Beyond the Veneer: Charles Rennie Mackintosh
On the 10th of December 1928, Glaswegian designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh died in London relatively unknown and destitute. He was one of the artists who reaffirmed craftsmanship at a time of emerging Northern industrialization. He agreed with those in the British Arts and Crafts Movement who hailed a return to the individual touch of crafts to counteract the monotony of mass-produced, production line factory goods. Many called him “a prophet of modernism; others, an apostle of Art Nouveau. But, in fact, Mackintosh approached every building, every room, as if he were composing a different poem, using his imagination to create something special and whole.” (Stanley Meisler, ‘Ahead of the curve: the art of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’, Smithsonian Magazine, January 1997). “In a Mackintosh building or design, and in a Mackintosh/Macdonald interior, everything receives the same degree of scrupulous and loving attention. This quality commands loyalty and affection for the work and by extension for its creator(s)” (David Brett, reviews in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 56, No. 2, Jun., 1997).
Idolized in Europe and neglected towards the end of his life in his native Scotland, Mackintosh has posthumously become well-known, his style clichéd and pidgeon-holed in the second half of the 20th century. “It is worthwhile to sort out the wheat from the chaff because in the past five years, the architect, his circle of friends and collaborators, and the phenomenon of the Glasgow Style have been at the center of a minor industry which has produced, in addition to more serious studies, repetitious picture books, reproductions, pastiche, and flim-flam. The laconic Glaswegians refer to this as Mockintosh.” (David Brett, reviews in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 56, No. 2, Jun., 1997). Masses of reproductions of furniture, photographs in the press, and the shameless appropriation of his design motifs have made him into a fashionable household name.
There is, however, more substance to the mirage of surface in his art. Although instantly recognisable, both progressively modern and embued with romantic elements, his style is a mixture of typical facets of the Scottish vernacular, but also the conservative English Arts and Crafts tradition and ultimately the organic forms of Art Nouveau’s modernism. While in his architecture he explored three-dimensionality, in his decorative work, Mackintosh and his wife and creative partner Margaret Macdonald explored the potential of two-dimensionality. “Mackintosh was a brilliant composer of two-dimensional planes. His attention to the composition of the graphic surface suggests that he saw it as the primary goal more than an intermediate step toward a fully three-dimensional, material fact. The realization that his beautiful, slightly curved lines can appear as stone, wood, iron, etc. makes one wonder. This question is not to indirectly assert a modernist “truth to materials” conundrum, but it does suggest the primacy of the graphic form of the expression.”(Sidney Robinson in Design Issues, Vol. 13, No. 3, Autumn, 1997). He was innovative in the modernist sense and his lines were determined to find their own formal gratification, not unlike some of Matisse’s late decorative designs.
“Mackintosh’s art depended on creating a balance between forces like darkness and light, line and curve, abstraction and sensuality, function and symbol. His wife did not just add decoration to his work but helped him fashion the forces creating the tension. She and Toshie signed many works jointly, but her hand can often be seen even in furniture and buildings attributed solely to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. “Margaret has genius,” Mackintosh once told a friend. “I have only talent.” .” (Stanley Meisler, ‘Ahead of the curve: the art of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’, Smithsonian Magazine, January 1997).
Meisler wrote that it is hard to say that Mackintosh was a pioneer of modern architecture with its creed that “form follows function”, as his architectural forms came out of the designer’s imagination, and were often of no utilitarian function to the building, and impractical. However, they were immensely satisfying visually: wall extensions with the single purpose of letting ample light into buildings, panelled windows hard to clean but beautiful to look at. There was hedonism in his subtlety of form. It seemed that Mackintosh did not spare any means to achieve his inventive quirks: Pamela Robertson, curator of the Macintosh Collection told of how the models which needed to be built of Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art building, for example, revealed that he had used over 100 designs just for the windows.
A true aesthete, Mackintosh did not reveal much of his inner life – for much of his life, “we simply do not know what he thought or felt”, Alan Crawford, an authority on his work, revealed in his 1995 book on the artist. Crawford noted that he was a lonely figure who withdrew into his inner world for inspiration, so much so that he was oblivious to the world around him. “The artist cannot attain to mastery in his art,” Mackintosh once said in a lecture, “unless he is endowed in the highest degree with the faculty of invention.”