Glasgow to Honor Its Native Son, Architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh

A major touring exhibition in 1996 marks new assessment of his vital role

Fifteen years ago, interest in turn-of-the-century Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh had the feeling of coterie: a specialist enthusiasm.

He was given due textbook honors as one of the pioneers of the modern movement (historian Nikolaus Pevsner spoke of him as a kind of Scottish Antoni Gaudi, individualistic and ahead of his time), his white interiors and somewhat spare geometries foretelling the modernists.

But, in keeping with his small oeuvre, there was a mere smattering of Mackintosh scholars, and on the popular front, even in Glasgow, he was ignored. Architectural students (mainly from Germany) came to Glasgow to see the buildings by their hero. But several of his buildings were lost, dismantled, altered, or inaccessible.

All that has changed. Some remarkable restorations have been achieved. A visit to his most famous building, the Glasgow School of Art (still a working school), is now an organized affair: It has to be to cope with the bus loads. Fifteen years ago, you strolled in and one of the janitors, if he wasn't too busy, would show you around.

The Hill House, a private residence in Helensburgh, is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, very much on the tourist map. It used to almost require a secret password to obtain entry.

More books about Mackintosh (who lived from 1868-1923) have been published. A steady stream of exhibitions, on different aspects of this artist-architect's work, have been staged.

But now the first full-scale retrospective (plus a massive catalog), opens May 25, 1996 at Glasgow's McLellan Galleries. A traveling version of the same show will appear at three major museums in the United States from Nov. 22, 1996 on (see schedule below).

A centerpiece of the exhibition has already been briefly unveiled: The splendidly restored and furnished Ladies' Luncheon Room (1901), one of the elegant and popular temperance tea rooms whose proprietor, Miss Catherine Cranston, became one of Mackintosh's foremost patrons. Nothing in the US version of the exhibition is likely to give visitors a clearer feel for a Mackintosh interior.

Here, fine and pristine, is his unique meshing of the functional with the symbolic-cum-decorative, of a rigorously delineated and balanced structure that is vertically oriented but punctuated with subtle horizontals. Here is his highly personal intuition and imagination marvelously at work. The restored room has risen, phoenix-like, out of a melee of dismantled, dusty old timber fragments long in storage and endlessly moved about until they were in a state of utter chaos. Accuracy in this re-creation has been aided by the existence of some items in museum collections, and by black-and-white photographs. It is certainly a notable addition to our still-reawakening picture of Mackintosh's achievements.

Pamela Robertson, of Glasgow University's Hunterian Art Gallery (which houses superb interiors from Mackintosh's own 1906 house) is co-curator of the show. She says one important aim is to look at the myth and the reality of Mackintosh: to disentangle the truth from limited views of him that describe ''Mackintosh as the 'pioneer of the modern movement,' or Mackintosh 'the isolated genius,' or Mackintosh as the 'toast of the Continent' - all of that is being reappraised.''

It is almost as if the need to build Mackintosh's reputation up into something more secure has now reached a plateau where exaggerated claims for his undoubted greatness can be relaxed and a more precisely balanced appreciation of his traits come into play.

That this sober reappraisal should coincide with the most thorough exposure of him overseas to date is slightly ironic. Mackintosh may well be something of a revelation to people in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He might even stimulate excessive interest.

Exhibitions about architects are difficult because buildings are not easy to pack up and send abroad. But Mackintosh's attention to every detail of exterior and interior, to furniture, light fixtures, fireplaces, stained glass, wall decorations, and more, as well as his increasing concentration on painting in his later career, help make exhibiting much of his oeuvre easier than many an architect's.

The architecture itself will be displayed in drawings, photographs (old and new), a video presentation, and large models. ''There will be three models of the art school,'' Robertson says. One will be a section of this building's west tower, which includes studios and the extraordinary library. ''One of the difficulties is how to bring the atmosphere of those interiors into the exhibition. There will also be models of the Hill House, Scotland Street School, and the facade of the Willow Tea Rooms.

''These models have been specially commissioned from one wonderful craftsman [Brian Gallagher] in Glasgow. It's been a joy to work with that aspect of the show,'' she says.

It has not, however, been the easiest job to make these models. Robertson explains: ''One hard fact that has emerged is that despite the international recognition of the quality of all these buildings, there is no such thing as a measured set of drawings for any of them. It is quite extraordinary. So a lot has been learned about these buildings as we have gone through this process.''

* 'Charles Rennie Mackintosh' opens at the McLellan Galleries, Glasgow, May 25, 1996 to Sept. 30, 1996; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Nov. 22, 1996 to Feb. 16 1997; Art Institute of Chicago, March 19, 1997 to June 22, 1997; Los Angeles County Museum, (provisionally) July 27, 1997 to Oct. 26, 1997.

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