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Big Mack

(And, she might have added, Barcelona.)

Heretofore most commentary on Mackintosh’s Glasgow has focused on the obvious contrast between his rarefied design schemes and the gritty industrial center that at the time was the second city of the British Empire. Yet Ms. Kinchin proposes that the city already had a century-long history of what might be called competitive decorating, which put a high premium on originality and startling effects. An artist of Mackintosh’s eccentric individuality was therefore able to succeed in Glasgow to an extent that would have been far more difficult in tradition-bound communities. Her essay, one of the most valuable contributions to the exhibition catalog, is an excellent example of the recent tendency for such publications (especially those of architecture shows) to include a chapter on the subject’s local setting and the larger forces that inevitably shape the forms that buildings and cities take.

Reinforcing Ms. Kinchin’s cultural interpretation is the informative chapter by Daniel Robbins, curator of British art and design at the Glasgow Museums, on the Glasgow School of Art. That progressive institution was supported with enlightened self-interest by the city’s industrial leaders to provide them with local talent for their burgeoning technical and manufacturing capacities. The Glasgow School of Art (whose new building would eventually become the crowning achievement of Mackintosh’s thwarted career) allowed its most famous pupil, the son of a police inspector, to receive a first-rate architectural and design education and to be launched, by the late 1880s, into the professional class. The school’s idealistic director, Francis Herbert (“Fra”) Newbery, was one of Mackintosh’s strongest advocates, and the story of his educational leadership and architectural patronage is well told in Mackintosh’s Masterwork: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School of Art, a richly illustrated book originally published in 1989 and now available in a paperback edition.

2.

Not the least of the opportunities the Glasgow School of Art afforded Mackintosh was the ability to meet the talented young women who made up a significant portion of the institution’s enrollment at a time when co-education, while rare in other disciplines, was increasingly common in the applied arts. It was at the school that he and his best friend and fellow student, Herbert McNair, met two independently well-to-do sisters, Margaret and Frances Macdonald, whose private incomes allowed them to enroll as day students, while the men, of more modest backgrounds, worked as architectural draftsmen by day to pay for their classes at night. Charles and Margaret, Herbert and Frances paired off, both couples sharing a romantic vision of a new kind of art and design that could elevate mankind to a higher spiritual plane. They soon became known as the Four, an inseparable unit that formed a movement of its own within the Glasgow School.

The third of the exhibition catalog’s “Mackintosh in Context” essays, Janice Helland’s “Collaboration Among the Four,” is an admirable achievement that parallels several other recent re-evaluations of the parts that lesser-known female colleagues had in work long solely ascribed to some of this century’s most celebrated male architects. Pat Kirkham’s Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century3 attributed a far greater share in that couple’s collaborations than had been done before to the self-effacing Mrs. Eames, and Matilda McQuaid’s 1996 Museum of Modern Art exhibition and catalog on the work of Lilly Reich gave Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s principal personal and professional partner much-deserved credit for her central part in his career. So does this persuasive chapter emphasize how inextricably bound up Mackintosh’s designs—and fortunes—were with those of Macdonald.

It should not have taken this long—Mackintosh died in 1928, Macdonald five years afterward—for the record to be set straight. He sometimes signed works with both sets of their initials (though some scholars debate whether this meant actual collaboration, conceptual inspiration, or merely, in the case of his series of botanical watercolors of circa 1915, her proximity when they were executed). Margaret Macdonald often provided the decorative insets that imparted such a distinctive air to Mackintosh’s interiors and furniture. Her beaten-metal mountings of wraithlike female figures (symbolism that earned the Four the epithet of the Spook School) gave his cabinetry the preciousness of a reliquary, and her gessoed friezes of ethereal spirits brought a flowing, curvilinear dynamic to the insistent verticality of his interiors.

Macdonald’s work, and somewhat less so that of Mackintosh, is loaded with symbolism, but Ms. Helland (who teaches art history at Concordia University in Montreal) and her fellow catalog contributors largely sidestep the issue, perhaps because of the extravagant overinterpretations that have been advanced by some scholars in recent years, particularly those which see the oeuvre of the Four as fairly dripping in sexual meaning. Occult imagery is another possibility that the catalog does not investigate. Although Julian Spalding, director of the Glasgow Museums that together are the largest lenders to the show, believes that Mackintosh and Macdonald’s almost obsessive use of the rose motif points quite clearly to their interest in the Rosicrucian movement, the book makes no mention of that cult, which enjoyed a revival at the turn of the century.4

3.

It is most unfortunate, then, that the version of the exhibition “Charles Rennie Mackintosh” now at the Metropolitan Museum fails to give adequate attention to the two most significant issues whose previous neglect is redressed by the catalog—the necessity of seeing Mackintosh not as an isolated artist but as a highly characteristic product of his time and place, and the importance his wife and helpmate had in bringing his stunningly comprehensive design schemes to fruition. That the show as seen in New York is about 20 percent smaller both in floor space and number of objects displayed is not as disturbing as the fact that almost all of the rejected artifacts were by the least famous three of the Four. Similarly diminished are the sections of the original installation dealing with the wider Glasgow scene. And the new labeling throughout the show (by J. Stewart Johnson, the Metropolitan’s consultant for architecture and design and co-curator of the retrospective with Pamela Robertson of the Hunterian) sticks much more closely to the old Howarth line than does the exhibition catalog itself, an anomalous contradiction of the essayists’ corrective efforts.

