This is a film about Austin Osman Spare, perhaps the greatest artist ever to be ignored / overlooked / considered too weird by mainstream art history. Spare’s work embraced religion, the occult, sex, magic, atavisms, ghosts and cockneys in ways never fully understood, or adequately appreciated.
It doesn’t have a title, yet.
What it does have, and is gaining more of (perhaps as you read this) is footage of Spare’s extraordinary artistic works along with the South East London urban sprawl that he made his home, plus interviews with foremost authorities / experts / fanatics.
Discovering Spare is one of the most rewarding art appreciation experiences there is. When completed this film will stand as a pretty good first step on that journey.
He was born in 1886, son of a city of London police officer and, aged 17, had drawings accepted by Royal Academy for their 1904 summer show. Prior to that he’d been awarded a scholarship, attended evening classes, worked designing posters and, then, a job working on stained glass. After the exhibition he went on to become one of the era’s most promising, and radical (work suffused by the occult!), young artists, strutting about the London scene like “a Greek god” and marrying a chorus girl; then came the war.
World War One saw demand for Spare’s work decline, the collapse of his marriage, a failed arts journal and conscription into the Army Medical Corps as a hospital orderly. After the war he travelled to the Western Front to paint the devastation for the Medical Corps official history, returning to find a changed cultural scene in which he no longer wanted to participate.
Having moved to Borough, heart of South London’s working class sprawl, and rejecting utterly the values and lifestyle of the upper classes, things reached a head in 1927 with the publication of his book ‘Anathema of Zos, A Sermon to the Hypocrites’. In which he wrote (to his erstwhile appreciators):
“Your theology is a slime pit of gibberish become ethics. In your world where ignorance and deceit constitute felicity, everything ends miserably, besmirched with fratricidal blood.”
...which sums it all up really.
Between the wars he lived and worked in the slums, developing his mystical art, painted local people, moving to Brixton, exhibited works at his flat and being offered a commission to paint Hitler (which he refused, probably). Hitler, or rather his Luftwaffe, would factor again in Spare’s life when, in 1941, a raid obliterated a good portion of Walworth Rd, Spare’s flat included.
Crippled, homeless, destitute and unable to paint, Spare moved in with a friend and, by 1947. was back on it; frequently exhibiting in excess of 100 paintings per show. He proceeded to paint, drink and smoke with inspired veracity, with the papers hailing him as the “father of surrealism” (“...he’s a cockney”), and a new school of admirers visiting his paintings not in galleries, but the South London pubs with which Spare was so well acquainted.
This renaissance was cut short in 1956, when the burden of genius, and unhealthy living, finally took its toll. Spare’s life ended on May 15, 1956.