is Rennie MacKintosh’s legacy deserved?

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Belen Casañas

Who hasn’t gone up the hill to the library, and seen a door hanging two meters above the street? Weird, some might think? Useless? That door is in fact the door Charles Rennie Mackintosh used over 100 years ago. Today, it is the symbol of the beginning of a revolution. It is the representative and herald of Art Nouveau in the United Kingdom. It is innovation, uniqueness, beauty; and yet it is only one of the many works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow.

He has made an impact in each and everyone’s lives.  We, students of Glasgow, see his legacy every day. But not everyone is this lucky, and many travel the world to embark on ‘The Mackintosh Tour’. There is no reason why someone would not like his buildings, but what Mackintosh has done for Glasgow has left no room for discussion. So, I will walk you through four of his most iconic works of art: his house, the Glasgow School of Art, the Lighthouse, and his watercolours. And, if you haven’t already, be prepared to like the ‘I Love Charles Rennie Mackintosh’ Facebook page, and join the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.

The artist and architect who brought Art Nouveau to Glasgow changed the art world forever.  His story, however, has a sad beginning. Mackintosh suffered from a right eye disability and walked with a limp, but it is thanks to these problems that he spent a long time in the countryside, his main inspiration in every one of his buildings, textiles, paintings and furniture. Another influence was Japanese art style, although he never actually went there, as very few know. This gave rise to a hugely influential movement of Art Nouveau, with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his Glasgow School being a key player it its development.

For those who pass by the Mackintosh House on Hillhead Street thinking ‘that door is useless’, here are some fun facts about it. Stating the obvious, that was indeed CRM’s house. Originally it was located elsewhere on campus, and was about to be demolished when the university saved it, and transported it in such a way to virtually maintain the same views and effects of natural light in Mackintosh House. Seen from the outside, it is just another Victorian end-of-terrace house, but what Mackintosh’s work of art is inside: he re-decorated the interiors with his distinctive style, very futuristic for his time, for which he was criticised. So if you think it looks everything but special nowadays you’re missing that in 1906 Mackintosh designed the 21st century house as we know it today.

Another landmark that we all love is the Glasgow School of Art, which broke our hearts when it burned down last May. This is Mackintosh’s crowning jewel and it’s hard to believe he was only a 28-year-old junior draughtsman when he drew up the plans for the building. It took 12 years to be finished, and it was under appreciated at first, although we all now agree with the BBC when they consider it “one of the finest examples of art nouveau in the world”.

What makes the Glasgow School of Art such a special architectural masterpiece? Why was everyone devastated when it burnt down? Why is Glasgow not the same without its iconic library, which was lost forever in the fire? The answer is that the School of Art is everything Mackintosh was. This was his greatest and most innovative piece, where he declared its rejection to the past, embraced a new building-planning, escaping from ornaments and irrational volumetrics. In every corner we can see his love for nature, his travels around Europe and witness him playing with geometry, cubic structures and straight lines. We see his majestic use of symbolism, as well as the fine equilibrium of opposites: modernism and tradition, masculinity and femininity, light and darkness, sensuality and chastity. Not only that, but the architect succeeded in doing the impossible; he created a harmonious environment for both students and teachers. Had it not been for Mackintosh, the Glasgow School of Art wouldn’t have produced many of the UK’s leading contemporary artists such as Martin Boyce, David Shrigley and Alasdair Gray as well as actors Peter Capaldi and Robbie Coltrane.

Another key piece of ‘The Mackintosh Tour’ is the Lighthouse, which is not, and never was, a light house. In fact, is it the renamed former offices of the Glasgow Herald newspaper, of which Mackintosh only built the tower. But there is merit behind this if you hear the whole story: again, he was only a young draughtsman when he designed it, and yet he managed to transform a warehouse at the back of a printing office into a successful visitor attraction and venue. Mackintosh’s work attracts people from all over the world a century later and The Lighthouse is still one of the best galleries to see his work.

But at this point some might wonder why Mackintosh is called an artist and not an architect? That would be because he did a lot more than designing buildings and interiors. His collection of the finest pencil and watercolours paintings have made him stand out even further. Again, this story has a sad beginning: due to his lack of work and increasing disagreement with his fellow partners in the Glasgow School, Charles became depressed, and moved to the south of France, where he painted watercolours of the landscape. But Mackintosh’s passion for architecture never abandoned him, and his works have a strong sense of design, reflecting his architectural interests. As in his buildings, he reflects his love for nature, and plays with geometry, cubic structures and straight lines. Many of his works are today just around the corner, in the Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery of the University.

Hopefully by now no one will disagree with the BBC saying that Mackintosh “heralded the birth of a new style in 20th Century European architecture”. There is no excuse not to smile when going up the hill to the library and looking at that weird door. No excuse not to like the I-Love-Charles-Rennie-Mackintosh Facebook page or join the Charles Rennie Mackintosh society. Be proud of living in Mackintosh’s city, and of walking past the house he designed and lived in. Proudly wear your Mackintosh earrings, brooches and watches, and show the Mackintosh poster in your room. You’re right in asking yourself; what would we do without Charles Rennie Mackintosh?

