Mirror Images

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(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four brand new illustrations by Susanne Rempt).

All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realised that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence.  It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All that was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.

Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples)voodoo mirror

are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’

In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon the artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.mirror hand

One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’

However, for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. _20180102_164940 (1)Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.

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The Red Shoes

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The Red Shoes-Powell & Pressburger 1948
The British directorial team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers had spent WWII producing odd, idiosyncratic propaganda movies for the British war effort, mainly in black and white (a notable exception was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp of 1942, which Winston Churchill had hated for its civilised, sympathetic portrayal of the German best friend of the Colonel).

With the end of the war The Archers changed direction and produced a series of sensuous fantasies filmed in the most glorious Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, intuiting that the British public, still in the midst of wartime rationing and austerity, longed for something more than the standard dourly realistic fare then be served. This led to the hallucinatory Black Narcissus in 1947, a melodrama full of simmering tension and repressed eroticism, followed by their most famous film a year later, the ballet movie The Red Shoes. As Michael Powell noted , ‘For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. “The Red Shoes” told us to go out and die for art.’

As the above quote illustrates this is a movie about the primacy of art over life. Indeed it could be argued that The Red Shoes is a Symbolist movie, though it is a rather late arrival to the party. Drenched in aestheticism, with a curiously timeless fairy-tale ambience and the  rarefied, hothouse ballet setting, The Red Shoes is valiant attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art, an important concept in Symbolist aesthetics). However it also owes as much to Hollywood, especially the extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley, as it does to the various European avant-gardes.

The story is simplicity itself. Aspiring, ambitious ballet dancer Victoria Page, (unforgettably played by ballerina Moira Shearer, surely the most gorgeous red-head to ever grace the silver screen), comes under the auspices of Boris Lermontov, (an outstanding performance by Anton Walbrook) the impresario of the Ballet Lermontov who is clearly modelled on the legendary Sergei Diaghliev of the Ballet Russes. At the party where they first meet Lermontov asks Vicky, ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which Vicky replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ Quite.

At the same time Lermontov, who has an eye for talent, employs the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). The scene is set for a particularly bizarre love triangle. For Lermontov isn’t just a Svengali, the demands he places upon his company shade into the Mephistophelian. When his current prima ballerina Irina (another ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina) decides to marry he remarks, ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.’ 

Irina’s leaving opens the way for Vicky to become prima ballerina in a new ballet that the company is producing, The Red Shoes:

Boris Lermontov: The Ballet of The Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired. In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on.
Julian Craster: What happens in the end?
Boris Lermontov: Oh, in the end, she dies.

Craster is the composer of the score and The Red Shoes premieres in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Daringly The Archers interrupt the narrative to present the centrepiece of the movie, a stunning seventeen minute ballet sequence exactly half-way through the movie. Both expressionistic and surrealistic, with scenery (designed by Hein Heckroth) and effects that could be never replicated in any theatre anywhere at anytime,  the ballet is a phantasmagorical tour-de-force.

Vicky and Craster fall in love while working on the ballet, with dramatic and indeed tragic consequences as life grimly mimics art. During the delirious final scenes Lermontov says to the sobbing Vicky:

Vicky…Little Vicky…There, there. Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.

The ending is entirely appropriate for this lush fever dream of a film. For The Red Shoes isn’t just a movie you watch, it is a film to be surrendered too, and once you have surrendered, to luxuriate in.

Les Diaboliques

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At a  Dinner of Atheists-Les Diaboliques- Barbey d’Aurevilly-Illustration Felicien Rops
After the scandal and subsequent prosecution that attended the publication of Les Fleurs Du Mal (see The Flowers of Evil: Litanies Of Satan)the decadent writer and theorist of Dandyism, Barbey D’Aurevilly told his friend Charles Baudelaire that after such a book it only remains for him to choose between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the cross.

It was nicely put and neatly summarized the dilemma facing the true decadent. D’Aurevilly, like many other decadents, including J.K Huysmans, Leon Bloy (see The Captives of Longjumeau) and Villers de l’isle Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders) opted for the cross. However the Catholicism re-adopted by the decadents retained more than a whiff of sulphur about it. Often it seems as if they decided to pledge their devotion to God just in order to celebrate Satan and all his works, revelling all the more in the sins of the flesh. Sin gives sensuality an additional flavour. It is no exaggeration to say that the French Symbolists invented  the modern conception of Satanism.

