As I noted in my previous post on the artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare he achieved acclaim and relative success at a very early age, exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts at 17, before becoming unfashionable and fading into a near total obscurity . Yet he was to remain a highly prolific artist up until his death at 69, experimenting with an array of styles, mediums and techniques.
Spare’s mastery of line was never in dispute, however the paintings in the Experiments in Relativity series, for which he coined the term ‘siderealism’, as well as the more occult influenced work show that Spare was an excellent colourist. The paintings of characters from the grimy streets of Southwark, London and exhibited in local pubs reveal his brilliance as a portraitist.
I have included below a cross section of Spare’s art throughout his career. He has been called a Symbolist, Proto-Surrealist and a precursor of Pop Art, but Spare was first and foremost his own creation.
Most of the occult artist Austin Osman Spare‘s experiments in cartomancy were believed to be forever lost (including the ‘Surrealist Racing Forecast Card’ pack, a real shame as this covers a number of my favourite things: art, cards, the occult and gambling), however in 2013 a hitherto unknown pack of 79 hand painted Tarot cards was verified as being the work of the art nouveau enfant terrible.
Influences from the Tarot of Marseilles and the Rider-Waite-Smith decks are evident in the design, however the idiosyncratic verve and boldly brilliant use of line could only have been executed by the skillful hand and wild imagination of Austin Osman Spare.
I have chosen for the third in the series of Surrealist short stories a deliciously macabre tale by the wonderful English artist, writer and eccentric Leonora Carrington, who was also the subject of Max Ernst’s masterpiece, The Robing of the Bride.
In a reversal of a classic fairy tale theme, The Debutante tells of the lengths our heroine is prepared to go to in order to not attend a ball.
WHEN I was a debutante I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed, it was in order to get away from people that I found myself each day at the zoo. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent, I taught her French and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.
My mother was arranging a ball in my honour on the first of May. During this time I was in great distress for whole nights. I’ve always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honour.
On the morning of the first of May, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena.
“What a bloody nuisance,” I told her. “I’ve got to go to my ball tonight.”
“You’re very lucky,” she said. “I would love to go. I do not know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.”
“There’ll be a great many different things to eat,” I told her. “I’ve seen truckloads of food delivered to our house.”
“And you complain!” replied the hyena, disgusted. “Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can’t imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I’m given!”
I had a audacious idea, and I almost laughed. “All you have to do is to go instead of me!”
“We do not resemble each other enough, otherwise I’d gladly go,” said the hyena, rather sadly.
“Listen,” I said. “No one sees too well in the evening light. If you disguise yourself, no one will notice you in the crowd. Besides, we are practically the same size. You are my only friend, I beg you to do this for me.”
She thought this over, and I knew that she really wanted to accept.
“Done,” she said all of a sudden.
There weren’t many keepers about, it was so early in the morning. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I hailed a taxi; at home, everyone was still in bed. In my room, I brought out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena found it difficult to walk in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to hide her hands which were too hairy to look like mine. By the time the sun was shining into my room, she was able to make her way around the room several times—walking more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother almost opened the door to say good morning before the hyena had hidden under my bed.
“There’s a bad smell in your room,” said my mother, opening the window. “You must have a scented bath before tonight, with my new bath salts.”
“Certainly,” I said.
She did not stay long. I believe the smell was too strong for her.
“Don’t be late for breakfast,” she said and left the room.
The greatest difficulty was to find a way of disguising the hyena’s face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way, but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, “I think I’ve found a solution. Have you got a maid?”
“Yes,” I said, puzzled.
“There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we’ll pounce upon her and tear off her face. I’ll wear her face this evening instead of mine.”
“That’s not practical,” I said to her. “She will probably die if she hasn’t got a face. Someone will surely find the corpse and we’ll go to prison.”
“I am hungry enough to eat her,” the hyena replied.
“And the bones?”
“As well,” she said. “So, its on?”
“Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face. It’ll hurt her too much otherwise.”
“All right. It’s all the same to me.”
Not without a certain amount of nervousness I rang for Mary, my maid. I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit that it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said, “I can’t eat anymore. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”
“You’ll find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take it.” She did as I suggested. Then she said: “Turn around now and look how beautiful I am.”
In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary’s face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.
“You’ve certainly done that very well,” I said.
Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed up, she declared: “I really feel in tip-top form. I have the feeling that I shall be a great success this evening.”
