Spare, Austin Osman

Spare, Austin Osman (1887–1956) – Artist and occultist who was born and lived in London. His automatic drawing, esoteric system of “atavistic resurgence,” and other trance-derived techniques such as the “death posture” have been likened to shamanistic practices. Spare was the youngest exhibitor ever at the Royal Academy in 1904 (with a bookplate drawn at the age of 14), won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art (among other awards), was hailed as an artistic genius by John Singer Sargent and Augustus John, and was an official war artist from 1914 to 1918. As a prolific draftsman throughout his life, he published much of his work in a series of volumes, including Earth Inferno (1905), A Book of Satyrs (1907), The Book of Pleasure (1909–13), and The Focus of Life (1921), as well as in the journals Form and The Golden Hind of which Spare was coeditor. Many of these publications detailed Spare’s occult philosophy, and although he was associated for a brief time with fellow occultist Aleister Crowley and his Argentum Astrum (Order of the Silver Star), Spare developed his own idiosyncratic system of atavistic resurgence, which incorporated sexual excitation and orgasm combined with “will” and “image” in a technique of ecstasy. Spirit familiars were encountered, and automatic drawings of them made, and the Native American spirit “Black Eagle” was a major source of Spare’s ecstatic inspiration. Spare’s automatic work preceded that of the surrealists by some years, and he developed an artistic technique he termed “siderealism,” wherein portraits especially became strangely distorted from naturalistic representation, as if being viewed through an otherworldly lens.

Spare claimed that much of his occultism derived from a relationship with the enigmatic “witch” Mrs. Patterson. After a period of obscurity and poverty in the 1920s, Spare returned to some prominence with his visionary pastel drawings of the 1950s during a wider revival of interest in the occult, around the time Spare became acquainted with the magicians Kenneth and Steffi Grant, who have done much to promote Spare’s work since his death. There have been several important posthumous works, including the “Book of Ugly Ecstasy” (1989), which evince the altered-state-of-consciousness derivation of Spare’s dark, grotesque imagery. Chaos Magickians and other occultists in the 1980s and 1990s associated aspects of Spare’s occult practices—particularly his techniques of automatic drawing and sigil magic, the “death posture,” and “free belief”—with an acultural “shamanism.”


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007


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