Austin Osman Spare
SYMBOLOGY IN ÆSTHETICS
IN RELATION TO
THE ART OF AUSTIN OSMAN SPARE.
Artwork: The International Quarterly of Arts and Crafts.
vol. 2. October December, 1925 No. 5.
Among the many complexities that have transpired in the evolution of the present social order is the changing nature of artistic criteria and the more limited sphere of æsthetic service.
At one time art was the direct outcome of the needs of man for inter-relationship with forces governing his conditions, and indicative of strongly felt social emotions directed to functional service found the special channels for expression which handed down the ages the traditional form of dance, ritual, drama, architecture the national heritage of mankind. But the relative values in life are changed. We are less simple and direct: language has become "a dictionary of faded metaphors," art a process of ornament added to decay; symbols have lost their original significance and the fundamental basis of traditional is obscured. Thus is it commonly realised emotions have given place to arbitrary inhibitions and "modern complexes" and art became a specialised function forced to serve an individual aim, which frequently limited the artist to a "coterie" of appreciators. In these days it is said "art is the transmission to others of a special feeling experienced by the artist," and though analysis might prove this to be equally true of any other period since art became individual in any sense of the word, yet it specially emphasises the need for change in the nature of our approach and acceptance. We, as spectators, are bound to participate in the individual vision and in the realisation of the æsthetic values which serve to convey the artist's intention rather than the expression of ideas as apprehended by the mass in general.
Ambiguity must occur, however, in an age of transition and unfixed belief. In the search for new aesthetic foundations principles are employed as ends rather than less obviously as means and much of the ultimate intention is frustrated or incomplete.
The language of the emotions expressed in arbitrary and unintelligible symbolism bewilders public and critic alike who are at a loss for some "æsthetic plumb-line" and the distance between the artist and the public perceptibly widens, for every picture cannot tell its story in terms of ideas associated with objects, although the general determination is it should. Moreover it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the absurdity veiling incapacity and the honest experiment. We are fearful of "fancy tricks" and "pose," blissfully unconscious we accept them every day in more discreet disguise.
Yet the truth is "one of the returns that haunt our civilisation and our art." And in this return to Nature, even though it may take the form of more grotesque complexity, we again realise in art that condition allied to music itself, as rather an apprehension of conscious than rational representations, and it moves us similarly as the proportions and spaces of architecture (which Shopenhauer has aptly termed Frozen music), its harmonies manifest almost by some mathematical co-relation.
And as in the development of musical orchestration, a new factor was introduced through the divorce of the sounds from the words which had given a certain significance and shape which ed through the construction of musical composition upon tonality and rhythmic balance in statement, to the re-discovery of the principles which had been in existence from the beginning (which had their root and origin in the bodily movement of dance, the unqualified speech of the emotions that original "gesture" of mankind towards the forces conditioning his existence), thus in the same way it has come to be said of modern drawing, that its essence is a "dancing on paper" which exemplifies the artist's ability to co-ordinate his ideas and emotional reactions, and like the Chinese draughtsmen of old - those past-masters in the art of linear expressiveness, "the strokes of his brush announce him in the nobility of his soul, or in its meanness and limitation."
Personality then is the factor that counts; thus the secret of art lies with the artist himself and with Buffon we might say "le style, c'est l'homme."
A cursory analysis of the elements of draughtsmanship could dismiss them briefly, linear and functional, the first concerning itself with the "calligraphic" property by which the artist expresses his dexterity and skill, while in the second the functional, the value lies in the expressiveness of the contour to clothe the inner form and which exists as the bounding of masses serving in the co-operation and co-ordination with other lines in the sense of part of living organic unity. But the term "line for line's sake" which we might apply to the calligraphic "gesture" will have the virtue of line for form's sake even though it may not fulfil the functional purpose of conveying the simplest and most effective resolution of a complex problem. We are told the Japanese "norm" of beauty lay in the curve of the letter S, which analysis might prove an abstract disposition of geometrical relations, the intellectual and emotional content of which lies buried as in a glyph and pertains to abstract qualities which reason ultimately cuts out of the universe, again among abstruse problems of personality and psycho-analysis we are informed by a certain professor on art that in the observation of a beautiful curve "it is also possible that there will be an effect on glandular secretions, which will in turn intensify the striped muscles" which, however, we incline to dismiss as reduction ad absurdum, or merely the crude recognition of physical re-action implying obscure psychical and symbolic significance. None the less, to return to drawing itself, do we find the preoccupation with the possibilities of line implied in the functional purpose, which in the extract of the structural essentials as directed by the genius or idiosyncrasy of the artist and the realisation of a unified whole created by the co-relationship of parts, in virtue of rhythmic movement or gesture becomes significant form.