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Megan Walker

2014 has brought a lot of focus to the legacy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Previous to an architectural exhibition that opened in July in the Hunterian Art Museum, his name had come to worldwide attention, after his ‘masterpiece’, The Glasgow School of Art having been substantially fire-damaged, particularly the west wing and the famous library. Only 10% of the structure was damaged, but tourists and architectural admirers alike will have to wait a little longer to see the school in all its glory, until the clearance of the post-fire scaffolding. Mackintosh’s name was predominant in the headlines surrounding the fire. It goes without saying that the construction of a building is a collective effort, yet it is easier to digest the idea that there was one creative genius behind one of Glasgow’s famous landmarks. It certainly makes for a better headline too: The architectural feat of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret MacDonald, Francis MacDonald, Herbert MacNair, John Keppie and John Honeyman has been compromised by a fire today at The Glasgow School of Art doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. As research continues into the biographical details and artistic efforts of Mackintosh, it has come to light that this impressive list of names are all creditable for the design of the building.

There were a number of obstacles to overcome in the initial planning of the art school. Firstly, the location of a steep hill complicated the structure. As a series of art studios, the building required large windows, which proved to be another architectural impediment. The ventilation of the building was a crucial aspect in the design as Glasgow’s smog prior to the Clean Air Acts of the 1960s covered the centre of the city with the potential to damage artwork. It is widely suggested that the smog solution was the work of John Keppie. Keppie was a talented artist and architect in his own right, and part of the architectural firm in charge of The Glasgow School of Art. His ventilation design for the school is could be the first example of air-conditioning in the world. While Mackintosh was largely responsible for many of the buildings’ aesthetics, design features like these also contributed to the success of the school.

While art school is arguably the most well-known example of Mackintosh and his collaborators’ work, there are a number of other cases in and around Glasgow where there is an uneven distribution of credit. Perhaps next in line in notoriety to The Glasgow School of Art, is The Willow Tearooms on Sauchiehall Street, up and running to this day and nestled in architectural contrast between the Celtic Shop and Sainsbury’s. Tourist brochures and history textbooks name Mackintosh as the sole designer for both the interior and exterior décor, but mentions of his wife and artistic collaborator Margaret MacDonald are scarce. Like Mackintosh and Keppie, MacDonald was a well-established artist, widely known for her watercolours and metal work. Her depictions of elongated women attracted attention, and were coherent with the Art Nouveau that Mackintosh was evolving. This coherence in style lead to her collaborate with Mackintosh, and at a glance, her work could be mistaken for a Mackintosh piece. This is exemplified in her painted gesso for The Willow Tearooms O ye, all ye that walk in Willowwood (now in Kelvingrove Art Gallery). The distinctive linear metal work and frequent use of the rose demonstrate similarities in their work, along with the question of who can be credited for what in The Willow Tearooms. It is recognized that MacDonald contributed to the interior design of the tearooms, but the building is still definitely the work of Mackintosh in today’s readings. This lack of credit is not due to the false boastings of Mackintosh; he adored his wife and believed her ability surpassed his, declaring that she had genius, whereas he had only talent: “You must remember that in all my architectural efforts you have been half if not three-quarters of them.”

History provides a number of cases where women were equal if not superior in talent to their husbands- Clara Schumann is regarded by many as a better composer to Robert Schumann, yet her work is often overlooked, largely due to inequality in opportunity for women. The same conditions did not seem to surround Margaret MacDonald, an elected member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, and although she does not have the same status as an artist, her contribution to the Glasgow Style is recognized through her position in The Four, along with Mackintosh, her sister Frances and her husband Herbert MacNair. When it comes to those working in Mackintosh’s shadow, gender inequality appears not to be the issue.

Perhaps this new focus on the work of Mackintosh will provide more credit where it’s due. Like Clara Schumann, MacDonald is certainly now established as an underappreciated artist, and The Van Goghs and Mozarts of this world have proven that there is time to grow from an underappreciated artist of their time to a seminal figure in the arts.

Key figures in history have also proven that personal tragedies can play a fatal role in the life of an artist. Mackintosh’s vice was alcohol, and his abuse of it lead to cancer, taking his life at 60 and leaving behind what is considered by many too short a repertoire of work. Perhaps his untimely death has contributed to his hierarchy in fame, compared to his contemporaries. By the time of Mackintosh’s death in 1928, his career, particularly in Glasgow, had declined. His work was no longer considered modern, and he struggled to find commissions in his home city. He attempted work as an architect in London with a bold new design, but this went largely unnoticed.

Whatever the reasons for Mackintosh’s name being prominently associated with many of Glasgow’s famous structures, his collaborators are now being seen as unrecognised and undervalued. This is a start for any artist’s status, particularly in the context of the current Hunterian exhibition, which promises to: “establish a more rounded picture, placing Mackintosh within the context of the office of John Honeyman & Keppie / Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh and its extended network of clients, contractors and suppliers… due weight is given to the functional and constructional aspects, financial and other practical constraints, which shaped a design as well as its aesthetic qualities.”

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