The Making Of The Glasgow Style
Charles Rennie MackintoshWalker Art Gallery - until 26/08
Surmising on behalf of the average non-Glaswegian dilettante, CHARLES RENNIE MACKINTOSH most probably re-entered the forefront of the national psyche when his seminal art-nouveau opus the Glasgow School of Art was razed to the ground in June 2018. Just as a recent restoration from an earlier blaze neared its painstaking completion, a devastating crimson zeal engulfed the building for the second time in a semi-decade, in what was surely one of the most heart-rending cultural bonfires since the Great Korova Inferno of 2010 – and recently overshadowed by the blaze at Paris’ Gothic heart, Notre Dame. As acrid plumes of Grade Listed heritage blackened the skies over Sauchiehall Street, something crystallised in the ashes. This was the shittest way imaginable to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth.
Drawing instead, then, from the collections of museums, The Mitchell and City Archives, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style is a major exhibition exploring the life and works of the obsessive-visionary behind Britain’s only offshoot Art Nouveau movement. I feel an instant rush of “Scouse Power” as I come to learn that The Walker will be the only English gallery to host the exhibition and most of the contents of which have never been displayed outside of Scotland. A cultural coup for the city, then. Is right.
The first room very much focuses on the prologue of this period and the progressive conditions that preceded the acclaimed aesthetic that grew from the radical young designers toiling in the technical studios of The Glasgow School of Art. Then ‘Chas R. Mackintosh’ trained from the age of 15 as an architect – winning scholarships in the process that would take him to far-flung Renaissance towns in northern Italy, where the Byzantine buildings would later inform the Scottish Baronial gables on the institute that would bear his name. Glasgow too, an innovative, ambitious and progressive city, was also embarking an era of enlightenment. Capitalising on new diplomatic relations arising from Japan’s Restoration period, the industrial city formed strong ties with the once isolated nation. The Gift To Glasgow arrived in 1878 and contained 1150 items of lacquerware, textiles, ceramics and metal wear, some of which are amazingly included in the exhibition
For me, there’s always been the inextricable Japanese influence to the work of Mackintosh. Most apparently demonstrated in the almost shogun-gothic leanings of his high-back furniture, designed for Orient-inspired Glasgow Tea Rooms (see Argyle Chair, 1896), but also in the rustic simplicity of his wabi-like motifs of nature, and, more subtly, within the use of straight lines and geometry to anchor his compositions, noted in The Harvest Moon, 1892.
What becomes obvious from the breadth of work on display in the second room – a veritable IKEA of the Aesthetic Movement – The Glasgow Style is much broader than the signature touches of a single artist. James Herbert McNair, who attended evening classes with Mackintosh, was a kindred painter and innovative stenciller. They would meet two sisters in Frances and Margaret Macdonald who they would later marry. While studying at this progressive art institution, both sisters became acquainted with Jessie Newberry, Ann Macbeth and Jessie M. King, forming an art collective known as ‘The Glasgow Girls’. They worked within a variety of disciplines including metal, embroidery and textiles, forming a style that was massively inspired by Celtic literature, symbolism and lore.
But it was the combined efforts of Mackintosh, McNair and the MacDonald sisters, known collaboratively as ‘The Four’, who would come to represent Scottish creativity at its peak. Most life affirming of all the exhibits is Margaret Macdonald’s The May Queen, 1900, a glorious symmetrical depiction of the human form spread across three gesso panels. It is no surprise the Margaret/Mackintosh, the power couple, the nucleus of the movement, would become the toast of Europe. For they can be acknowledged for noticeably inspiring the elongated works of Gustav Klimt and other contemporaries. And this exhibition displays the roots of their compelling style.