Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Austin Osman Spare: Fallen Visionary

This week is the last opportunity to see the fantastic (in every sense of the word) Fallen Visionary exhibition at the Cuming Museum in Southwark, featuring the work of Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956).

There's a nice historical continuity, as one of his first exhibitions was held in the same building in 1904 (the Cuming is the same building as the library), as reviewed in the Daily Mail from that year:

'Southwark does no go to the Royal Academy, but Southwark is, in its own way, interested in art and in a very particular way in the art of the youngest exhibitor at the Royal Aacademy, Mr Austin Osman Spare. For the benefit therefore of the dwellers in his native borough some sixity original sketches by the boy artist are now on view at the Newington Public Library in Walworth Road. Austin Spare hails from the neighbouring Kennington Road, is the son of a retired policeman, and is possessed of a versatile and often very erratic fancy... A weird fantasy runs riot in nearly all the sketches. Monsters of horrible form, decadent shapes and grotesque allegories fill the glass cases'.

The fantasy element developed over the years, with Blakean paintings featured magickal themes.

'Gaia with a Yellow Shawl'

The exhibition does justice to that side of his work, but also to the later paintings he did of local characters from the pubs, markets and doss houses of South London. Some of this work was actually displayed by Spare in pubs. For a show at the Temple Bar (284-6 Walworth Road) in 1949 he wrote: 'Why a show in a Tavern? My answer: it is democratic and gives a chance (where necessary) to people who normally have little time to visit the more orthodox places which often entail dress, tickets, fees, etc., and my other friends and clients might find it an interesting change.'
The writer Clifford Bax worried that South London was bad for Spare, writing in 1936: ''When we met at a Lyons teashop I recognised at once what an odd and charming person he is. I liked his brawny build and the thick tough strength of his hair. I noticed that he was pallid, and wondereed if the air and the food of the Borough were good for him'. But Spare lived on, surviving the destruction of his home during the Blitz.

Interestingly the exhibition features a painting of Joyce Cary (below). The Irish writer is believed to have partly based the artist character of Gully Jimson in his novel The Horses Mouth (1944) on Spare. As previously established at Transpontine, Cary spent his early childhood in New Cross (Kitto Road) and Nunhead.

(see previous post for more details of where Spare lived in South London; exhibition closes on Sunday 14th November.)

No comments: