Austin Osman Spare
The Art Journal 1908
There must be few people in London interested in art who do not know the name of Austin Osman Spare. The recent exhibition of his drawings made a sudden reputation for him, and the few who before the bringing together of his work had knowledge of his extraordinary talent are part now of a considerable public. This, at all events, is certain: nobody who saw the drawings at the Bruton Gallery can have been indifferent to them. They may have stirred repulsion, or an ugly form of curiosity, only here and there rebuked by some pure beauty in the work, but no one can have seen them dully and forgotten what they are like. The drawing on the catalogue-cover had power enough to turn people away from the exhibition, or allure them to it, not only because power is interesting, but because of the kind of jeering, loose-lipped image of life suggested. It is a hateful image of evil sight, the coarse-fleshed face of the eighteenth century Satan-type, but expressive of no idea of energy even in destruction or accusation.
In the power shown in producing convincing form the drawing on the catalogue is a real introduction to the art of Austin Spare, and it is partly true, too, in its suggestion of a rout of foul shapes thronging into sight. But it is not completely true as an indication of the actual contents of this copious and forcible art, and I believe it to be no true introduction to what Spare has the power to create, if his art from being the almost involuntary utterance of all that seethes in his mind becomes a reasoned expression of the essential.
At present, it seems to me, the form of Mr Spare's art is a process, not a conclusion. He is still very young, and much of the work shown at the Bruton Galleries was done some years ago; at any time since he was fourteen. It is an extraordinary out-put for a boy, especially when one considers that what was shown is only a small part of what he has done. But this copious discharge of imagery is, I think, rather the preparation for creative art than the declaration of it. The passing from the stage when an idea possesses the mind to the stage when the mind possesses the idea, is held, in a true sequence of the seven ages, to mark the passing of youth to manhood. Though on the technical side Austin Spare has developed through discipline a considerable strength of self-criticism, he has been occupied with reproducing the forms of his imagination almost without question or reason. The present result of this unquestioning reproduction of the forms that rise before his inward eye is to fill his art with monstrous and morbid shapes. Yet it is not really paradoxical to assert the very violence and distortion in proof of the essential healthiness and naturalness of his imaginative faculties. It is not paradoxical. But needs explanation, since the reconciliation of the fantastical with the normal is in the personality of the artist, and that needs to be realised before his art can be appraised.
There is so much intelligence, and so little imagination, in modern art that the interpretation put on fantasies such as those of Mr. Spare is that they are the result of deliberate invention or imitation. There is an undoubted strain of likeness in much of his black-and-white work to that of Beardsley, and a similarity of mood in dealing with certain aspects of life. These qualities make it certain to the casual observer that the source of formal inspiration is the art of Beardsley, and that, having seen distorted ideas of good and evil enformed with beauty in the designs of the illustrator of 'Salome', Mr. Spare proceeded to an artificial intensification of 'fact', which should be more stimulating than the reality. More learned critics have assigned a great deal else in Austin Spare's work to the influence of other potent fantasists Ð to Goya, to Rops, to Hokusai, and to Greiner of Munich. As a matter of fact, Mr. Spare only made acquaintance with the art of Beardsley after he had done some of his most Beardsley-like designs, and with other of these "influences" he has not yet come into contact. When he does, if his work shows the effect, it will be - as the case of 'The Magician' and other designs that reflect the qualities of Japanese colour-prints because he finds his own language used by a master who can teach him farther secrets of rhythm and contrast and phraseology.
The source of his art is himself, the deepest, not yet fully known or controlled self, from which, by thought, proceeds creative power of every kind. In his case the sense of inward sight is extraordinarily vivid. The drawing of himself removing the curtain from the mirror, and calling attention to what is seen therein, is as near possible to a precise image of his feeling about his work. Technically, of course, he identifies himself with it. If it is good, he feels striven to make it so; if it is bad, he must seek to remedy the failure. If with all effort it fails to be expressive of the effortless vision, he is the critic that destroys. But on "good" or "bad" qualities in his design other than aesthetic he has no self-criticism to bestow, though he is as ready as though another hand had drawn them, to dislike certain more violent and repulsive of them.
Austin Spare's attitude is the normal and healthy attitude of the artist, but we are, most of us, so beset with self-consciousness that it is improbable we will ever be generally dissociated from what is morbid or extravagant in his art, or not be held to show immoral tendencies if his art expresses no moral judgements. But I think that he himself, in steadier and more complete realisations of true vision, will dissociate himself from characterisation of the foul and horrible.
The unimaginative reason which assigns the appearances of things to categories of good and evil is a law of prudence, not of creation, and therefore inoperative in art. Mr. Spare was wise about that at sixteen years old. In the Earth Inferno he wrote of "The Chaos of the Normal", and that chaos is the apparent divided into opposites by the unimaginative reason. But, in the same remarkable book, he wrote "revere the Kia", and the "kia" in the nomenclature that he, like Blake, has invented for his needs of expression, is the indivisible point, the spiritual reason in man, and, in greater creation, the boundless power of which it is the reflection. That single and pure reason, the harmony that is born of peace and strife and the union of all other opposites, is not the inspiration of art that elaborates the horrible and morbid. When Ð it may be now Ð Mr. Spare has realised his power to control and purify his imagination, it must be that the forms of his art will image no more a "Chaos of the abnormal", but a Cosmos, an ordering of beauty in the image of perfect beauty.
That is no mere hope generated by the desire that so strong and penetrative an imagination and a technique already remarkable in expressive draughtsmanship and imaginative colour, should fulfil a fine achievement. The art of Mr. Spare, as it now is, is not the true reflection of what is essential in his vision of life. The output of a phase of morbid imagination in an artist of twenty is not to be taken as significant of what he will do later, even if it agrees with the whole personality. But already Austin Spare is reaching towards greater simplicity if idea, and, at the same time, towards a fuller technical accomplishment, more assured draughtsmanship and composition, the use of colour in oil and tempera as well as water-colour. The imaginative and aesthetic issue must be a matter if deep interest to all who know his work and realise the sources of it.
Through the Mystic Door
The Dwellers on the Threshold
Introduction: A Book of Satyrs