Making The Most Of Mackintosh

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.

Mackintosh

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.

Willow

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.

Glasgow

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.

Hill House

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.

Wassail

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.

Collioure

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:

Boule

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.

Rue

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.

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Thought-Pourri: Gone Fishing Edition

Tomorrow I’m headed out on vacation, so chances are you won’t be seeing a new post for at least a couple of weeks. During my absence, you can follow my Instagram and Twitter postings, if you’re interested in seeing what I’m up to. Rest assured, I’m anticipating that there will be plenty of art and architecture posts, not just images of beaches and food (although there will be plenty of that as well, naturally enough.)

And now, on to some art news.

Fishers Of Compliments

One would think that, after the blasphemy and sacrilege on display at the Met Ball and the associated “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition – and do read this excellent editorial in The Art Newspaper condemning the show, which is a solid piece of writing and a rare instance of a secular art outlet getting it right when it comes to understanding Catholicism – the exhibition’s greenlighter, Cardinal Ravasi, would have done quite enough for one lifetime to bring scandal to the Church. Apparently, that is not to be the case. His Eminence likes being quoted in the art press saying thoughtless things, as well as having his picture taken with celebrities who despise Catholicism and the Faith, so his latest effort is really all of a piece.

For the first time, the Vatican will be participating in the Venice Architecture Biennale, sponsoring a group of ten chapels on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the Venetian lagoon. As reported in The Art Newspaper, the starchitects involved in the project aren’t exactly following the example of Bernini, Borromini, or Bramante when it comes to their ecclesiastical designs:

They need contain no reference to the Christian Church except for a pulpit and an altar, because, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “These are the expression of the Holy Word that is proclaimed and the Eucharistic Supper that is celebrated by the assembly of believers.”

A bizarre enough statement, but then His Eminence goes on to further muddy the waters, as he is quoted here in Architecture Daily:

A visit to the ten Vatican Chapels is a sort of pilgrimage that is not only religious but also secular. It is a path for all who wish to rediscover beauty, silence, the interior and transcendent voice, the human fraternity of being together in the assembly of people, and the loneliness of the woodland where one can experience the rustle of nature which is like a cosmic temple.

To my mind, a “cosmic temple” sounds like a place where one undergoes the Klingon Rite of Succession, or where Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson have a confab, but be that as it may. Still, I suppose that there is at least one lasting element of intellectual value to this project. The fact that these structures are little more than flimsy, empty spaces means that they are an all the more appropriate metaphor for the mind of the man who commissioned them.

Venice

Salute Campari

It’s fairly well known in my social circles that Campari, the syrupy, extremely bitter Italian liqueur, is one of my favorite tipples, even though more often than not, when I get someone to try it for the first time they find it one of the most awful drinks they’ve ever tasted. For my part, I like it in warm weather with soda on the rocks and a slice of orange. I also like it in any weather as part of a cocktail that I accidentally invented, along with some help from a clueless French waiter on the Upper East Side, a Dominican priest, and my closest friend.

However, I must confess that I wasn’t quite so aware of the really interesting Italian art dedicated to this beverage over the years. This summer, the Estorick Collection in London is mounting a show to showcase these images, which ranges from the languid ladies of the Gilded Age to Italian Futurism to Mid-Century Minimalism. I likely won’t be able to get there myself, but am definitely going to keep an eye out for the exhibition catalogue. “The Art of Campari” opens on July 4th, and runs through September 16th.

Campari

Dreaming The Future

Speaking of 20th century Italian art, another show on that subject which I doubt that I’ll get to this summer – ah the woes of being an art writer who can’t go see all of the things one would like to see – has just opened at the Ateneum in Helsinki. “Fantastico! Italian Art from the 1920s and 1930s” looks at the concept of Magical Realism in Italian art during this period, as represented most famously by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), and some of the interesting, often strange works of art that came out of this exploration of things such as dreams with hidden meanings, and the relationship of the individual to the anonymous state of urban society. The figure in this 1931 painting of “Woman at the Café” by Antonio Donghi (1897-1963) looks quite modern, in a Greta Garbo or Myrna Loy sort of way. Yet at the same time, Donghi is undeniably looking back to those similarly flat portraits of Florentine matrons and maidens that characterized the earlier part of the Italian Renaissance. “Fantastico!” runs through August 19th.