D’Aurevilly’s masterpiece is the  short story collection Les Diaboliques, a celebration of crime and immorality. No matter how much the bored gentleman dandies try to excel in evil in Les Diaboliques they are no match for the Devil’s representatives on earth, all of whom wear petticoats. Containing such bon-mots as “The Devil teaches women what they are – or they would teach it to the Devil if he did not know” and “Next to the wound, what a woman makes best is the bandage”, D’Aurevilly encapsulated the misogyny of  the decadents in glittering, cynical one-liners. The book was illustrated by the Decadent artist par excellence Felicien Rops who also illustrated Les Fleurs Du Mal and whose entire artistic production was dedicated to an expose of the grip that Sin, Death and The Devil holds over the world.

Curvature

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Max Ernst-The Garden of France

If you aren’t already aware, my collection of 69 inter-related poems and short fictions Motion No. 69 is available for purchase in both e-book and paperback. Below is the penultimate sample, (one more tease then you are just have to buy it) read by myself.

Curvature

Just close your eyes,
and open your legs.

The curvature
of your soft, inner thigh,
leading to the downy, raw hollow
seems to me like a promise—
that the door to paradise will open up
wide enough to swallow whole
my entire being.
Do I dare to enter the void
into which I spent my life staring longingly?
Maybe if I bury myself deep enough inside you,
then a curvature will result
in the seemingly,
inexorable, forward flow of time.
And I can return again
to that place
I never wanted to leave anyway.
Floating in the protective bubble,
in the gloved darkness,
nurtured by your essence.
The curvature of my posture
recapitulates the evolution of every species
as they lose the innocence
of a blessed total symmetry—
the result of a fall of some fashion—
and all the time,
as I forget and remember,
remember and forget,
the curvature of your belly
mirrors the earth
and further still of worlds, galaxies and universes,
until you burst open with the creation
that can no longer be contained.
And I scream my discontent
at my expulsion from Eden,
until I find succour
at the curvature of your breast.

 

 

Concluding with Henry: Part Three

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Henry Green’s novel are remarkable because every one is notably different in style and thematically  (with the possible exception of Nothing and Doting) yet they couldn’t have possibly been written by anyone else other than Henry Green. Green’s seventh novel Concluding, published in 1948 is no exception.

Set in the near future, the events are confided to a single day at an institute (a former country house) for the training of young girls, whose names all alliterate, Mary, Merode, Marion, Maisy, Moira, Muriel, Melissa etc, to become functionaries and official in a bureaucratic and mildly totalitarian state. One of the girls, Mary, has gone missing. Has she ran away from the repressive spinster teachers? Or gone to visit her sick sister? Or is she at the bottom of the lake?

Despite this mystery and its potential for tragedy, Concluding is in fact Green at his most whimsical. Most of the book takes place outdoors and is literally flooded with light:

At this instant, like a woman letting down her mass of hair from a white towel in which she had bound it, the sun came through for a moment, and lit the azaleas on either side before fog, re-descending, blanketted these off again…

It was Green’s  own favourite, and he toyed with the idea of turning it into a ballet.

The last two of Green’s novels Nothing and Doting, published in 1950 and 1952 respectively, are both sharp comedy of manners dealing with the romantic entanglements of two generations of upper class Londoners. They are among the most technically accomplished of Green’s novels, composed mainly in dialogue with prolonged, stunning set pieces. Critics have often questioned whether there is anything going besides the pointed, barbed wit, however as L.P Hartley commented on Nothing, “is ‘nothing’ a trifle, a bagatelle, or is it the void, le neant?…I for one found it all too easy to slip through the glittering surface of the comedy into icy and terrifying depths.”

As Doting was his last published novel it is particularly tempting to look for clues to the enigma that was Henry Green/Henry Yorke, and how he viewed writing. At the beginning there is a scene that certainly seems to have a symbolic significance outside of the context of the novel:

The man started with three billiard balls. He flung one up and caught it. He flung it up again then sent a second ball to chase the first. In no time he had three, fountaining from out his hands. And he did not stop at that. He introduced, he insinuated one at a time, one more after another and threw the exact inches higher each time to give six, seven balls room until, to no applause he had a dozen chasing themselves up then down into his two lazy-seeming hands, each ball so precisely placed that it could be thought to follow grooves in violet air.