The Met show, in any event, is a popular success and it is handsomely enough installed, although it is not as provocatively presented as it was in Glasgow, where the imaginative setting of the exhibition was devised by the design firm Creamuse. There has been an understandable proclivity for the public and critics alike to cast Mackintosh as Scotland’s Frank Lloyd Wright, but despite their shared impulse to create self-contained universes of “total design” there are few legitimate parallels between them. During his long career, Wright executed some four hundred buildings; Mackintosh designed some four hundred pieces of furniture but during his short productive period saw only fourteen of his buildings completed (not counting his interior design commissions). Above all, the seamless flow of interior space that was Wright’s most revolutionary accomplishment is rarely found in the architecture of Mackintosh. Hermann Muthesius, the German architect and writer who was one of Mackintosh’s most avid contemporary supporters, once noted that the Scotsman tended to design individual rooms and then wrap buildings around them. The disjunctive feeling one gets during a walk through even Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art—a series of dazzling but isolated spaces joined with little discernible logic and no continuity at all—bears out Muthesius’s observation all too well.

Furthermore, Wright was astonishingly resilient as a man and artist, transforming himself and his architecture time and again in the face of personal and professional setbacks. One year older than Mackintosh, Wright was one of the very few architects working in the free styles of the turn of the century to carve out a successful new direction for himself, though he, like Mackintosh, suffered enormously as taste shifted toward a new classical revival after 1910. That emergent fashion, and especially the catastrophe of World War I, wrecked a number of other unconventional architectural careers, including those of C.F.A. Voysey and Josef Hoffmann.

In temperament and intensity Mackintosh more closely resembled Wright’s lieber Meister, Sullivan. Both men were immensely gifted ornamentalists, but their sometimes excessive attention to decorative details scared off cost-conscious prospective clients. Despite experience working in corporate architectural offices, they became known as difficult colleagues. The predisposition that both men had to bouts of depression was no doubt exacerbated by their alcoholism, a fatal flaw in a profession where a client’s trust is the prerequisite for getting work.

The downward path of Mackintosh’s career is visible at Auchinibert, the Stirlingshire country house he began to design in 1905 for the Shand family. The building was sited atop a steep slope, but Mackintosh seldom bestirred himself to leave the more comforting attractions of the local pub at the bottom of the hill. There, more often than not, he was found drunk by the exasperated patrons, who eventually fired him and had the job completed by another architect.

If anything, Mackintosh enjoyed the extraordinary forbearance of his small but loyal Glasgow clientele, some of whom indulged his moody and erratic behavior. No doubt his head was turned by the entreaties of his admiring Viennese colleagues, who urged him to resettle in their (supposedly more sympathetic) city, a move precluded by the outbreak of the war. In one of the exhibition catalog’s most astute observations, Gavin Stamp, a lecturer at the Mackintosh School of Architecture at the Glasgow School of Art, writes that “the tragedy of Mackintosh is in part that…Hermann Muthesius and Josef Hoffmann made a brilliant but naive Glaswegian believe that he could play the role of an international figure, thus making him impatient with the environment that had made and sustained him.”

If there is another twentieth-century architect to whom Mackintosh might be more tellingly compared it is, surprisingly enough, Louis I. Kahn. On the surface, an analogy between the decorative suavity of Mackintosh and the Brutalist asperity of Kahn might seem absurd. Yet the buildings of both men were deeply influenced by the monolithic massing and defensive position of medieval Scottish castles. Each architect was highly adept at inventive detailing of a sort particularly admired by their fellow architects. And both Mackintosh and Kahn excelled at dramatizing vertical circulation in their structures, designing staircases with forceful psychological effects not seen since the Age of Baroque.

The east stairway of Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, which he improvised to connect his original east wing of 1897-1899 to his western extension of 1907-1909, is every bit as mysterious and surprising as Kahn’s famous cylindrical stairway at his Yale Art Gallery addition of 1951-1953. Though the work of both men could often seem awkward and unresolved—the result of a relative lack of experience in both instances, as opposed to the myriad opportunities Wright had to work out his ideas and learn from his mistakes—Mackintosh and Kahn could be uncannily adept at sacralizing the small rituals of daily life. Their

It is easy to like Mackintosh for all the wrong reasons, and thus one of the great pleasures of seeing so much of his work gathered in one place is the opportunity it provides to contemplate the strange distortions and odd contortions of the objects he designed with such evident passion. One of Mackintosh’s most gifted contemporaries, albeit one whose classical sympathies insured the long career denied to the Scotsman, was Sir Edwin Lutyens. After he visited Miss Cranston’s newly opened Buchanan Street Tea Rooms in 1897, Lutyens wrote to his wife that Mackintosh’s interior design scheme was “all very elaborately simple.” It has taken the world a full century now to see how wrong that bon mot truly was.

  1. 3

    See Martin Filler, “All About Eames,” The New York Review, June 20, 1996.

  2. 4

    See The New York Times, December 22, 1996, letter to the editor from Julian Spalding, Arts and Leisure, p. 40.

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