When we had heard the music from downstairs for quite some time, I said to her, “Go on down now, and remember, don’t stand next to my mother. She’s bound to realise that it isn’t me. Apart from her I don’t know anybody. Best of luck.” I kissed her as I left her, but she did smell very strong.
Night fell. Tired by the day’s emotions, I took a book and sat down by the open window, giving myself up to peace and quiet. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. About an hour later, I noticed the first signs of trouble. A bat flew in at the window, uttering little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I had hardly gone down on my knees when the sound of beating wings was overcome by a great noise at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage.
“We’d just sat down at table,” she said, “when that thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes.’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.”
The Tyger which was first published in 1794 in William Blake’s Songs of Experience was later merged with Blake’s previous collection of 1789 Songs of Innocence as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. As with all of Blake’s work it was illuminated and printed by himself.
The Tyger is probably the most famous of Blake’s poems and justifiably so. It is a magical distillation of Blake’s major themes and metaphysics in a short poem of six, four line stanzas with a miraculous melding of form and content. It is in my opinion, the one poem in English literature that comes closest to achieving absolute perfection.
At the time of writing tigers would still have possessed a near mythical status. It is possible that Blake may have seen a tiger cub that was exhibited in a travelling rarity show, hence the childlike and rather cuddly tiger depicted in the plate. The poem is a different matter altogether though. The beauty and the ferocity of the Tyger prompt Blake to question the idea of a benevolent God and leads to a vision of the sublime.
Blake’s Tyger is a Platonic Ideal Form which explains the idiosyncratic spelling. The poem opens with a reiteration, pointing towards the symmetry which plays such an important part in the poem. The rest of the line and the next highlights the duality of the Tyger, who shines with the intensity of the sun (blazing bright) and its nocturnal nature (in the forest of the night). The following couplet that completes the stanza asks what kind of creator could fashion such a violently amoral animal, a question that is reiterated with greater force in the fifth stanza when Blake wonders, Did he who made the Lamb make thee? . The Tyger companion piece in Songs of Innocence is The Lamb, an animal that has obvious connotations to Christ. The sixth and final stanza repeats the opening stanza with one important difference, dare replaces could in frame thy fearful symmetry.
Blake developed his own personal mythology and his view of God the Creator was idiosyncratic and complicated to say the least. He equated the Old Testament Jehovah with the Gnostic demiurge whom he called variously Urizen and Nobodaddy in his writing. The Ancients of Days is his most famous artistic representation of the Divine Architect of the material universe.
Although Louis Wain’s psychedelic and abstract cat designs that he created during the last fifteen years of his life, while confined in a psychiatric institution, show many of the hallmarks that characterise Art Brut, namely elaborate detailing, obsessive symmetry and the horror vacui (fear of empty space); he was formally trained and was for a number of years one of the foremost commercial artists of Edwardian England, illustrating over a hundred books and releasing a highly successful annual of cats for over a decade.
Cats were Wain’s main subject throughout his career, from the naturalistic early studies through the large-eyed anthropomorphic cats strolling around on two legs playing golf and smoking cigars at the height of his success, to the brilliant ceramic Futurist cats before the final period of hallucinated decorative splendour.
The affectation and centrality that cats held for Wain was born out of a personal tragedy. At 23 the young artist had married his sister’s governess, Emily Richardson, who was ten years older, which was the cause of considerable scandal at the time. Shortly into their marriage Emily began to suffer from breast cancer; during her illness her main source of solace and comfort came from Peter, a stray black and white cat they had rescued on a rainy night. At Emily’s urging Louis began sketching Peter, drawings that were soon published and made Wain an very much in-demand illustrator, an event Emily unfortunately didn’t live to see.
Although Louis Wain’s work was hugely popular he lacked financial acumen so when he was initially institutionalised in 1924 it was in the pauper’s ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, South London. When it was discovered that one of England’s most beloved illustrators was languishing there, a widely publicised appeal was launched and supported by such figures as the writer H.G Wells and the Prime Minister, and he was transferred to Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, London and eventually to the relatively pleasant Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, which had a large garden and a colony of cats.
The actual nature of Wain’s mental illness is the matter of debate, it has been suggested either adult-onset schizophrenia or Asperger’s Syndrome. His work was presented in supposedly chronological order by the psychiatrist Walter Maclay as an example of the creative deterioration of schizophrenics; a specious narrative that needless to say I totally disagree with. The abstractions represent a different, experimental aspect of Wain’s cat oeuvre, not a decline.
Below are examples of Wain’s cat drawings from throughout his career, with greater emphasis on the acid cats of the later period.