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New American exhibition on Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Art historical nods, prescient color palettes—it’s all represented in a new American exhibition on the Scottish talent

Best known for designing the Glasgow School of ArtCharles Rennie Mackintosh produced interiors, furniture, and posters with visionary style during the Scottish city’s Arts and Crafts heyday of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A new exhibition, titled “Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style,” kicks off its U.S. tour this week at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The show, which displays pieces from both Mackintosh and his contemporaries, will run through January 5, when it will move on to Nashville, St. Petersburg, Florida, and Chicago.

Co-organized by the Glasgow Museums and the American Federation of Arts, the show features nearly 200 works of art—including watercolors, book covers, sketches, and textile designs—that make it the most comprehensive Scottish Art Nouveau exhibit in North America to date. AD PRO got a preview of the exhibition and chatted with Alison Brown, the Glasgow Museums’ curator for European decorative art and design from 1800 to the present, to hear all about the pieces included. Below, Brown selects five works by Mackintosh (or his wife, Margaret Macdonald) that are especially worth highlighting.

Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, circa 1894. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Lithograph, paper.

Photo: Courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1894)

Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome illustrations, initially created for a play program, are some of the most enduringly influential works from the late 19th century. In one image, Salome, a New Testament figure and the daughter of Herod II and Herodias, is depicted holding John the Baptist’s bloody head. In this work, Mackintosh contributed his own homage to Beardsley’s famous series—replacing the severed head with a towering plant of flowers and seeds. “The idea of plant growth is hinted at throughout all of his work,” Brown explains. The thin, androgynous woman holding the plant is also characteristic of Mackintosh’s early figural works, according to Brown.

Music Cabinet, 1898. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mahogany, ebony, stained and leaded glass.

Photo: Enzo Di Cosmo / Courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

Music Cabinet by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1898)

Designed for Mrs. Ruby Pickering, the daughter of the owner of a department store, the cabinet seen here incorporates the visual trick of entasis. Entasis, first developed for and still widely associated with Greek columns, adds a bulging curve to a seemingly straight structure in order to counterbalance how it is visually distorted by perspective. The fact that Mackintosh used the technique here reveals his classical architectural training in a fascinating—and easily overlooked—way. A stylized flower growing from the seed of the arched base adds charm to the design.

The May Queen: Panel From the Ladies’ Luncheon Room, Ingram Street Tea Rooms, 1900. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. Gesso, hessian, scrim, twine, glass beads, thread, mother-of-pearl, tin leaf.

The May Queen: Panel from the Ladies’ Luncheon Room by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1900)

Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, collaborated on a pair of gesso panels that faced one another inside the Ladies’ Luncheon Room of the Ingram Street Tea Rooms. Painted white and decorated with metallic leaf, the room provided a tranquil respite from the busy industrial Glasgow streets. Interestingly, the couple exhibited these panels at the eighth Secession Exhibition in Vienna, where they would have met Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, and other leading artists of the day.

More interesting still is that according to Brown, the panels are the figurative culmination of the Glasgow Style—which evolved from depicting gaunt figures to rendering more rounded, feminine ones in billowing gowns. The panel contains molded plaster reliefs, some of which may have been cast from mussel shells. “They were always experimenting,” Brown explains of the couple. “So probably after a dinner they said, ‘Hey, we’ll just put on some plaster and see how it looks.”

Photo: Courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

By Julekha Dash

AdPro  7 October 2019