Occult philosophy pioneer and artist, intimate friend and associate of Aleister Crowley - these are just some of the roles Austin Osman Spare played in his life, which began in 1886 and ended in 1956. In spite of his subsequent fame, not nearly enough is known about this figure's unique and incandescent genius; even today, Austin Osman Spare facts are most certainly in short supply in the popular consciousness.
A hidden giant among historical occult figures (the term "the most famous unknown of the century," coined by novelist Djuna Barnes about herself, comes to mind), Spare invented his own occult symbols, spiritualist theory of evolution, and variations on surrealism, and his theories on Chaos Magick are the stuff of Zos Kia Cultus history legend. Read on to explore Austin Osman Spare stories that illustrate how this pioneer of mysticism attained a permanent place in the history of the occult, and to explore the lasting impact Austin Osman Spare art continues to have on 21st century visionaries.
Though he's now primarily known (and renowned) as a visual artist, Spare is almost equally famous for having developed his own school of magico-religious philosophy. Called Zos Kia Cultus, the system combined sex magick, religious ceremonies, elemental forces, spiritualism, and the subconscious mind. Unpacking Spare's complex, intellectual beliefs (which equate the biblical Four Horseman to sexual powers) requires a list of its own, but his ideas on the Sabbath are worth a gander.
In an unpublished manuscript entitled The Zoetic Grimoire of Zos, Spare describes the Sabbath as
“...an inverse-reversion for self-seduction; an undoing for a divertive conation. Sex is used as the technique and medium of a magical act. It is not only erotic satisfaction; the sensualist is made detached, controlled, until final sublimation. His whole training is designed to render him submissive and obedient [to the Witch] until he can control, transmute, and direct his magical energy wherever desired, by cold and amoral passion.”
As per Zos Kia Cultus, said Sabbath involves a ritual presided over by a witch Spare describes as
“...usually old, grotesque, worldly, and libidinously learned; and is as sexually attractive as a corpse. Yet she becomes the supreme vehicle of consummation. This is necessary for the transmutation of the sorcerer's personal aesthetic culture, which is thereby destroyed. Perversion is used to overcome moral prejudice or conformity. By persistence, the mind and desire become amoral, focused, and entirely acceptive, and the life-force of the Id (the Great Desire) is free of inhibitions prior to final control.
Thus, ultimately, the Sabbath becomes a deliberate sex orgy for the purpose of exteriorization, thus giving reality to the autistic thought by transference. Sex is for full use, and he who injures none, himself does not injure.”
A close friendship (which may have involved romance) was born when Spare's work caught the attention of famed occultist Aleister Crowley. For a time, Crowley was "a patron and champion" of Spare's work, which he showcased in his influential The Equinox: The Review of Scientific Illuminism book series; Spare was also invited to join Crowley's Thelemite order, the Argenteum Astrum.
Eventually, Spare came to dislike his friend and mentor's "emphasis on strict hierarchy and organization, and [became] heavily critical of the practice of ceremonial magic," as his biographer Phil Baker put it. This drove him away from the Crowley circle.
Some believe that Crowley made sexual advances towards Spare, which the latter found "repellent," though these reports remain unverified. Others believe that the two were bonafide lovers. In any case, Crowley wrote an erotic poem called The Twins, in which he "compared himself and Spare to the incestuous gods Horus and Set," as Ultraculture put it. It reads, in part:
"Death ! how lithe, how blithe
Are these male incestuous vigils!
Ah! this is the spasm that kills us!
Wherefore I solemnly affirm
This twofold Oneness at the term.
Asar on Asi did beget
Horus twin brother unto Set.
Now Set and Horus kiss, to call
The Soul of the Unnatural
Forth from the dusk; then nature slain
Lets the Beyond be born again."
One of the most important chapters in Spare's life, and one of the most vital influences on the forces that drove his work, was his relationship with an older woman he called Mrs. Paterson. This Harold and Maude-like union started in Spare's adolescence, when he encountered an "elderly fortune teller" who claimed to be descended from a line of Salem witches who had managed to escape the fiery judgment of Cotton Mather.
Legend has it the Paterson-Spare relationship was sexual, despite the age difference, though some experts dispute this (Spare sometimes referred to Paterson as his "second mother" ... not the most sexual of sobriquets). According to Spare, Paterson also had the ability to transform herself into a beautiful young girl at will, and he did a series of portraits of her in both forms.
Though most historians have described her as "poorly educated," Paterson is also said to have possessed a "powerful grasp of abstract metaphysical concepts" and "strong occult powers."
One of Spare's most well-known works is a scathing, satirical self-portrait in which he depicts himself as Hitler. The painting is a sardonic commentary on authoritarianism in the art world, and is made all the most interesting by Spare's historical connection (or deliberate disconnection, as some would describe it) to the Fuhrer.
Though the story has never been verified, Spare claims to have been commissioned to paint a portrait of Hitler, an appeal he received after one of his paintings was purchased by the German embassy. To this request, Spare is rumored to have retorted: "If you are a superman, let me be forever animal." (He later changed the details of the story, and claimed that he had gone to Berlin, created the portrait, and brought it back to England with him to use as anti-Nazi propaganda).