Austin Osman Spare’s Psychopathia Sexualis
These drawings visualize a grotesque menagerie of sexual beings.
(Fulgur Press with the Kinsey Institute, 2022)
Psychopathia Sexualis is a portfolio of highly abnormal pornography created by the enigmatic British artist Austin Osman Spare (1886–1956) one hundred years ago. Its first publication by Fulgur Press accompanies an exhibition of the original drawings from the collection of the Kinsey Institute at Iceberg Projects in Chicago. It is Spare’s first solo exhibition in North America—a fact that attests to the depth of the artist’s obscurity in his lifetime. Despite early success as a painter, Spare retreated from London “society” in the early decades of the twentieth century, turning to a creative life characterized by the discovery of a boundless inner world expressed in sinuous lines and oneiric imagery.
Psychopathia Sexualis is enhanced by the awareness that these drawings were illegal to posess at the time of their creation under laws banning pornography and homosexuality. Even today, they retain an illicit quality. There is nothing between these sheets of paper that can truly shock a voyeur primed by the age of the internet, in which weird fetish imagery slips into any poorly-worded Google search, but rarely are such images printed in large-format books, inviting earnest study. Gaze long enough at Spare’s drawings and your skin will crawl a little. As dirty images, they are likely to induce a pallor rather than a blush.
Typical pornography sanitizes bodies and sexual acts, but Spare’s drawings seek the opposite extreme, visualizing a grotesque menagerie of sexual beings—men, women, beasts—and bodily encounters spanning sadomasochism, comedy, and obscenity. Huge, deflated genitals recall those seen in Japanese shunga, but instead of demure robes the attached figures are clothed in body hair and rolls of flesh. They piss and shit with pleasure. The drawings aim to excite us with the corporeality—that is, the corpse reality—of sex.
The real power of the work, however, lies beyond the pale of shock. Spare lived at a time when art was revolutionized by conceptions of the psyche. He independently anticipated the automatist methods of the surrealists, who shared his investment in reclaiming the unconscious as a reservoir of meaning.1 It is through a psychological paradigm that Spare’s erotica must be read, for, like all his work, these drawings emerged from a psychic flow-state in which bodies often personified meaning. Drawings of a winged penis and a winged vulva (folio 1, 3) provide keys to the work’s meaning, embodying the vital link between eros and imagination. Psychopathia Sexualis is a liberation of the mind, its monstrous personifications not illusory, but interior. Perversion takes on new shades in light of “the ego”—that fragile construction of self—as a thing to pervert; sado-masochism becomes a means to decenter the self. Whether metaphorically or not, deviant sexuality is a rebellion. Under capitalism, eros tends toward commodification like anything else (one size fits all). Does the standardization of sex not breed psychological damage? Spare suggests that fetish is freedom, but liberation is messy.
Spare deliberately bound the portfolio to social theory, taking its title from a 1889 book on sexual perversion by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, whose discipline of “sexology” was a tentative effort to loosen Victorian taboos on sex—not in order to liberate sexuality, but to control it, namely by medicalizing “degenerate” tendencies. The original Psychopathia Sexualis catalogued kinks in forensic terminology, from homosexuality and nymphomania to urolagnia and flagellation. Naturally, it became a naughty sensation—intended to scandalize, it surely also inspired.2
Spare’s drawings are more than impertinent illustrations of Krafft-Ebing’s fetish-book. Though Spare was one of the great draftsmen of his time, he was foremost an occultist. It is in this realm that his life exerted the most influence, particularly upon the late-20th-century practice of chaos magic. Spare’s mystic praxis incorporated automatic drawing, cartomancy, and an original system of sigil magic by which a coded symbol (a desire) could be deployed (symbolically ejaculated) into the collective unconscious. Any practitioner of sigil magic can confirm that the results of such rituals are not always immediate. If Spare’s drawings might themselves be thought of as magically charged, their potential energy lay dormant for almost a century within the collection of the Kinsey Institue for Sex Research at the University of Indiana. The Psychopathia Sexualis drawings were only recently discovered there, buried in a nondescript folio box beneath some Chinese erotic paintings.
It is strange and delightful to discover the Kinsey Institute, which holds a vast archive of human sexuality founded in 1947, within a province—the American heartland—that is a stronghold of sexual repression. In the psyche of this region, ideas once purveyed by 19th-century “sexologists” (that any sexuality beyond procreation was innately pathological) still hold power. With the rollback of sexual freedoms currently underway in the United States, it feels significant that Spare’s first exhibition in this country should be Psychopathia Sexualis, a body of work teeming with deviant energy. May the artist’s Eros continue to work upon our collective dreamscape.
Not that Spare would have been permitted to join the Surrealists—like the savage Georges Bataille and the madman Antonin Artaud, Spare would have been banished as an “excrement philosopher” by the international movement’s moralizing arbiter, André Breton.
Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis is to sexuality, perhaps, what Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) was to necromancy—a document intended to expose and repress certain deviant behavior, which conversely amplified it in the collective consciousness.