Being met by a single, rather old, wooden chair is a bold opening statement for any exhibition, though the Liverpool Walker’s current exhibition of the Scottish architect, painter and designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, carries this off with aplomb. In many ways, this single piece of everyday furniture captures the essence of Mackintosh, or at least what the curators wish to present him as, a working-class liberator of the arts. This presentation is indeed a convincing one, acting as a showcase of his strikingly aesthetic images, ones that were not meant to be kept in private homes or collections, but instead to adorn the streets, tea rooms, and advertising boards of Glasgow, to be appreciated by all.
Likewise, Mackintosh’s numerous architectural plans seem something more than preparatory sketches, mere functionalist slaves to the construction of the building represented. Instead, the plans for Glasgow’s New School of Art, with their striking red borders, and washed interiors of blues and greens, directed by bold black lines are inherently attractive. Even the elevations of the stairwells are precisely inked, down to individual bannisters and supports showing a draughtsman with an eye for a quotidian beauty that needn’t be confined to traditional spheres of art, but one that could permeate technical plans.
This intersection between the practical and the aesthetic sums up much of Mackintosh’s work, whilst seemingly echoing aspects of the Mucha exhibition held at the Walker in 2017 and the gallery’s permanent collection of Pre-Raphaelite work. Like Mucha and the Pre-Raphaelites, Mackintosh’s figures blur the distinctions between nature and humanity, many containing an ethereal, subaqueous, even disturbing quality. This is apparent in Mackintosh’s 1898 painting of an auburn-haired woman who is as much a part of nature as the landscape- strewn with roses -from which she emerges.
Likewise his advertisement, two years earlier for the Scottish Musical Review, though not highly ornamented nevertheless demonstrates this breakdown of boundaries, whilst amplifying the sexuality that in the other work is a mere undertone. A pair of swifts are foregrounded against two crimson spheres, which when considered in light of the central figure’s voluptuous crimson lips emerge as stylised breasts. The birds’ elongated tails reaffirm the sexuality of the image, creating a border for the lower part of the image before forming the vulvic shroud of the woman’s head. This morphing takes place in the pair of Scottish thistles which flank the upper portion of the image, where they seemingly sprout the keys of a brass instrument, which remind the audience what the poster is advertising. All this is synthesised precisely and simply, using the same colour scheme as his architectural plans, the classic Mackintosh crimson, mid-green, and black.
Some of the most moving pieces in the exhibition were not the vast posters, stained-glass windows, or tapestries. Instead, the pocket sketchbooks of Mackintosh and his contemporaries, such as Talwin Morris, show scores of pencil and watercolour manifestations of internal ideas, most of them remaining in this inchoate form, never realised. These range from a lilac budding in five vulnerable stages to three separate patterns for wallpaper or carpet, verdant and vine-like. Though these were designed to be scaled up, the power of these works lies in their intimacy, coupled with the Romantic poignancy in the knowledge that they never progressed past this initial stage. Their spatial proximity on the page contrasts with their undoubted relational separation to create a distinct intimacy with the artist and his works in a way that is rare to find in larger or completed pieces.
Much of the success of the exhibition lies in the variety of the scale of the works on display, for instance the comfortable cohabitation between small, standalone drawings with larger glorious poster cycles. Similarly, though the work is predominantly by Mackintosh, included is a significant amount of work by British contemporaries but also, more thought provokingly, coeval works from places as disparate as Anatolia, Japan, and Turkey. A Japanese book of crests and watercolours from 1881, strikingly like Mackintosh as they may be, displays a marked abstraction, something Mackintosh only really experimented with at the end of his life in the 1920s when his city and landscapes contain a subtle surrealism. Eastern ceramics and woodblocks invite further stylistic comparisons through geographic range.
It is an ironic but fitting valediction to Mackintosh that his fundamentally ‘everyday’ Art- whether in subject matter or in design -now finds itself transported from the bustling streets and private notebooks of its origin to galleries across the country, where it is completely at home.