The history of art often appears to be obsessed with ‘great men’, those ‘towering’ figures who overshadow their contemporaries and collaborators. It was therefore with a heavy heart that one read the title of the Walker’s current ticketed exhibition, ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Making the Glasgow Style’. The sense of déjà vu perhaps seemed inevitable.
Upon entering the exhibition we are greeted with a facsimile photograph of Mackintosh which serves as a backdrop to one of his high backed chairs. His dark penetrating eyes and bushy moustache seem to emanate from the photograph, thus conveying the carefully contrived idea of the late Victorian aesthete.
Mackintosh is described as an ‘architect, designer, artist’, yet one is left unsatisfied throughout the exhibition that he alone could be all three. We are, rightly therefore, introduced to Mackintosh’s collaborators, James Herbert McNair and Frances and Margaret MacDonald, the seemingly lesser three of ‘The Four’, or ‘The Immortals’. It is with their work and that of Talwin Morris, Jessie Marion King, Ann Macbeth and Jessie Newbery that one should scrutinise further to better understand the emergence of the Glasgow Style and the development of an applied arts tradition. These works invite contemplation of the delineation between arts and craft based practices, between practices often segregated along the lines of gender and social class. There are some truly inspired and inspirational works to consider.
Sadly one cannot include Mackintosh’s within that category. His work appears somehow derivative when compared with those of his collaborators, seemingly plagiarised writ large. Consider, for example, Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh’s May Queen frieze of 1900. Here the archetypal elongated ‘Celtic’ figures sweep majestically across the gesso surface, adorned with glass beads, mother of pearl and pins, the slender fingers and haunting eyes echo more the ‘spooky style’ of Aubrey Beardsley. Whilst Mackintosh’s own, Mantegna like figures, seem oddly statuesque and devoid of vitality. Thus it may not come as a surprise to some visitors that many of the motifs, usually associated with and attributed to Mackintosh, were devised by the MacDonald sisters and McNair, in particular the Glasgow Rose.
There are some omissions to this exhibition, which one finds unusual; the ‘iconic’ Mackintosh typeface is not documented, nor sadly is any significant opportunity offered to learn more about Mackintosh’s great patron, Catherine Cranston, whose Glasgow tearooms offered Mackintosh the opportunity to pursue his ideas of a ‘total work of art’.
Rather we are offered a seemingly endless series of Mackintosh’s architectural drawings, though some provide an element of interest, such as his entry for the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral Exhibition as well as his Art School. However by his own admission, ‘….these drawings…give but a very poor idea of what reality will be’, one has to concur. Thus the claims for Mackintosh’s ‘greatness’ remain somehow underexplored and the results are at best frustrating, at worst professionally unsatisfactory.
At the conclusion of the exhibition, one is invited to consider whether Mackintosh was the father of modernism? One can definitively reply to the contrary. Mackintosh’s enduring legacy to modernism remains the Glasgow School of Art, a much mourned building in which subsequent generations of artists truly embraced modernism.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Making the Glasgow Style is on display at Walker Art Gallery until 26 August 2019
Ed Montana-Williams is an Art and Architectural Historian based in Merseyside.