Donghi

 

Thought-Pourri: Everything Old Is New Again Edition

Gentle Reader, I hope that you find these Thursday news roundups as enjoyable to read as I do in putting them together. The one snag that I continue to have is that I find the term “Thought-Pourri” a bit too clever by half. If at some point this feature were to be converted into an email newsletter, which is something I’m thinking about, I’d like to find a snappier title. So the best Christmas gift you could send me this year would be some a suggestion for a better title that both fits with the purpose of this summary of news from the art, architecture, and design worlds, and that has more of a snap to it – just use the “Contact” form located on the site. Thank you in advance!

And so, onward to some news…

New/Old Argument: Aragonese Art

As Catalonia goes to the polls today – again – on regional elections ordered by Madrid, an interesting art story has slipped under the radar amidst all of the coverage over the question of Catalan independence. The medieval Monastery of Santa Maria de Sigena is located in Aragón, the region just west of Catalonia. In the early 1980’s the nuns moved out of their decaying premises, which had been several damaged by leftists during the Spanish Civil War, and found a new home in Barcelona; as part of their move they sold some of the art from their old monastery to the Catalan government. The works – which include several spectacularly decorated Gothic sarcophagi like the one shown below – were put on display for a number of years in a museum in the Catalan city of Lleida, but a few years ago, the Aragonese government sued to try to get them back; in 2015, a trial judge ruled in their favor. The Catalan government appealed, and although the appellate case is still pending, in the wake of the Catalan independence vote and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid, the national police force was sent in and removed the disputed works from the museum.

Sigena

New/Old Building: Noxious Neo-Brutalism

Is Brutalism, a horrible abomination of architecture which has been (rightly) derided from its inception by people with good taste, making a comeback? Award-winning British starchitect Sir David Adjaye of the awful National Museum of African American History and Culture here on the National Mall, (or as I call it, the Sandcrawler from “Star Wars”) has just revealed plans for his first highrise tower in Manhattan, which will be located near the Brookyln Bridge. The 66-story structure will be clad in cast concrete, a material which no doubt will age beautifully in the filthy, polluted atmosphere of New York City, just like all of the other crumbling, horrible Brutalist-era buildings which it evokes. One of the highlights, if you can call it that, will be an interior spa and pool area which described as being inspired by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome which, I suppose if you were color-blind and morbidly depressed you could very loosely claim to be the case, but quite frankly it looks like something out of “Blade Runner”, and not in a good way. (No word on whether Harrison Ford is personally to blame for either of these awful buildings.)

Brooklyn

New/Old Fashion: Romanov Riches

As Russia marks the 100th anniversary of the bloodbath known as the Bolshevik Revolution, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has just opened a new, permanent exhibition of 130 historic costumes, most of which belonged to members of the ruling Romanov dynasty. Located at the Hermitage’s vast storage and conservation complex in the north end of the city, the new displays features suits, gowns, and other clothing from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II, among many others. Here for example is a ceremonial cloak and waistcoat worn by one of my favorite Russian oligarchs, Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825), who helped to defeat Napoleon.

Alexander

New/Old Resource: Fine Furniture

If you’ve ever been confused by the multitude of design terms used by museum curators, furniture retailers, and antique dealers when shopping or visiting museums and historic homes, you’re not alone. Even those of us who have at least some knowledge of the history of Western furniture can get a bit perplexed when, for example, a catalogue refers to a chair as “transitional” (what’s it transitioning into, a fridge?) While it won’t solve all such problems, a interesting new site (currently in beta) called British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (“BIFMO”) from the Furniture History Society and the University of London hopes to become a major online resource for those who want to learn their Thomas Chippendale from their George Hepplewhite.

cabinet