When I was a teenager I used to collect a magazine called ‘Man, Myth and Magic‘. It came out in weekly installments and was an encyclopedia of the Supernatural. It was full of strange religions, magical rituals, seances, ectoplasm, pictures of esoteric symbolism. Told me all about Madam Blavatsky and how to properly use a divining rod. All the things you need, living in a terrace house on the edge of a rubbish tip in Leeds. On the cover of the very first edition was a mesmerizing painting of a man/demon by an artist called Austin Osman Spare. Which I never forgot.
That being said I never got as far as S for Spare. Maybe getting to S for Sex sufficed. It was only later that I came across Spare again when researching Aleister Crowley. Spare was part of the movement that grew up around the 1st World War that was obsessed with the afterlife and the occult. The chief alter boy of which, was of course the Great Beast himself, who was an admirer of Spare’s work and wanted him to join his group. Spare refused, he wanted to follow his own magical path.
He was born in 1886 within shrieking distance of Smithfields Meat Market. He was blessed with a lot of hair and a lot of talent. He very quickly found his own alternative religion, Zos and Kos and developed his own image system of werewolves, satyrs, hermaphrodites, phantasmagoric transmogifications supercalorfragilisticexpialidocious. His art found beauty in ugliness, very Aubrey Beardsley to begin with, but with his own idiosyncratic twist.
Spare also liked to give his own life history a twist. For instance he said that he had been involved in a major battle in the First World War but spent most of his time in a barracks in Blackpool, a medical orderly, sticking hyperdermics into the bottoms of new recruits. He also said that Hitler, before the Second World War, had admired one of his paintings so much he invited him to Germany to do his portrait.
I imagine Spare going up to Hitler’s mountain eerie and a huge row erupting when Spare refuses the Furher. And then on the way down the door of the cable car is opened and Spare is tossed into the void. (Well it is to be an Animation).
Back on earth, the sweet orange peel strewn earth of South London, what Spare really wanted to paint was not despots or people in posh dresses but the working class people around him, the market stall traders, the char ladies, the pub landlords, the wrinkled and worn out. He was especially fond of wrinkles.
Hitler had his revenge of course. During the blitz, a German bomb hit Spare’s studio, plumb, scattering those canvas fragments of London life across the blackened city.
Spare was often scattered. He seems to have spent most of his life in doss houses, boarding rooms , eventually living in a basement owned by a lady called Mrs Pain. But he persisted. This is what I like about him. He continued with his art no matter what. He kept his hair in more ways than one. I think of him as a spiritual descendant of William Blake, another artist with wonderous visions sprouting proffusely from his mind while at the same time enduring the attention of those twin demons, Poverty and Neglect.
What were his occult beliefs?
He believed in astral projection. In wishes called Sigils which in order to work had to be buried in the memory like seeds and then forgotten . In curses. That your innermost fears and desires could take shape outside the body and haunt one. Very much an animators way of thinking. He practiced Automatic art. A diving down into the bottom of the artistic tea-cup, into chaos rather than a pattern of strict rules, to discover in the shapes and outlines you divine there, what it is you really want to express.
My project ZOS began with this method. It is based on my dreams inspired by Spare’s life and art and the occult ambience of London It is not intended to be a documentary. There may be anachronisms, there will be anachronisms. I will get facts wrong. I will put in memories that stem from me. For instance as a child I used to walk past an abatoir on the way home from school. Sometimes the grilled door would be ajar and besides inhaling a nose-curdling whiff you would see some strange sights: a man ritually dipping his feet into a tray of pure white disinfectant.
ZOS will be a hybrid made up various forms of animation from traditional stop-frame to Maya. Whatever I find to hand I will put into the alchemical pot and see how it bubbles. Does this sound like an unholy mess? Well it maybe, but I know what I want to say. There is a thread I am following all the way through.
Spare embodies for me persistence of vision and artistic endeavor, something as pertinent now, in these austere times, as it ever was.
Austin Osman Spare : Man, Myth and Magic.
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