Charles Rennie Mackintosh 1996-February 16, 1997; The Art Institute of Chicago, March 29-June 22; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, August 3-October 12 (previously at the Glasgow Museums, McLellan Galleries, May 25-September 30, 1996)
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928)
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Mackintosh’s Masterwork: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School of Art
In the fragmented and seemingly directionless world of late-twentieth-century architecture, no concept beguiles the popular imagination more than that of “organic” design. The belief that all aspects of a comprehensive architectural scheme—from its landscape setting and the building itself to interior decoration—should be orchestrated as a seamless whole under the direction of one designer is the most enduring legacy from the last fin-de-siècle to our own. The longing for complete integration in architecture, from the broadest concepts down to the smallest details, with each reinforcing the other, explains much about the present-day fascination with the turn-of-the-century figures who brought the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk to the building art more fully than ever before. Theirs was no mere personal expression, but part of a widespread reaction against the new social divisions brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
Three great proponents of that all-inclusive approach still claim a vast audience commanded by no living architect. In this country, Frank Lloyd Wright is the supreme example, his adherents and the publications about him increasing as his posthumous stature grows and his incomparable meldings of site and structure age gracefully. In Catalonia, Antoni Gaudí is virtually a national saint, with public responses to his idiosyncratic landmarks providing a litmus test for a host of political, religious, and cultural attitudes. And in his native Glasgow, a once-mighty trading center now with few economic resources save cultural tourism, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) has become the basis of a lucrative local industry and a worldwide cult.
It is not difficult to understand the particular appeal of Mackintosh’s work. Extreme and striking, his most famous designs—the high-backed chairs with which he furnished the dozen remarkable Glasgow tea rooms he executed for Kate Cranston between 1896 and 1917—are quite unlike any other chairs made before or since. Flagrantly exaggerated and patently impractical not only by the standards of the then-nascent Modern movement but also by those of the waning Victorian era, the chairs of Mackintosh nonetheless dramatize the act of sitting with greater authority than any of the more “functional” designs later produced by Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Indeed, the true function of a Mackintosh chair was to look arresting in a specific architectural setting, and at that his designs succeeded spectacularly well.
Even by themselves Mackintosh’s chairs retain a strong hieratic presence. One of the more memorable photographs of Prince Charles and Princess Diana during their protracted public displays of marital discord showed them slumped away from each other in reproductions of Mackintosh’s Argyle Street Tea Room chairs of 1898-1899. Though the scowls and body language of the unhappy couple suggested the contrary, the stately tall backs of the chairs, surmounted by oval motifs recalling the mon crests of Japanese nobility, invested the scene with an inviolably regal presence.
Almost seventy years after his death, Mackintosh is particularly revered in Japan, whose classical art and architecture had as deep an effect on his work as …