Austin Osman Spare

AOS aka ZOS, KIA: his role in my path. My blog:

I think I need to say at the outset that it isn’t my intention to replicate AOS. Like two travellers on the same journey, we share a common goal but how we achieve it is individual and unique to each. We share the same desire and as artists and we use the same tools of our trade. Fundamental beliefs and metaphysics, two companions looking for the illuminate.

Where I have used material to illustrate, I have linked the image to its source rather than add a description. Further reading there if you wish to follow it further.

Austin Osman Spare
 (1886-1956) has been a guiding light, both as an artist and as a founder of chaos magic. I wonder how connected symbolism, allegories and sigils are to creative minds? Whether art is the key to the non-verbal, instinctive.

It goes without saying Spare’s draftsmanship was sublime, that his observation and attention to both his subject and process put him in the position of high prominence in his early career. His development, however, proved to be an almost solitary path; frustrating for his commercial success but no barrier to his personal development.
Plenty written on that, so I won’t repeat it here.
Growing up, as Spare did, in Victorian England and in the capital city of the Empire must have been restrictive. Never easy to step outside of the established art, especially with the occult and its references and motifs; so at odds with Victorian ideals, Christianity and an established class system. Today of course, it’s much easier almost mandatory, for someone like me to question everything artistically. This can be seen as the legacy of pioneers like Spare. Perhaps it has gone too far the other way, radical ideas don’t even raise an eyebrow today…it would seem.

However, Snow Hill, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, the Old Bailey and Smithfield market (within yards of each other) still create a community pretty diverse, and rich pickings for me as an artist.

(left, Old Bailey from Giltspur St. Just around the corner: Snow Hill)

Well this is merely background on AOS,  and there’s plenty written on this already as I’ve said.
What I do what to describe is my understanding of how he arrived at some of the things he questioned and why. Not as an academic study, just as a fellow artist following a similar path. I have walked around Snow Hill, Smithfield and surrounding area with the sole intention of looking for signs, and being immersed in the same ‘geographical soup’. The architecture and ambience could hold some subliminal clues…couldn’t they? Quite possibly there are other forces at work but are they quantitative? I will be visiting again and again, absorb more of the ambience…photos to follow.
Many of my preoccupations and inquiries run parallel to Spare. A century apart agreed but in many ways that is only cosmetic. So where is this blog going to go? I presume to start, where I first became aware of Chaos theory, some 25years ago (good grief that long)  with fractals and automatic drawing. I had no notion of Spare back then so no other motive other than just following a desire to explore and experiment. Not a chronology here, that would be counterproductive I feel, more a thread between elements that appear to fit together right now, irrespective of when and why.
Ideas that connect together, in my mind, as if all jumbled up in a purple velvet bag from which I pick in an unknown arbitrary manner. Chance, fate, pre-ordained or ordered chaos…who does the picking and what is random anyway?

Well that’s more than enough of an introduction: what was Spare looking for, and what did he describe in his work?
Wow, far to big, I’m going to have to break that down. Illustration with line drawings perhaps, a connection between line and calligraphy, hieroglyphics, symbols and of course sigils.

Automatic drawing vs Cubism:
Firstly I have to consider what influenced AOS and the world in which he lived. Cubism and later Dada are now nicely established, comfortable and accepted though for him just an opinion on what art was for at the time. I’d like to illustrate my point, or at least my opinion on why AOS went much deeper.


Braque and Picasso looked at a violin. Which of them painted these paintings remained guesswork to both of them. Neither knew who painted which of their cubist paintings. Agreed now I’m sure it can be determined by some brush stroke formula but the point I’m making is they were so impersonal, as paintings, they left no emotional connection to the artists.

A 2D multi-viewpoint representation. What the object looks like from any aspect. The object, violin, is merely a motif. Why pick a violin I wonder?

Could as easily be a cello? The painting provides no scale or reference apart from the grapes…though proportion/perspective/scale are not to be compared presumably?

So a study of a violin. But what is the violin a study of? (quick sketch of mine)

Le Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’s Violin)

Man Ray (1924)






What Picasso/Braque are describing, is an object that describes an object. While cubism (though not from the outset) looked to describe everything through primitives; fundamental shapes: cone, sphere, cube. We are being shown how everything, in its simplest form, is a construct of cubist ideals. Except a violin isn’t a pure form, it is a construct of another form. For the rational to be valid, you would need to describe that in primitives…and I’m sorry it just doesn’t work. The solution is a fragmented fiction of form that relies on ‘flesh’ colour to point the viewer at what is being described.