The next quote could apply to everything Green ever wrote:

“D’you sometimes believe that nothing in the whole wide world matters?”

“Oh Ann, but surely simply everything has supreme importance, if it happens.”

After the publication of Doting Green attempted to write,  after he was only 47, but it was beyond him. His last great affair with the much younger Kitty Freud, the estranged  wife of the artist Lucian Freud, had ended up as they all did, with the woman marrying another man and becoming friends with both Henry and Dig. His drinking had become a major problem and was affecting his job as Managing Director of Pontifex and Sons. He had always been a diligent industrialist, though he lacked financial acumen. However when it was discovered at a board meeting that, instead of water in his glass it was neat gin, Henry Yorke was sent on holiday and removed as managing director. His  older, very eccentric brother Gerald Yorke (a fascinating character in his own right, incredibly academically gifted, a keen sportsman who had done the hippy trail 40 years before the 1960’s, army major and occultist who spent part of every year living in a cave in Wales) was put in charge for an interim period, however as he had no interest in the business, control was passed down to Henry’s 25 year old son, Sebastian.

In Jeremy Treglown’s excellent Romancing, the only biography of Henry Green, the last chapter is entitled Degringolade (Rapid Deterioration) and covers in the last 15 years of his life in 10 pages. Henry Green became increasingly reclusive and eccentric. He also drank a lot, every day from waking at 10 or 11 (if he woke up) until he went to bed or passed out. Perhaps the best indication of his state of mind can be found in his last piece to be published, a short letter in The Spectator in 1963.

Green tells me he doesn’t believe in anything at all. And perhaps that is not a bad thing. Love your wife, love your cat and stay perfectly quiet, if possible not to leave the house. Because on the street if you are sixty danger threatens.

So the  whole thing is really not to go out. If one can afford it, the best thing is to stay in one place, which might be bed. Not sex, for sleep.

Henry Yorke died in 1973, a very old 68.

Loving with Henry: Part Two

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Almost immediately after the publication of Party Going at the onset of WWII, Henry Green handed over to his publisher the manuscript to Pack My Bag, his ‘interim’ autobiography (at 35), that he had written at top speed in a matter of weeks. After the slow process and completion of Party Going, the gates must have opened. Other contributing factors was Green’s fear of imminent death in the war, hence the title which were the last words of the philosopher F.H Bradley, and the fact that Green was reportedly completely drunk the entire time of the writing process.

In Pack My Bag we find a passage that is as close as Green ever got to stating an artistic credo:

Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone …

Green volunteered for the London Fire Service during the Blitz, the experience of which formed the basis of his next novel Caught. His wife Dig had moved away from London to the countryside and as the time was one of general ‘unmarriedness’, Green indulged in numerous extra-martial affairs. Dig would tolerant these liaisons, even befriending the women involved.

His next novel Loving was published in 1943 and is Green’s most well know and popular novel. In The Paris Review interview with Terry Southern he describes the genesis of the novel:

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.

Curiously enough Loving was published at the same time as his friend Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, which is also set in a large country house. But whereas Brideshead Revisited is a nostalgic paean to a rapidly vanishing way of life, wistfully conveying a time where everyone knew their place and was grateful for it, from the loyal servants to the obliging lords of the manor, Green was too clear-eyed to be having any of this self-serving sentimentality. His portrayal of down-stairs life resembles Jonathan Swift’s masterful satire Directions To Servants much more than the obsequious, incidental characters offered by Brideshead Revisited or indeed its present day variation that peddles the same insidious fantasy, DowntonAbbey.  

In a master stroke, Green’s country estate is set in neutral Ireland, a country he knew well and had great fondness for, owned by Anglo-Irish gentry and staffed entirely with English staff with the important exception of the symbolically incomprehensible Irish lamp-man Paddy O’Conor . This immediately places the narrative in the realm of absurdity. The owners of Kinalty are, appropriately enough, the Tennants. However the novel is much more concerned with life down-stairs, in particularly the over-promoted and unscrupulous butler Charley Raunce and his much younger girlfriend, the housemaid Edith  In his usual oblique, off-hand way Green introduces an ambiguous apocalyptic note regarding the future of Kinalty: The Blue Drawing Room is, we are told, ‘the most celebrated eighteenth-century folly in Eire that had still to be burned down.’ However this fear is only vaguely in the background, all the characters, whether up-stairs or down-stairs are too busy pursuing their respective love-interests or lining their pockets and stomachs to spare much thought to all that imperils their precarious paradise, whether it be the war raging back home, the IRA or indeed the intrinsic absurdity of Kinalty, where even the dovecotes are modelled on the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

In 1946 Green published Back, which concerns a wounded war veteran returning to civilian life. It is certainly his most sombre novel, however it contains one of his most sustained passages of lyricism:

…climbing around and up these trees of mourning, was rose after rose after rose, while, here and there, the spray overburdened by the mass of flowers, a live wreath lay fallen on a wreath of stone, or on a box in marble colder than this day, or onto frosted blooms which, under glass, marked each bed of earth wherein the dear departed encouraged life above in the green grass, the cypresses and in those roses gay and bright which, as still as this dark afternoon, stared at whosoever looked, or hung their heads to droop, to grow strained, to die when their turn came.

I will be concluding this series on Henry Green in part three with brief reviews of his last three novels and his later life.

Party Going with Henry: Part One

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Henry Green-Cecil Beaton

Henry Green remains the most elusive and neglected of modernist writers, even though he was among the top rank of prose stylists in English in the 20th century. However when you are not just a writer’s writer, but a writer’s-writer’s writer, as his friend the Beat novelist and screen-writer Terry Southern noted in his interview of Green for The Paris Review, then maybe a degree of obscurity and anonymity is to be expected.

Henry Green was the pseudonym of Henry Yorke, an aristocrat and industrialist, for most of his life he was managing director of the family firm of Pontifex. After a childhood spent in large and imposing country houses he attended Eton (at the same time as fellow novelists and friends Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell) and Oxford, though he dropped out of Oxford to work in the company’s Birmingham factory. By the time of his departure from Oxford he was already a published novelist, his astoundingly assured debut Blindness coming out when he was only 19. His time on the factory floor was the inspiration for his second novel Living, which is thoroughly modernist with its cinematic dissolves and dropped articles and displays a Chekhovian sympathy and understanding of his mainly working class characters. His friend Christopher Isherwood called it, “the best Proletarian novel ever written,” however as Green drily noted, Isherwood had never worked in a factory.

The thirties saw a hiatus in his literary career, after a glittering society wedding he was too busy being a Bright Young Thing and socializing with the Aga Khan in the South of France, (though he complained about travel being an inconvenience, as it interfered with his masturbation), and the Guinnesses (which included Diana nee Mitford and soon to be Mosley) at fancy dress balls, and there was a ten-year gap before his third novel Party Going, which is perhaps my favourite of all is works (though it is a hard choice), was published in September 1939, just before the onset of WWII.

In 1937 a somewhat depressed Green had written, “what pleasure or interest I ever took in anything, or what potential there was to take pleasure or interest, malicious or otherwise, is leaving me so that I have started writing again to try to make a world of my own.”  The world he constructed in Party Going is one only Green could have created. On the surface Party Going is concerned with the anxieties and amorous manoeuvres of a group of privileged and incredibly vapid young people waiting for a train  to take them to the Continent. The station is fog-bound and no trains are either arriving or leaving, so to while away the time they sequester themselves in the station’s hotel. Alliances form and dissolve, the characters get entangled in a muddle and confusion of their own-making. And that is basically it, yet it is hard not to conclude that there is a lot more going on underneath this deceptive surface. It has been remarked that the fog represents “a paradigm of life, life surrounded by a fog of death and threatened Departures,”.  Maybe because of the long gestation of Party Going, the tone and style itself shifts, at the beginning the dropped articles recall his previous novel Living, however the novel becomes more expansive around a third of the way in, this change further disorients the reader, adding an extra dimension of uncertainty and unease. The novel, which had seemed to be merely a comedy of manners takes on a Kafkaesque turn while also anticipating Beckett.

