spare would journey into trances, inducing what he calls, in The Book of Pleasure, a "voluntary insanity" he believed to be "the condition of genius."
Not on display is Self Portrait As Hitler (1936), which, according to Spare's biographer Phil Baker, the artist claimed resulted in a portrait request from Hitler himself. Spare declined, rebuking the dictator: "If you are superman, let me be for ever animal." When Spare's home-studio was bombed in 1941, he cited it as "Hitler's revenge." A widowed Spare to moved to Brixton, where he mothered a brood of stray cats and survived on food donations from the public until his death in 1956.
This exhibition is a comprehensive example of Spare's remarkable, mercurial talent. When asked his personal favorite from the exhibition, Wynd replies, "For me it's too early to decide, but when the exhibition comes down at the end of September and I have to return the ones that don't belong to me I know there will be one that hurts more than all the others."
The exhibition, Austin Osman Spare, is on view at The Last Tuesday Society until the end of September 2017.