The Art of AOS


Austin Osman Spare-Experiments in Relativity 1933
Austin Osman Spare-Experiments in Relativity 1933

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.

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Memento Mori I (The Ambassadors)

The Ambassadors-Hans Holbein The Younger 1533
Memento Mori (Latin: Remember you will die) was a popular theme in Renaissance Art in the 16th and 17th Centuries. A Memento Mori would serve as a visual reminder of the brevity of life, the vanity of worldly pomp and the  emptiness of fleeting pleasures and thus an injunction to contemplate the eternal verities of the Afterlife. The richly symbolic items found in these paintings and in the overlapping still-life genre Vanitas are skulls, time-pieces, flowers, rotting fruit, musical instruments, bubbles, candles and smoke.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s brilliantly accomplished dual portrait of Jean Dinterville, French Ambassador to the court of King Henry VIII and Georges De Selve, Bishop of Lavaur and French Ambassador to the Emperor and the Holy See is surely his masterpiece. Entire books have been written about the political, religious and scientific symbolism of the various items on the table between the two men, however the most remarkable feature for the purposes of this post is the spectacular anamorphic skull that floats in the foreground. The painting is on display at the National Gallery in London and viewers have to approach from the right for the distortion to be corrected. There are several competing theories as to why Holbein gave the skull such prominence and is distorted in such a manner if seen straight on. My opinion is that the skull serves it’s traditional function as a Memento Mori, for even such supremely self assured and worldly gentleman as the Ambassadors must one day die, no matter how much you may obscure the fact.

Detail of the Anamorphic Skull -The Ambassadors