The war was to prove to be a fruitful period for Henry Green, which will be the subject of Part Two. To end this post here is a short example from Party Going of Green’s effortlessly stylish prose:

“So now at last all of this party is in one place, and, even if they have not yet all of them come across each other, their baggage is collected in the Registration Hall. Where, earlier, hundreds had made their way to this station thousands were coming in now, it was the end of a day for them, the beginning of a time for our party.”

My Nurse

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Meret Oppenheim-My Nurse 1936

One of the best examples of the Surrealist ‘cult of the object’ which transformed everyday found objects in strange, suggestive ways by placing them into unlikely convergences and chance juxtapositions, My Nurse by the Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, famous for her fur-lined tea-cup is a disturbing, subversive work with marked fetishistic overtones.

An up-turned pair of white leather high-heeled shoes are placed on a platter, bound and trussed up like a turkey. Oppenheim commented on this work that ‘…it evokes for me the association of thighs squeezed together in pleasure. In fact, almost a “proposition”. When I was a little girl, four of five, we had a young nursemaid. She was dressed in white (Sunday Best?). Maybe she was in love, maybe that’s why she exuded a sensual atmosphere of which I was unconsciously aware.’  

Oppenheim’s comments and the fact that it is shoes bound in such a manner shows that she was fully aware of Freudian psychology. Another, quite clear implication, is that women are not supposed to move.

Georges Bataille in the article Big Toe in Documents magazine outlined his view on shoe and foot fetishes. Because the foot is what treads on the ground and connects us to base reality it is despised, whereas the head, which is nearest to the sky and clouds is venerated. Of course some people will take the contrary view and worship what is generally held in contempt. Luis Bunuel took a rather more straight-forward delight in his shoe fetish as can be witnessed in the extraordinary tracking shot of Catherine Deneuve’s elegant black pumps as she climbs the stairways to Madame Anais brothel for the first time in Belle Du Jour.

A Glove

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Max Klinger-Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove 1. Place-1881

One of the most prominent artists of his time, the German Symbolist Max Klinger is now predominantly remembered for his series of ten etchings entitled Paraphrase über den Fund eines Handschuhs (Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove) first completed in 1877-1878, then revised in a mixed technique of engraving, etching and aquatint in 1881.

A Glove is widely considered to be an important link between Symbolism and Surrealism with it dream-like narrative, changes in size and scale and its symbolic fetishism. It is hard to deny the sexual significance of A Glove and it definitely lends itself to a Freudian interpenetration, though it predates Freud by nearly two decades.

Here is the entire series which I hope you enjoy and I would also be very interesting in what ‘A Glove’ suggests to my readers.

2.Action
2.Action
3. Yearnings
3. Yearnings
4.Rescue
4.Rescue
5 Triumph
5 Triumph
6. Homage
6. Homage
7. Anxieties
7. Anxieties
8. Repose
8.Repose
9.Abduction
9.Abduction
10. Cupid
10, Cupid

 

 

 

Cockney Rebel: Austin Osman Spare

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Austin Osman Spare-Portrait of the Artist 1907
Phil Baker’s excellent 2011 biography of the gloriously eccentric artist/magician Austin Osman Spare should hopefully revive interest in an unjustly neglected London artist. Hailed as the new Aubrey Beardsley at the tender age of 17 he fell into obscurity and lived in Dickensian squalor  when the satyrs and general air of Yellow Book decadence that impregnated his drawings fell out of fashion after the First World War. Later years saw Spare inventing his own idiosyncratic form of magic involving the intensive use of Sigils; using automatic drawing techniques years before Breton posited Surrealism as pure psychic automatism, hanging out with The Great Beast himself Aleister Crowley; hawking his ‘Surrealist Racing Card Forecast’ cards (a divinatory artwork to help you pick winners at the races) in the back pages of the Exchange and Mart, experimenting with anamorphosis in his Experiments in Relativity series which in their use of film stars could be said to have anticipated Pop Art, and holding art exhibitions in dodgy South London pubs.

Because of his self-mythologizing tendencies and the willingness of certain friends to give credence to his amazingly tall tales he has gained a certain cache in occult circles since his death. The above Portrait of The Artist is in the private collection of Led Zeppelin guitarist and previously avowed Crowleyite Jimmy Page.

Like Blake, that other inspired Londoner, Spare created his own system rather than be enslaved by another man’s.

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Austin Osman Spare-Joan Crawford 1933