A century ago, they called it the Spook School. You can see why the Glasgow School of Art was so nicknamed in the 40 drawings and lithographs and 14 pieces of furniture and decorative arts by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald at the Federal Reserve Board through this month.
Specters rising like will-o'-the-wisps from misty Scottish bogs turn out to be chairs and architectural ornaments. The tall, attenuated unclad women in Macdonald's drawings are more geometric forms than figures, more vampire than vamp.
The Federal Reserve show is the first in the United States devoted to the Scottish architect and artist (1868-1928) and his collaborator wife. The exhibits come from the collection of Thomas Howarth, an early rediscoverer of Mackintosh. Howarth (now of Toronto) taught at the Glasgow School of Architecture and the Glasgow School of Art from 1939 to 1946.
Howarth set up two public Mackintosh collections in Glasgow. "I didn't set out to make a collection of my own," said Howarth. But he bought a Mackintosh chair at auction in 1958 for very little "because no one was interested then. Most things I picked up by chance. One or two pieces were in the hands of the craftsmen who had made them. I was given a Mackintosh tableware set by the minister of a church Mackintosh designed in Glasgow. They needed another room and couldn't afford it, so I designed one for them, using old pews. We couldn't get wood because it was rationed.
"My family was brought up on Mackintosh chairs. When our two children were tiny tots, they climbed all over them. The oak ones are very strong." Howarth, talking by phone from Canada, said, "I'm sitting in a Mackintosh chair right now. Though I admit to calling it a 15-minute-chair -- you can't sit in it longer than that."
Mackintosh's most famous chairs were designed for Miss Catherine Cranston's tearooms. Were the chairs deliberately designed to be uncomfortable to keep the customers from lingering over their tea?
The Federal Reserve show has five Mackintosh chairs, including one with a 4-foot, 6-inch back; a light fixture with a teardrop or heart shape pierced by a spike; an oval table painted white with inlays of ivory, from Mackintosh's own house; a gilded picture frame; cutlery; a sideboard with a tree-shaped panel of white, purple and red leaded glass; and a wrought-iron railing with a leaded glass panel. The drawings include furniture projects, a portfolio of colored lithographed elevation and perspective drawings by Macdonald from Mackintosh's Haus eines Kunstfreundes (a house for a connoisseur) and furniture designs.
Today, Mackintosh's chairs, with their high, forbidding backs and their severe geometry, are being reproduced by manufacturers. His designs inspire sculptors. And he has been a bonanza for the auctioneers. In 1975, Sydney and Frances Lewis of Richmond bought an armchair of his for 9,200 pounds, a record for a 19th-century piece of furniture at Sotheby's, Belgravia, in London. A few months ago, they gave it to the Virginia Museum of Art for the Art Nouveau/Art Moderne wing opening this fall.
"Five pieces of furniture, a bedroom suite and a white cabinet, turned up in Vancouver recently and were shipped to Glasgow to be restored and then to Monte Carlo to be auctioned," Howarth says. "The Canadian government claimed they were illegally exported without a permit. So they were brought back, and with the help of a government subsidy, the Toronto Museum bought them for $602,000."
Mackintosh's architecture and furniture, his all-white interiors, his spooky murals with fauna reduced to essential lines, his recurring squares, his strong and unornamented buildings must have come as a shock to the late 19th century. Howarth, in his 1952 book "Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement," says most architecture then was "perfervid romanticism" expressed in "crow-stepped gables, machicolations, castellated parapets and Franco-Scottish turrets, Gothick churches, Graeco-Roman banks and Italianate warehouses."
Mackintosh was a disciple of William Morris' Arts and Crafts Movement, with its love of nature, handwork and guilds. Morris' mid-18th-century wallpapers, stained glass, carpets, upholstery and theories sparked the work of the Greene Brothers in California, Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, Werkstatte in Austria and Germany and the national folkloric movement in Finland.
In 1885, an Englishman, Francis H. Newbery, carried the movement to Scotland when he became director of the Glasgow School of Art. There he discovered and encouraged other Morris followers: architectural apprentices Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert MacNair and the artist sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald. Later Mackintosh married one sister and MacNair the other.
In 1896, the Four (as they were called) exhibited their architectural drawings, furniture designs and watercolors with the Arts and Crafts Society in London. The same year, Mackintosh's first commission came from Catherine Cranston for the series of tearooms he designed for the next 20 years. He also designed several houses and the Glasgow School of Art, which some call his masterpiece. A domed concert hall he designed but never built still looks advanced today.
Mackintosh's greatest influence came in 1900 and 1901 when he and Margaret Macdonald went to Vienna. His Haus eines Kunstfreundes International Competition entry at the Secession Bau was an electric jolt to the Wiener Werkstatte and the Secession movement, Austria's bridge between 19th- and 20th-century design. Josef Hoffmann's masterpiece, the Palais Stocklet built in Brussels in 1905, owed much to Mackintosh's Kunstfreundes designs.
World War I ended many things. The Mackintoshes gave up architecture for watercolors and fabric design -- and were largely forgotten until the resurgence of interest in early modern design.