Monday, 18 October 2010

Mysticism and the Northern Way

My new essay 'Mysticism and the Northern Way' is now available at
Comments and discussion welcome!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Fallen Visionary, Rising Dark Star: Austin Spare seen in South London

Just in case you only read this far, I shall cut to the chase: If South London is at all reachable for you, do yourself a massive favour and, before November 14th, go to 'Austin Spare: Fallen Visionary', at the Cuming Museum, near the Elephant and Castle tube. Details at

This exhibition is the first in a public gallery since Spare's death in 1956, and situated on the Walworth Road it brings the rich contrasts of his life into focus better than any I've seen. On the one hand, we have a description of Spare by one journalist as 'a scruffy tramp living in a cellar,' and on the other, we see a fantastically rich inner life, the world of a truly free man.

This contrast between material poverty and artistic and magical riches is a central source of Spare's impact. He rebelled against the fame-machine of the art world, choosing instead to live among 'ordinary' people, people whose history is not recorded.

He immortalizes faces and bodies from this invisible world, celebrating life's immediacy in portraits of those who, in the words of an advert for models, have 'no claim to beauty'. In so doing, he celebrates the world and the flesh just as it is, in all its scruffiness and vulnerability to age and death, as well as all its openness to fleshly ecstasy, and rescues it from being colonized by abstract perfection, by bourgeois Edwardian values. Spare's people are real beings, whose flesh has not been virtualized into an ideal. Instead, his art reaches towards renewal of the secret springs of our vitality, his formula of the New Sexuality.

This was also the first time I'd seen his war artist paintings. The figures of men and women seem photographic, yet faded, leached out into a grey world, wrapped in camo or bandages, muted by military secrecy, yet here too he finds life, in the form of a nursing orderly, a young woman caught in the moment of turning to look at the artist.

Spare explores a very different dimension of female beauty in his portraits of film stars. Radiant goddess-faces from the film fame industry gaze out from his 'siderealized' portraits-from-photos. He referred to some of these studies as 'Experiments in relativity', and the irony of his approach is strikingly postmodern. An actress with eyes so wide and deep she is seen to be gazing inwards, becomes the face of an apotheosized human being, a woman made into an image of female perfection; and yet Spare is not just having a shallow dig at the fame factory here, he is also acknowledging its power, the rulership of image over life. The paradox is underlined by Spare's pun-word 'sidereality', applied to the portraits drawn from photos viewed aslant. He was onto the paradox of image long before Pop Art.

Maybe like me, you'll spend a few minutes marvelling at the curious world of mainstream art, in which the Tate Modern buys Damien Hirst's dull one-line joke 'Pharmacy', but doesn't exhibit anything by Spare.