The architect, designer, and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) is someone whose work may not be known to you. Perhaps his relative unknown on this side of the pond, as compared to, say, the earlier William Morris (1834-1896), comes from the fact that Mackintosh’s style evolved greatly over time, and bears the hallmarks of various styles from Historicism to Art Nouveau to Art Deco. His comparative obscurity in the U.S. may also be because the bulk of his output has remained in the UK, particularly in his native Scotland, making it somewhat physically inaccessible to the average museum-goer.
Fortunately for us all, to mark the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth, a number of exhibitions, books, and articles are on tap for those who want to learn more about this highly inventive figure. For example, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow is hosting “Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style” through August 14th of this year, while the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, which were designed and decorated by Mackintosh himself, will be reopening to the public on July 2nd, following an extensive renovation. An accompanying visitor center which will be used for exhibitions and events related to Mackintosh and his work will be opening in September. A site listing these and many other events associated with the celebrations surrounding the designer is also worth a click through.
Mackintosh is really difficult to pin down, when it comes to his designs, since they are both historical and a-historical at the same time. As Douglas Murphy points out in this overview of Mackintosh’s career, when designing the Glasgow School of Art, “Mackintosh was somehow able to weave together a work of incredible richness and sophistication, partly through composition and decoration, partly through allusion and reference, and partly through groundbreaking spatial imagination.” The school evolved in form as Mackintosh continued to work on it for almost 30 years, mixing Scottish baronial with industrial elements, using the typical heavy stone of the area mixed with enormous, multi-paneled windows that were highly unusual in such a northern, cold, and damp climate.
Just this month the National Trust for Scotland, which preserves many of Scotland’s historic sites for future generations, began a major restoration program at Hill House, one of Mackintosh’s most important buildings. Located on the Firth of Clyde, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean near Glasgow that has a relatively warm year-round climate thanks to the Gulf Stream, the house was built for a Scottish publishing magnate between 1902-1904. Like his American contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Mackintosh was somewhat obsessive-compulsive about the house, not only designing the building and everything inside it, but even specifying the color of flowers which Mrs. Blackie ought to place in the living room.
Because of Mackintosh’s innovative building techniques and the residence’s location, Hill House has been falling into disrepair for some time now. Like Wright’s most famous house “Fallingwater”, built three decades later, the building is located in a beautiful spot, but the materials used for its construction were not ideal for such a damp environment. To stabilize the deterioration and reduce moisture penetration while preservation is underway, a temporary, giant glass box is currently being built around the structure, which will better protect it from the elements while still allowing workers and visitors access to the structure. It’s a terrific idea, and one that, while not inexpensive, allows for potential lighting effects at night through the clear covering, much as occurred in DC during the renovation of the Washington Monument.
In addition to buildings and furniture however, Mackintosh was also an artist, something that often gets lost in the shuffle when his work is reviewed and considered. Earlier in his career he produced images such as these, which were much appreciated internationally, particularly by the Vienna Seccessionists. Not quite Art Nouveau, not quite Art Deco, works such as “The Wassail” (1900) are more akin to the work of the Catalan Modernista movement than to what was going on in the fluffy, flowery drawing rooms of Paris and Prague at the same time.
Later in life, as his interest in and commissions for architectural projects began to dry up, Mackintosh turned increasingly to landscape painting, particularly in watercolors. It is here that we can really see how his understanding of and appreciation for architectural massing was turned from the design of buildings to the painterly observation of them. He spent a good amount of time in French Catalonia, visiting small fishing towns and castellated villages of the interior, so much so that you can organize tours of the places he visited and painted.
Take this view of Collioure for example, painted in 1924; note how he stacks horizontal planes, one on top of each other, as he builds the strata that form the city, from the shoreline right up to the roof of the fortress.
A similar horizontal theme predominates in his depiction of the town of Bouleternère, painted sometime between 1925-1927, but is radically altered by the vertical thrust of the church on the top of the hill:
And finally this piece, with its strikingly odd yet almost hyperreal representation of the buildings reflected in the water, depicting the Rue de Soleil (“Street of the Sun”) in the town of Port Vendres around 1926.
When you consider that, right around the same time, Joan Miró is showing the slightly younger Salvador Dalí around the concepts of Surrealism, it’s remarkable to consider that an artist-designer who began by building classical, Beaux Arts office buildings ended up his career by painting works which would have looked just as much at home in an exhibition of the early work of the two great Catalan Surrealists.
So if unknown to you prior to today, take some time to seek out information on this fascinating talent, who is lesser-known in this country than he really ought to be.