What always left me puzzled, is that the natural world contains none of these forms? Quite the contrary…not a straight line in the universe. What was to develop later was that there is a pattern, a very simple function that repeated to an exponential number creates order out of chaos. So perhaps the notion was there in cubism, if not the right conclusion. It wouldn’t be until computers that replicating the real world through geometry would even begin to point us in the right direction.



AOS’s observation comes from within. Automatic drawing makes no use of ‘logical’ devices. It doesn’t rely on a ‘modernist’ formula, a machine…or rather a manufacturable solution to any given motif.

Here Spare records a less obvious symmetry. Undoubtedly there is one but not a brick on brick simplicity. If I have to choose, for me Spare succeeds where cubism fails. Cubism fails because like Illustration in other forms, it caricatures rather than describes. It leaves out detail in favour of simplicity.

On a side-note, my art block at art college was colloquially named ‘The Bauhaus’ an aesthetic I’ve always felt throws the baby out with the bathwater. If form follows function, the female body would defy all reason or aesthetic beauty…which of course is nonsense. The physical world is a series of curves not straight lines. But in a manufactured materialistic industrial revolution…straight lines are much cheaper to make.

What we can learn fro Picasso’s Violin is nothing compared to Spare’s figures.

What is encapsulated in Spare’s drawings are still a mystery to the rational, logical mind. However, just because the description isn’t symmetrical or linear doesn’t mean it is less of a recording of what Spare was thinking, feeling, experiencing. What layer of our understanding is being fed is still a concise enigma.

Now wait a minute…is this to be an attack on Cubism?
Well no, not really, merely an appraisal of what was current thinking in the first decades of the 20thC.
I would put forward Egon Schiele lay more toward Austin but with a cubist feel? Though why I believe that, is a mystery to me? So you can dismiss that if you will…I won’t labour the point.

Of course, 1914-1919 robbed us of a generation of young artists, so where some of these ideas might have gone…we will never know. I include 1919 as the Spanish Flu compounded the death count of the previous four years of war. We lost Schiele in that year for that very reason.

It’s hard to imagine how the mind of the survivors was corrupted by the Great War, this wasn’t something any man had had to endure before them. The study of consciousness now lay in the hands of those who survived rather than those who had led the vanguard of art.

Wars have only one contribution I know of, that of innovation. Especially innovation that gives a  mechanical or technological advantage to one man over another. Bigger, faster more devastating machines of destruction; presumably the ‘Teflon’ factor has some benefits to the populous? A small olive branch of remembrance. Before anyone picks me up on that point I know Teflon came much later and wasn’t a by-product of the space race apparently? I use the ‘Teflon’ tag as analogous of supposed positive sides to questionable national expenditure.

The purpose behind automatic drawing:

I might get into deep water here but I’m going for it anyway. The thinking behind it is that the conscious mind plays no part in the process; Paul Cezanne had postulated a similar approach with the study of the physiognomy of inanimate objects. namely rocks in the landscape. Paraphrasing: “I want my mind to be like a photographic plate, I don’t want to interfere with the process with my thoughts.” (if anyone could track the exact phrase I would be grateful) For an artist…how possible is this in practice? If I close my eyes I can draw something pretty close without needing to see the drawing surface. Just about anyone can write their own name without looking…it’s the same thing. The state you can get yourself into is, of course, central to what you will produce and why. It may be subconscious or it may not be, I’m not sure. I’ve done plenty of it myself and I have insisted some of my students try it. It certainly is liberating but I’d be reluctant to explain where the images come from. But what do these drawings show: a portal to another internal self, a fusion of human and material…a metaphysical epiphany…I don’t know, does anyone really?

The marks, images, sigils (I’ll come back to sigils) are not naturally rational, decipherable, visually representative. The marks made have other  meanings too. I’m not saying they are meaningless or random, all I’m saying is, like the chatter of Sparrows in the hedge outside…they mean nothing to me, no matter how hard I study them. All I do know is that the Sparrows obviously understand them so meaning is locked into some cypher I don’t have access too.

Here the illustration is decipherable into familiar 2D representation.


I’m going to end this first blog by rallying to Spare’s defence. What he produced is still largely misunderstood, I say misunderstood because I believe he knew exactly what he was saying, though perhaps not cognitively.  What he did demonstrate is that we don’t all think the same way…or at least not in everyday life, or at the same time. (I won’t bang on about my thoughts on Larmackism and mind mining…that’s elsewhere in Chaos).  It takes real commitment and concentration to continue the path he took and for that he should receive more acclaim. We have a portfolio of one man’s life, work and mind…and that’s the best legacy of all.

Now my journey begins in earnest. To retrace the experiences of Austin Osman Spare, not as a historian, travel writer or even as an art critic but as a fellow artist with a curiosity of his Chaos magick.

My journey of AOS Part II: for whom the bell tolls