Glasgow Retells Story Of Its Most Inventive Architect and Designer

Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibit perpetuates some myths

The reputation, and actual achievements, of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Glasgow architect and designer, have been strangely subject to mythmaking.

Long seen as a pioneer of 20th-century modernism in all its stark economy and idealism, Mackintosh (1868-1928) is now the subject of a kind of post-modernist, mixed-bag assessment.

A major exhibition (now here; see dates below for US tour that follows) accompanied by a major new book packed with essays by Mackintosh scholars (an evidently burgeoning species), comes at a time when the Mackintosh story, according to Wendy Kaplan, must be retold. Now it should be a narrative "much richer and more full of contradictions," more "complex and mysterious" than "the old myth."

Ms. Kaplan, editor of the new Mackintosh book (published by Abbeville Press), is curator of the Wolfsonian museum in Miami and an authority on late 19th-, early 20th-century design.

In her introduction, she admits that Mackintosh studies of the 1990s are no less "subject to the prejudices and proclivities of the time" than they were, differently, in earlier decades.

Designs on gender

Feminist scholarship, for example, has sunk its teeth into the gendering of Mackintosh designs. There is some reason for dissecting his work into male or female elements since he collaborated with his wife, Margaret Macdonald; one of his keenest patrons was Miss Cranston, the owner of many Glasgow tearooms; and his domestic design-work often displayed a decidedly feminine sensibility. And yet one cannot avoid feeling that such a particularized way of analyzing, say, one of his chairs, can be carried way beyond anything Mackintosh himself would have thought sensible.

Another of today's proclivities, as the exhibition itself demonstrates in all its glory at the McLellan Galleries in the artist's now entirely Mackintosh-dedicated native city, is the felt need to present Mackintosh in a crowd-drawing, popular light.

The show is admirably staged, the rather imposing Victorian galleries lowered, simplified, and whitened for the occasion (in line with Mackintosh's own approach as an interior designer), and the whole experience has a theatrical feel. It is a pleasure to wander through it. But afterward, one is left with some odd questions.

First of all, one is curious which parts of this show are authentic Mackintosh and which parts are only Mackintosh-like re-creations (there is a great use of stenciled motifs, mirrors, screens, and a variety of spaces). Much of what you see is in fact designed not by Mackintosh (or his wife), but by the exhibition designer, Jean Bermon. Labels help to clarify, but casual visitors may be confused.

The second question that the show raises is how any exhibition, even this superb effort, could give its visitors the essential experience of any architect's work, least of all this one. Larger photographs might have helped. But, of course, it is impossible to transport buildings into an exhibition space.

There are actually two restored "interiors" in the show. One is of the beautiful white Ladies' Luncheon Room from a Cranston tearoom - a superb reconstruction. The other is a section (only) of the lounge-cum-hall of the last interior of any significance Mackintosh designed, at a house in Northampton, England, in 1917. This, too, is an excellent job.

But even these splendid reconstructions don't actually enable one to be inside a Mackintosh space, to sit in a Mackintosh chair, or - and this is the marvellous thing about being in one of his buildings - to experience his astonishing use of different effects and degrees of daylight.

But, to be fair, what could an exhibition hope to do?

There is a film or two, to help one experience what it is like to move through his domestic masterpiece, the Hill House, for example, or his Scotland Street School.

But the camera seems to sweep and circle in its attempt to capture the three-dimensional spaces, and it does this at a strangely unfamiliar height above the floor, almost like the camera moving toward the shower in "Psycho," though without the murder. Film simply cannot achieve the degree of peripheral vision one actually has in these interiors - one's awareness of feet on carpets, of space behind the back, the scale of furniture or wall-recess, hearth or shelf, the air around oneself. These videos, however good, distort.

While the show is in Glasgow, visitors will be able to see a few Mackintosh buildings that were built: The Art School, for instance, is only a few paces away, and so are the restored Willow tearooms. But while the exhibition is on its US tour, the difficulty in making an exhibition truly convey this architect's accomplishments will be more apparent.

Not just an architect

One of the valuable points made by the 1990s Mackintosh scholars is that to appreciate him fully he cannot simply be seen as an architect.

In this respect, both show and book have a much easier role to perform. He was a designer of every last aspect of his buildings in and out, and this fact compensates considerably for the comparatively small output of buildings.

If it is fair to describe this multifaceted exhibition as basically a furniture show, then it is equally right to remember that (as Pat Kirkham does in her book essay) "furniture was a major aspect of [Mackintosh's] work. He designed more than 400 pieces between 1893 and 1919, and it is on these and their related interiors that his reputation as a designer rests." It is impossible to separate his furniture from his architecture: They are part of the same "whole work."

Perhaps the most persistent myth that Mackintosh's reputation has had to live down is that of an isolated, flawed, and finally unappreciated genius. The "brevity" of his career and the list of unbuilt designs are accounted for in this way. His tendency toward depression and alcoholism is not forgotten either.

But at the peak of his activity in Glasgow, his energy, productivity, and determined originality were a prodigious fact. He was astoundingly inventive, and although he can be seen as responsive to prevalent movements - to Glasgow's own architectural movement, to aestheticism, to the Arts and Crafts movement, to the Vienna Secession, and even to a sort of proto-modernism tied to all of these - he was, as his capacity to engage subsequent generations shows, passionately his own man.

*The Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibition remains in Glasgow through Sept. 30. It then travels to the US where it will be in New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Nov. 19 1996-Feb. 16, 1997; in Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago) March 29-June 22, 1997; and in Los Angeles (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) Aug. 3-Oct. 12, 1997.

Address of city of Glasgow worldwide Web service: http://www.glasgow.gov.uk (A specific Web site for the Mackintosh exhibition is planned for mid-August. This address has not yet been determined.)

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