Art review: Charles Rennie Mackintosh - Making the Glasgow Style, Kelvingrove Museum Glasgow

Installation shot from Charles Rennie Mackintosh - Making the Glasgow Style PIC: John Devlin
Installation shot from Charles Rennie Mackintosh - Making the Glasgow Style PIC: John Devlin
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Kelvingrove’s new Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibition shines a welcome light on the architect and artist’s Glasgow peers, but struggles to convey the profound influence, legacy and genius of the man himself

When is a rose a Mackintosh rose? They are ubiquitous in Glasgow, on birthday cards and earrings and tea towels. Can they be traced back to a single rose, preferably by Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s hand, a rose against which all the others can be measured?

In this densely packed and frequently fascinating exhibition, the first major Mackintosh show in Glasgow for more than 20 years, there are many roses, in designs by Mackintosh and his contemporaries. It is possible, even likely, that he invented the motif, but soon everyone in that vibrant group around Glasgow School of Art had their own version. It was a good idea and they ran with it, very much as they do today.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh - Making the Glasgow Style, Kelvingrove Museum Glasgow ****

This is the first, perhaps the dominant, narrative in the exhibition, which sits as a kind of crown jewel in the city-wide programme of events marking the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth: to show the other talented men and women who were his contemporaries. And to show the context in which they worked, the burgeoning second city of the empire, full of buildings being built and furnished, and a growing middle-class with money to spend, a context ripe for a new kind of design.

At the heart of all this were the Technical Art Studios at Glasgow School of Art, the brainchild of the director Francis Newbery, creating a powerhouse of design for the applied arts, from needlework to stained glass, ceramics to furniture. This is where the Glasgow style – the city’s own particular brand of art nouveau – began, and from where it was disseminated. The central room of the exhibition is dedicated to the artists, craftsmen and designers, known and unknown, who worked, taught and studied there.

It was at GSA, where he went for night classes, that Mackintosh, working as a junior draughtsman in an architect’s office and tracing designs for chairs when his duties became too tedious, could hit the ground running. And it was here that he met the friends who would be crucial to his development, particularly those who would form The Four: James Herbert McNair, and sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, whom he and McNair would marry.

Important works by each of the four are included here: early works by Mackintosh, the beautiful Part Seen, Imagined Part and Cabbages in an Orchard; works by both sisters, including their enchanting collaboration The Seasons, and a fine watercolour by McNair. Also on show are their early poster designs for the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts 1894-5, clearly influenced by Aubrey Beardsley, which helped earn them the nickname “the Spook School”.

Time and space is also devoted to celebrating the achievements of their contemporaries: Jessie Marion King, who had a career as a book illustrator; Talwin Morris, the art director for Walter Blackie & Co, who was a great friend and patron of The Four (there is surely more in the show from his sketchbooks than from Mackintosh’s own); and another exceptional architect James Salmon Junior, creator of the St Vincent Chambers (known as ‘The Hatrack’) and the Lion Chambers on Hope Street (which seems to be in a perilous state of disrepair, not something which would be allowed to happen to a Mackintosh building).

Where, then, is Charles Rennie Mackintosh? He is here, of course, but in a busy exhibition of more than 250 objects, in a network of rooms which makes the chronological design of the show at times difficult to follow, he is in danger of being one among many, a first among equals, but no more. And that would be to deny the other narrative of this exhibition, which is to show how Mackintosh did come to rise above his peers, possibly even to take on the mantle (as some said in his lifetime) of genius.

It doesn’t help that the story is a complex one. In 1904, Mackintosh was a partner in Honeyman & Keppie, working on various tea rooms for Miss Cranston and for her own private home, putting the finishing touches to the Hill House in Helensburgh for Walter Blackie, and building Scotland Street School. Ten years later, he had left Glasgow, having failed to get work as a solo practitioner. For most of the rest of his life, he would concentrate on painting watercolours (of which there are superb examples here) and would die largely without recognition.

Another difficulty is that much of his genius was expressed in the totality of his ambition, his ability to envision not just objects or designs but whole environments. A Mackintosh-designed building was a work of art, from the brickwork and the plasterwork to the door knobs and the teaspoons, and there is no space here to show these grand designs.

In his last buildings and interiors, however, the house at 78 Derngate, Northampton (1916-7), and the Dug Out (1917), his last interior for Miss Cranston, it is possible to see him leaving art nouveau behind, pushing forward and through art deco, reaching towards something which would later be described as Modernism. His designs are more geometric, focusing on squares; for the first time, there are bright, primary colours. We see them in the exhibition in the elements from Derngate, and the films showing his later buildings. The things he was always good at, simplicity, balance, harmony, are being worked in a

more daring and sophisticated way. But it was a vision which did not come to fruition as it might if there had been more work, more time, more money.

Making the Glasgow Style is a fascinating exhibition, full of treasures many of which have been little shown. Those new to Mackintosh will find a welcome introduction; those who know him already will enjoy discovering more about his peers. But there are times when it feels like a party at which the guest of honour is sitting quietly in the kitchen with a bottle of red wine. The man whose talent and drive was at the centre of everything is here, of course he is, but we don’t expect to have to seek him out quite so assiduously.

Until 14 August