Sunday 22 April 2018

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style by Catherine Hokin

"Every object which you pass from your hand must carry an outspoken mark of individuality, beauty and most exact execution." Charles Rennie Mackintosh

 Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Glasgow is having a bit of a do this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of architect, designer and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the city's favourite sons and one of the most creative figures of the twentieth century. But who is not Frank Zappa, the moustachioed man who my daughter, despite having lived here for a year when she announced this loudly in the University gift shop, thought was printed on posters all across the city. Moving on. Mackintosh's influence is everywhere in Glasgow, from stylised roses to buildings as diverse as tea rooms and churches to the iconic Glasgow School of Art. There's a whole programme of events but the main draw is the exhibition running from now until the end of August at the (also iconic and only 10 minutes walk from my house which I still have to pinch myself about sometimes) Kelvingrove Art Gallery: Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style. 

 Kelvingrove Art Gallery: Daily Record
Glasgow was the birthplace of the only Art Nouveau movement in the UK . ‘The Glasgow Style’ is the term given to the design and decorative arts and craft work produced between about 1890 and 1920 by teachers, students and graduates of The Glasgow School of Art. At the centre of this style is the work of the Glasgow Four: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his future wife Margaret Macdonald, her sister Frances Macdonald and Frances’s future husband, James Herbert McNair, artists who were also part of a wider group known as The Immortals. Another nickname attached to them, because of the unearthly, ghostly quality of some of their designs (particularly the distorted female figures which were influenced by Aubrey Beardsley) was the ‘Spook School’.

The Glasgow Style draws on an eclectic mix of influences. It incorporates classical Greek elements which were the hallmark of a slightly earlier Glasgow architect, Alexander 'Greek' Thompson. Like much late nineteenth century art there is also a discernible love affair with Japan as that country's Meiji restoration period increasingly opened it up to the West. There is Celtic imagery, particularly round lettering but the strongest element which can be seen across all the different media the artists worked in was a twist on Gothic Revival.

 House for An Art Lover
That is not to say, however, that the style was backward-looking. The Glasgow Four were regarded by contemporaries as avant-garde. Mackintosh's work revolved round creating a balance between opposing forces: darkness and light, line and curve, abstraction and sensuality. He made use of devices such as creating contrasts between interior spaces, contrived by mixing white walls and pastel motifs with others that were dark, using stained wood. His exteriors are equally as challenging. Scotland Street School has two circular towers embedded in the front wall that look like the towers in old Scottish castles whose function is to contain dark and narrow spiral staircases. These towers, however, are formed almost completely from a glass window and contain an empty space which has no purpose at all except to fill the building with light. Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Oliver Wainwright described Mackintosh's designs for the 1901 Glasgow International exhibition as fantastical concoctions of domes and spires, featuring smooth monolithic towers crowned with skeletal lanterns and curvaceous pediments topped with wiry finials and flagstaffs. The Hunterian experts call it “very unorthodox and impossible to label stylistically”... I’d suggest fantasy-sci-fi-medieval: it could be a palace straight from Game of Thrones.

 Anne Macbeth Sleeping Beauty Embroidered Panel
Glasgow Style, however, is not only about architecture, or solely about Mackintosh. In 1890, a Government Act redirected alcohol tax into investing in technical and manual instruction for workers and Glasgow School of Art took full advantage of this new funding to extend its remit beyond the traditional arts such as painting and sculpture by opening a Technical Arts Studies department. This introduced a range of crafts for study including pottery, embroidery, metalwork, stained glass and woodcarving. At the same time some of Glasgow's industries such as iron were also developing new techniques, including cast iron moulding for ornamental use. All of these became part of the new design movement and all are included in the Kelvingrove show.

 The May Queen - Margaret MacDonald
An important aspect of the Glasgow Style, and too often overlooked but not by this exhibition, was the role played by women, including artists Frances and Margaret MacDonald, the illustrator Jessie King, metalwork designers Margaret and Mary Gilmour and the embroiderer Ann MacBeth. Margaret Macdonald, a wonderful artist in her own right, had an enormous influence on Mackintosh's work, which he was always the first to acknowledge: Margaret has genius, I have only talent. Although her name is not always next to his on completed projects, her curving sensual style can be traced in almost all of it, helping him to create the tension his work depended on. As Daniel Robbins, formerly curator of British Art and Design for the Glasgow Museums and project coordinator of a previous Mackintosh exhibition put it: She opened up to him a new intellectual world in which the artist is a self-conscious person.

 The Glasgow School of Art
The Glasgow Style was not a long-lived movement: the Four had gone their separate ways by the turn of the century and Mackintosh never secured another big building project after the Glasgow School of Art was completed in 1909. Tastes were changing and Mackintosh had no interest in the type of steel and glass constructions coming into favour via America, plus he had a terrible problem sticking to budgets. His end was a sad one, including a period of time spent in Suffolk during World War One in which he was treated with hostility by locals for having too many European friends. Plus ca change. Many of his buildings still stand but they fell into disrepair when he was out of fashion and are only more recently being given the attention they deserve. It is an awful irony that it was the 2014 fire in at the GSA which brought Mackintosh's name back to the fore through the destruction of his wonderful library. That fire certainly showed the depth of feeling Glasgow still has for 'Toshie' - I live very close by and my abiding memory is how many people, from all works of life, simply stood there and wept. Fingers crossed the restoration should be unveiled in 2019 - I think there might be another bit of a do. In the meantime get yourself up to Glasgow and marvel at the exhibition - I might even show you a couple of good pubs nearby.


Ruan Peat said...

love visiting Glasgow to see the art history, the lighthouse has a great display on Charles Rennie Mackintosh but now I must try and see the one in Kelvingrove too! Thank you for this.

ista said...

I saw a fabulous exhibition on the Glasgow Style at the Kelvingrove way back in the 80s (between Nov 84 and Jan 87). Toshie's work, and Margaret's have always inspired me.