And we are here confronted with the problem of what is "significant" form (another mis-used term), also with what have hitherto been termed peculiar divergences of the art known as E. and W. (distinctions now being rapidly swept aside) but which for argument's sake consist in the latter case, the preoccupation with problems of rendering the human form in three dimensions and the study of sequences of lines and masses necessary to hold groups or objects in recessive design, the two ultimate results being the idea of pure form, or that careful imitation of nature, where the importance bestowed to each particular detail ultimately tends towards the diminution of a sense of synthesised whole and to produce the effect of mere juxtaposed facts, while the other tendency has been toward the subservience of detail to the whole, as in the application of fact to functional en; Indian art overwhelmingly rich in detail is enclosed in rhythmic volume. In this way "the realisation of form is not merely a visual experience but rather the ultimate product of memory and imagination in which the basic element of composition is served in the establishment of definite relations between formal perceptions through which disparate elements can comprise an organic unity which has no existence in nature and is entirely arbitrary." The ultimate success lies in the harmonious relationship of the variety of elements. This quality may apply to results achieved through pictorial representations as to abstract design, and here the general tendency is to confuse the issues. It is too obvious that some idea lies behind distortion, or the emptiest resolution of a problem of rhythm, or the abstract geometrical solution, but in the drawings of Austin Spare the principles are exemplified by certain traditional means, and the natural impulse is to attract to the elements of symbolism more of the values attached to actual objects. But although there may be elements of the conscious in his work, the fact is rather in common with the greater draughtsman of the past, where we discover the similar and unceasing search for the grasp of structural principles and convention is indirectly served and continually reinforced by an intimate knowledge of Nature.
Therefore the problem is with Austin Spare as with the Chinese, not the actual application of abstract principles of design but arriving at an epitomised statement, the design or composition realised rather in the inherent nature of the matter itself, which from consummate mastery of the medium allies itself with the commentary sense of movement as in the sense of rhythm impressing material things.
Thus if we come to the analogy of the rhythmical movements of the body where the expressiveness and power lies in the co-related order, and to the realisation that those precise aesthetic qualities we discover are not bound in the formal relation but by the fusing secret in the nature of the emotional re-action which directs the artist to selection, and pertaining to consciousness, unites the precise relationship of beauty with truth as subjective and psychological, being the harmonious occupation of consciousness with aesthetic impression, and becomes the natural functioning of the mind itself. Æsthetically then, the line functionality expresses the psychological content through which idea becomes implicit in the form. Thus, the fact that though the symbol is clear or the emotions transcribed seems ever a matter of conjecture, yet the artist seeks ever to make constructions consistent and self-contained which appear to have ultimate value in themselves.
Apart from this, however, art which id more directly expressive of the individual and obviously social emotions, which implies the retention of memory images and the re-expression of them as symbols clothed in analogous form, demands what a certain critic in considering these drawings of Austin Spare's at a recent exhibition at St. George Gallery described as occult initiation. Meaning (interpreting the term in his way), the power to translate ideas into terms of value attached to actual life. Yet, with all our knowledge of the abstruse problems of psycho-analysis, the discovery of the sublimated wish to kill our father and marry our grandmother is not furthering an appreciation of art as art.
Mainly in the drawings of Austin Spare we discover the ideals which inspired the finest of linear artists, and the final aim is incorporate as the principles, which are manifest through the conditions, rather than in the nature of the material employed, which invests him with the capacity, without recourse to symbol, to transcribe fact to idea. Therefore we see more than the object represented, something which arrests and profoundly moves us, even if it were by the exquisite power with which he (to quote again) "alternates those essays in pure classicism with hideous deformities" and which, by virtue of ART cease to be deformities.
For, as he himself has said, "Art is that beauty which may be born of anything; but not by a formula of balance and proportion, beauty itself"; and again, "Ugliness is that which the formula does not allow: hence there is never beauty without this ugliness which becomes transmitted by its super-abundance." This is nearer the realisation of the aesthetic values of the "harmony of opposites" or the "union of contrarities," which is the "free belief" of art and conditions of "vital allegory."
Yet again as someone has put it, "every artist who carries furthest his own innermost feelings, and poignantly reveals the intimate impulses of mankind, shocks us as manifest revelations of ourselves." We are affright, as confronted with the scalpel exposed to our disease. For truly are we ever governed by the "complexes" of morality and move continually toward a dream world wherein the ideal balance of mind and matter is stamped with the nature of our evasions. We look to art for mere moments of beauty, modes of escape from reality, achieved by sense of annihilation, which implies too vividly the need for stimulant or sedatives as Nietzsche puts it, "to make life possible." Yet art has no necessary concern with medicine and morals, though art can be employed in anything, in what are called unholy as more holy means invested with the grace of art that consumer of antipathies. The "initiate" in this case is he who can accept his grace seasoned with salt. For has not Emerson, in describing the sceptic, acknowledged him, the mystic, who, unafraid to tread the vestibule of the temple, discovers in the Mount of Vision the beautitude is partial and deformed! With such an eye of inward vision did that other philosopher lament:
"I see and have seen worse things; divers things so hideous that I should neither speak of all matters nor even to keep silent about some of them, namely, men who lack everything excepting they have too much of one thing; men who are nothing more than a big eye, a big mouth; or something else big. Reversed cripples I call such men."
"We are such stuff as dreams are made of." Inadequate expression, conglomeration of half-realised experiences monsters and mutilated fragments. Mediæval times more picturesque less squeamish, combined the head of dog and serpent's tail, angels and devils interchange confidence in that grotesquely unsophisticated intermixture of objectivity and subjectivity. Yet whatever the symbols, the function of art remains, the expression of an eternal verity, which, as in the art of Austin Spare, records a disinterested state of mind as the setting free of a disembodied function of the spirit.