Austin Osman Spare

I’m not going to comment on Austin Osman Spare’s mystical and magical beliefs, since I don’t know enough about them at this point. Apparently AOS began doing automatic drawings early in the 20th century some time before the Surrealists began to develop it more systematically in the 1920s. Spare’s book “Automatic Drawing” was published in 1916 with illustrated examples of his technique. In it he refers to Leonardo da Vinci’s admonition to use one’s imagination to produce battles, trees, landscapes, figures, etc. in stains on walls, ashes of a fire or the shapes of clouds.

The automatic drawing technique was then further exploited by American artists like Jackson Pollock without their ever bothering to credit the Surrealists as progenitors, much less Austin Spare (since I don’t imagine they knew he’d existed nor were familiar with his work). On top of that the human or figurative content was dropped from the method, thus divorcing it from it’s connection to Leonardo and the human tradition in general. Pollock understood this at the end as he began to try to re-introduce figuration into his dripped skeins. But by then Clement Greenberg had codified Pollock’s  “drip painting” into a polemical weapon to be used to push  “dead European” art of the historical stage,  only to replace it with a series of sterile- isms forevermore in the land of the Zombies.

“Mr. Spare’s art is abnormal, unhealthy, wildly fantastic and unintelligible.” — The Observer

“And remember, you shall suffer all things and again suffer: until you have sufficient sufferance to accept all things.”–Austin Osman Spare


“The more Chaotic I am, the more complete I am.”–Austin Osman Spare


“For I am I: ergo, the truth of myself; my own sphinx, conflict, chaos, vortex—asymmetric to all rhythms, oblique to all paths. I am the prism between black and white: mine own unison in duality.”–Austin Osman Spare

“Great thoughts are against all doctrines of conformity”–Austin Osman Spare

“Darken your room, shut the door, empty your mind. Yet you are still in
great company – the Numen and your Genius with all their media, and your
host of elementals and ghosts of your dead loves — are there! They need no light by which to see, no words to speak, no motive to enact except through your own purely formed desire.”–Austin Osman Spare

“In our solitariness… great depths are sometimes sounded. Truth hideth in company.”–Austin Osman Spare

“Others believe in prayer . . . . have not all yet learnt, that to ask it to be denied? Let it be the root of your Gospel. Oh, ye who are living other peoples lives! Unless desire is subconscious, it is not fulfilled, no, not in this life. Then verily sleep is better than prayer. Quiescence is hidden desire, a form of “not asking”; by it the female obtains much from man.” –Austin Osman Spare

“The soul is the ancestral animals. The body is their knowledge.” — Austin Osman Spare

“Quietism, Buddhism, and other religions, everything which denies the flesh—is the great inferiority to God in ourselves, an escapism seeking sanctuary through fear of life and inability to accept ‘this reality’. They were hurt? Or was the odalisque unsatisfactory or too expensive? They expected too much for too little, or were too mean to pay—therefore: “All is illusion”. But the Stoic smilingly awaits the next shower of shit from heaven. Stoics are not Saviours, Saints or Heroes and are often confused and weary, yet they prefer to find their own way and to accept life as they find it. The schizophrenics, the melancholics and psychotics—they at least are secretive and inflict no religions on others. They prove the possibilities and utilities of ‘as if’ when totally accepted.”–Austin Osman Spare

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I'm an artist.
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12 Responses to Austin Osman Spare

  1. Abbas Mehran says:

    Thank you for this though provoking post, and welcome back from a long break. I am not in favour of any type of mysticism – all lies. The ability to use imagination, however, in producing contents of work of arts, is a gift. The result will not be any far away from reality.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks, Abbas. I appreciate the welcome back.
    I’m hoping to be able to get back to posting a bit more regularly.

    I’m not sure what you mean about any type of mysticism being all lies. Any number of artists had what could be considered mystical beliefs: William Blake, Michelangelo (devout follower of the radical Savonarola), George Inness, Mondrian.

    Da Vinci himself said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.” He and the Renaissance artists were working within a mystical belief system–God, Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ as the Holy Trinity. Art has its origins in magic and mythology.

    Anyway, it’s a complex discussion to say the least! And what you write is thought-provoking as well, my friend.

    • Abbas Mehran says:

      Thank you for explanation. And as you mentioned, this subject is complex, and I am not a good writer and cannot explain my meanings effectively. Artist of the past who truly believed in myth, God, religions, and so on, have created greatest artworks of all times. I have visited Buddhist caves in Dunhuang China. The Buddhist artists have created unsurpassable religious artwork. Those artists believed in what they could define the world with, and expressed their beliefs accordingly. I personally believe that we do not need any more addressing myth and mysticism in contemporary artwork. I know many contemporary artists who make work to be mysterious, unreadable to viewers and precious for some intellectual art critics who weigh the work by degree of vagueness, and valuable for art dealers to sell for high profits. I think any artwork can be considered mysterious – to be contained meanings beyond comprehension. The degree in which an artwork is mysterious, mystique, incomprehensible, obscure, religious, and so on should not be determinant factors in judging the work. We may need confronting ourselves with the today’s reality than mysteriousness. With apology for my naivety.

  3. trueoutsider says:

    Thank you, Abbas. I think you express yourself quite well and find myself in agreement with your words.

