Anita Katsarska explores the lasting imprint of Charles Rennie Mackintosh on Glasgow
There were the steep streets imprinted with the scent of tobacco from a past Merchant city; there were the antique alleys bridging pubs, music, and passers; there were the city curtains proclaiming “People Make Glasgow.” And still, in the first weeks of Glasgow-ing around, I didn’t feel like I belonged. Carrying pans, cutlery and pillows up and down the accommodation stairs didn’t satisfy my need for a home away from home. It was then that I sought harbour in Kelvingrove Art Gallery. In one of the rooms there, I came acroos a witty-looking Scot with a carelessly tied bow and that unmistakable moustache and he my sense of belonging through his art. On the 7th of June, if he were to be alive, Charles Rennie Mackintosh would have turned 150 years. I would only dare you to call him an old man, though – his progressive artistic spirit and architectural drive boldly stand behind the ideology of being young forever.
A native Glaswegian, Mackintosh grew up sucking views of the whole city from the Necropolis and the Cathedral. His fundamental belonging to Scotland he maintained while attending evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art. The school is an emblematic place in tracing Mackintosh’s steps – there he befriended James McNair and, under the blessing of headmaster Francis Newbery, met his future wife Margaret Macdonald. The three of them together with Margaret’s sister – Frances – created decorative panels that astonished with light, delicate symbolism based on vernacular concepts of love, youth, and art. After joining Honeyman and Keppie’s firm, his awareness as a Glasgow-based architect was heightened by projects like the infamous addition to the complex of buildings of the School of Art, The Lighthouse, Queen’s Cross Church, all reflecting his humorous originality and knowledge of materials such as yellow and red sandstone.
Mackintosh was capable of striking a balance between the mystery of symbols, so enigmatic they almost communicated with the sacred, and the secular spirit of the city. His art still reverberates with us – Glaswegians who came to the world later in time and foreigners aspiring to become the Glasgow newbies – because there is an innate sense of evolution of what is essential to the world. Art. Echoing an apt cliche, “Everything new is well-forgotten old,” Mackintosh’s buildings carry infusions of Gothic, Scottish Baronial, Victorian, and Japanese influence. However, the word “infusion” is particularly important in this sense for Mackintosh didn’t fully rely on the well-forgotten old. His designs were loosely based on what he had observed as a young student, but they breathed an air of renewal which became sought after by his contemporaries. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an artist, not an imitator; a creator, not a follower. The composition of his art involved drawing on images which contoured Scotland’s past, and then projecting these onto innovative, intimate canvasses. He gulped kindness from the flowers, the earth and the sky, and incorporated these elements into celtic inspired organic knots and vertical lines whose striking symmetry engrossed the visual imagination.
Paralleling a shift from a young man’s life as an aspiring architect to a calm marriage of reciprocal love, Mackintosh’s artistic circle of peers became smaller with time. From a surrounding of individualistic and ambitious artists at The School of Art, to an association with a group of talented women who went by the name “The Immortals,” to the decorative art works of the quartet of The Glasgow Four, which saturated with natural sounds. In his last years, though, Mackintosh shared ideas and inspiration only with his wife Margaret. The immense love nurtured in the private space of their home shines through the letters “Your Toshie” wrote to “My Margaret” and meticulously composed in “The Chronycle” journal during a time when she was living in London while he stayed in France. It overwhelms me how pure and simple their relationship was. Their marriage involved many financial struggles, especially in the years preceding his death in 1928, when their art was struggling to follow up earlier recognition. They never stopped taking care of each other, though. It is in the descriptions of banal daily routines in the letters that we feel the strength of their immense care and admiration. He didn’t simply love her – he adored her whole being and put her genius on pedestal before his own talent. You know how people today talk about networking and finding connections? Well, all these two eternal souls needed was each other’s contact to find truth in their work. Charles Rennie and Margaret were one person. Until his death, Mackintosh never stopped exploring the truth found in nature; never ceased expanding his insights into symbolic meanings which continued to define his art; but it was his love that symbolized his life. Perhaps that’s why, in Mackintosh’s work, I finally began to see what it meant to love Glasgow for myself.