Mackintosh Demythologized

By Chambers, Karen S. | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Mackintosh Demythologized

Chambers, Karen S., The World and I

Was his work Art Nouveau or proto-Deco? Cerebral or sensuous? Scotland's complex Charles Rennie Mackintosh continues to fascinate, even as he transcends popular myth.

A popular myth surrounds Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the artist-architect-designer born in Glasgow in 1868. He is often described as a visionary who was first praised and then forgotten. Some say his work was appreciated more in Austria and Germany than in Britain. A heavy drinker, he fought depression when his fortunes turned, and he spent his declining years painting watercolors in the south of France. As the story goes, he died a broken man in 1928.

The myth both romanticizes and simplifies Mackintosh. But Mackintosh was nothing if not complex. His works of architecture, interior decoration, furniture, decorative objects, graphic design, textile patterns, and watercolors all reveal him to have been cerebral but also sensuous. He was well acquainted with tradition but able to create a new synthesis. As an artist he designed to suit his client's needs while also insisting on his own aesthetic integrity.

Mackintosh resists categorization. His eloquent line and his affinity for natural motifs make him a Scottish variant of Art Nouveau. His elegantly linear designs for buildings and furniture have been considered proto-Modernist, but there's too much complex detailing and a clear love of the decorative for him to be Modernist in a Miesian sense. His hard-edged, geometricized abstraction nominates him for proto-Deco, and the vibrancy of his textile designs argues for making him a precursor of the sixties' Op Art. The truth is, Mackintosh is best described as Mackintosh.

His appeal has been so great in recent years that his designs have been mass-produced as copies of his original chairs, clocks, and lights or applied to a plethora of products from mugs to T-shirts to jewelry. "Mockingtosh" is the label often applied to these reproductions and (mis?)interpretations. The practice may have started as early as 1904. His wife and collaborator, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, wrote to German architect and writer Hermann Muthesius, who had championed their work, that "the whole town is getting covered with imitations of Mackintosh tea rooms, Mackintosh shops, Mackintosh furniture &c--It is too funny--I wonder how it will end."

That remains to be seen as his reputation continues to grow and his accomplishments are studied. But we do know how it began. Mackintosh was born in a Glasgow tenement, the fourth of' eleven children born to Margaret Rennie and William McIntosh, a clerk in the police force who eventually rose to superintendent. (Charles Rennie changed the spelling of his name in 1893 for unknown reasons, as his father had done earlier.) He attended Reid's Public School and then Allan Glen's School, a private school for children of tradesmen and artisans specializing in practical subjects. In 1883, he began taking classes at the Glasgow School of Art, and the following year, at 16, was apprenticed to a little-known architect, John Hutchinson.

In 1889 he joined the elite firm of Honeyman and Keppie as a draftsman. He won the Alexander Thompson Traveling Scholarship in 1890 and, with the prize of 60 [pounds sterling], went on a sketching tour of Italy the following year. The architectural elements that he drew while there were often incorporated into his own early designs. At about the same time, he was also making watercolors strongly influenced by the Aesthetic School so popularized by Aubrey Beardsley.

During this period, as was customary, his work at Honeyman and Keppie was presented as that of the firm, and his contributions were not specifically acknowledged. An ambitious man, he lectured, entered competitions, exhibited, and expanded his interests to the decorative arts to publicize his talents. He also began to think of himself as an artist. In 1893, the same year he designed an addition to the Glasgow Herald building (the first work at Honeyman and Keppie that can be clearly attributed to him), he and fellow draftsman Herbert McNair befriended a group of middle-class women students at the Glasgow School of Art who called themselves "the Immortals. …

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