    I don’t consider anything you’re writing to be naive. I envy your visit to the Buddhist caves and glad to hear your mention of them. The French critic, Jean Baudrillard, has addressed this issue of art today being void of any kind of meaning other than simulating/repeating past Modernist achievements in rituals that have become increasingly threadbare and tedious. Or art objects that are superficial and decorative.

    Nihilism doesn’t create meaning. It destroys it. Duchamp’s gestures only had meaning in their opposition to traditional/conservative cultural values. Now that those values have been rendered null and void, there’s little point in continuing to draw mustaches on the Mona Lisa.

    Without the Mona Lisa to vandalize, there’s hardly a point to Duchamp’s art at all. Unless, of course, one wants to consider hat racks, urinals and bicycle wheels affixed to the top of a stool lasting visual achievements that rank next to your Chinese Buddhists, Renaissance masters, and right down the line.

    Duchamp made his point and then just kept on making it … to lesser and lesser effect since the system he was trying to tear down crumbled of its own accord due to the advent of television and capitalist efficiencies in the 1950s, having nothing whatsoever to do with Duchamp. His claim to be making art devoted to the life of the mind provided a convenient theoretical structure to hang the ever mounting load of bullshit that followed in his wake on.

    The arrogance of contemporary man is to think that silkscreens celebrities, encaustic American flags, bricks on gallery floors, neon sculptures and the like will have some kind of significance to people in the future (assuming people have a future, of course). Their only significance now is as commodities to trade in the international casino known as global capitalism. If anyone is having a profound experience viewing Dan Flavin’s colored fluorescent tubes or John Chamberlain’s wrecked car sculptures I’d suggest they should try getting a life.

  4. Paul Rumsey says:

    The illustration of the nymphs, demons, etc, dancing around a cauldron is by Maurice Garcon, from a set of similar illustrations.

  5. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks, Paul. I appreciate your keeping an eye on me. I’ve gotten lazy about checking my posts, as well as checking my intemperate comments. Too busy with other things. I’ve pulled the Garcon from the post and replaced it with a couple more Spare drawings. Might perhaps repost it on a separate Garcon post at some point..

  6. Paul Rumsey says:

    One of the drawings that you replaced it with is not by Spare either… the drawing of the deer is by Jeremy Hush.

  7. trueoutsider says:

    Aha. I knew it wasn’t by Spare! I could see Hush’s signature in the lower right corner. And hope you don’t mind my playing guess the artist with you–but doing this blog is often immensely boring because I get so little feedback of any kind. I have to admit I’m greatly impressed by your ability to not just pick out the false drawings, but that you also know the artist that made them. While I knew who Kubin was (though not deeply), I was unfamiliar with Hush and Garcon.

    Of course, the contrivance of little figures running around at the bottom (among other things) give it away as not by Spare, who worked out of his deep subconscious–or spirit world depending on how you view him. That’s the key difference between deep artistic practice and high illustration. And I don’t write that to in any way diminish Hush’s work, which I appreciate.

    Of course the two things can also intermingle in ways that aren’t so clear…. say in the work of Richard Dadd. Or a lot of Dalî’s later work. Anyway, perhaps at this point in art history there’s little reason to attempt to define these things that closely since it’s invariably highly speculative. But since I’m running a blog I have to say something, right?

    Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, 1855-64

  8. mfj823 says:

    The AOS drawings are great. Do you have any more info? I’d like to see more like the blue ground/pastel piece. Thanks – the blog is great.

  9. trueoutsider says:

    MFJ, I’m basically constrained to have to find images with google searches. A few of the images I shot from my own book of Osman’s Book of Satyrs (thus the haphazard quality). I do want to do another post on him, and will keep looking for pastel work if I can find it. Vaguely reminiscent of a Redon on a simplistic formal level.

    Odilon Redon, 1912

  10. Chris Schmidgall says:

    I love Austin O Spare’s work and remain something of an agnostic psychonaut so wouldn’t judge his mysticism, though I understand your point about mystification as an end unto itself.
    I’ve found myself prone to doubts and paranoia sometimes when I engage in an automatic drawing or painting and find myself shaking my head at what appears before me. Although I’m not particularly superstitious I begin to question what is directing my hand and whether or not I’m opening myself to malevolent forces. That which emerges isn’t always pleasant. Of course, the unconscious is a rich source of material and I shouldn’t be all that surprised.
    I felt compelled to point out that Duchamp has some masterful paintings such as Nude Descending a Staircase. Although I understand the problem of the reactionary nature of some other works of his, I also appreciate his sense of humor and the laugh he and others have had at the expense of those who’s driving impulse is to purchase and own art, as well as the worship of those artists deemed canonical or fashionable.
    Enjoying your conversation and thanks for this entry on Spare.

  11. trueoutsider says:

    Hi, Chris. I understand your concerns about working in the deep subconscious. But it’s either that or being an interior designer. Of course, in the art world of today all that’s called for is interior design work.

    The problem for me with Duchamp’s nihilistic approach to art-making is that it’s led ineluctably to this kind of posturing gibberish:

    But, yes, I do like the Nude paintings he did for a brief period before deciding painting was beneath contempt. And he’d rather we start off on the path to having roundtables of bullshit artists pondering what art is and the deep meanings residing in the work of Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger… ad nauseum.

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