When he died in 1956, British artist Austin Osman Spare had been all but forgotten by the cognoscenti who had once hailed him as the finest draftsman of his generation. His early work was favorably compared to the intricate ink illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley. But his later excursions into ritual magic and the occult, exemplified by the grimoires he published, arguably sidelined his career. The subtitle of a 2012 biography dubs him “London’s Lost Artist.”
“Psychopathia Sexualis,” recently on view at Iceberg Projects in Chicago, was Spare’s first solo exhibition in North America. It was an especially pungent debut amid the trigger warnings and pandemic-induced body horror of our moment. Named after German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 study of sexual pathology, the show presented a folio of forty-four untitled pencil drawings that illustrate a cornucopia of perversions—bestiality, coprophagia, urolagnia, name your pleasure—along with stock-in- trade like fellatio. The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University acquired the folio in 1963, under somewhat murky circumstances, and it remained unheralded until now.
There’s speculation that a kinkster couple commissioned the work in the early 1920s. The result features a cast of phantasmagoric characters: satyrs, horned men, figures caught between genders or species, nightmarish penis-shaped creatures. The human bodies in Spare’s work are overripe and unmanicured. They occupy vacant space that’s indistinguishable as interior or landscape, although vestiges of erased lines are sometimes visible. A vague air of pestilence dominates, underscored by the cankered faces and copious runoff of semen, vomit, feces, and urine. If Spare’s erotic vignettes recall those of precursors such as Belgian Symbolist Félicien Rops, Hungarian painter Mihály Zichy, and French illustrator Martin van Maële, his fixation on excretion and physical degradation is singular in its extremism.
All of this grotesquerie is exuberant. Spare’s figures are soiled revelers, captive gluttons, and dead-eyed hedonists, daring the viewer to condemn their bacchanal. In one drawing, three misshapen, golem-like creatures urinate on a voluptuous woman lounging below. Her eyes are closed in relish, and the sinuous streams of urine form a kind of pedestal around her. She seems imported from a Rubens canvas, as if Spare were taking the piss out of art historical beauty standards. Similarly, in another drawing, a figure who resembles Spare—his tousled hair a trademark—is bent over, defecting onto two figures preoccupied with their own masturbatory idyll.
Spare’s line has a calligraphic subtlety and a lithe vigor that troubles distinctions between clothing, bodies, and bodily fluids. Forms dissolve and coalesce, as in another drawing in which a mass of ruined faces that bring to mind Honoré Daumier’s caricatures swells toward a winged vagina cruising overhead. This outcrop of men is rendered with such gestural intensity that it could well be an example of Spare’s automatic drawing, in which lines roil in feverish elaboration.
The sequence of depravity was momentarily calmed in a grid of nine drawings that depict either couples or solo models. These images feel starkly modern, even as they hint, however vulgarly, at romantic idealism. In one scene, a man poses with his arm behind his head, miming ancient statuary, while a curvaceous woman clings to him. The man’s oversize penis penetrates her, although the mood isn’t sexual. It’s as if the couple’s genitals are engaged in their own mindless tasks. Throughout these drawings, there’s a sense of instinct taking over, of figures relieving themselves in every way imaginable, sometimes experiencing pleasure, at other times only fulfilling a dull commitment to physical necessity. This wild, startling show was as much an illustration of carnal satisfaction as an exercise in arousal: of desire, disgust, pity, and fascination.