Britain’s response to Art Nouveau: blending the Arts & Crafts aesthetic with the natural world
Charles Rennie Mackintosh elevated the chair to the rank of architecture.
The Glasgow designer, architect and artist led a collaborative group dubbed ‘The Four’ as a British response to Art Nouveau. Their groundbreaking vision merged the artisanal, streamlined aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement with a celebration of the natural world from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Open at the Albuquerque Museum, “Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style” brings this rich vocabulary of forms to an exhibition of 166 works of art. The exhibition includes furniture, tiles, glass, ceramics, posters, needlework, panels, books and illustrations characterized by taut lines, stylized shapes, clean curves and created geometries. by the designer and his colleagues. The first of its kind to travel to the United States in a generation, the exhibit also celebrates the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth.
Glasgow’s version of Art Nouveau has its roots in the past through legends and popular beliefs, said Andrew Connors, director of the Albuquerque Museum.
“The Glasgow school wanted to keep alive these legends that made the UK the UK,” he said. “They also wanted to recognize modernity and new techniques and make them subordinate to place, heritage and cultural identity.”
Mackintosh was inspired by his Scottish upbringing, mixing it with the flourishing of Art Nouveau and the simplicity of Japanese forms.
He constructed his iconic high-back chair from blackened wood and modern upholstery. Before Mackintosh, furniture makers created massive, upholstered chairs. The British regarded the furniture as an ornament showing the wealth of its owner.
“Previously, a high chair would have been oppressive, but this one is light and lifted and festive,” Connors said.
“He strips the chair almost down to pure function. He ends up not looking cold and off-putting. He still maintains a sense of the human scale.
“They are not pure black,” he added, “They are hand rubbed stains on wood.”
These chairs framed the tables of the Ingram Street tea rooms in Glasgow. Mackintosh’s wife Margaret Macdonald designed a custom-carved Queen of May panel for the same space, using gesso, string, glass beads, thread, and mother-of-pearl. The artist himself designed a facing panel.
“Tea rooms were great opportunities for Mackintosh to work with his own aesthetic,” Connors said. “When you see it in person, you realize that all of these lines are made of rope dipped in plaster. Up close, it is very rude.
A poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts by James Herbert MacNair, Frances Macdonald and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh shows classical Greek twin figures resembling gods rising from the text. They read both asymmetric and stripped down.
“They reduce detail with solid color fields,” said Connors, “with a slight asymmetry influenced by Japanese prints.”
Glasgow was the industrial heart of 19th century Scotland. The Glasgow School of Art has adopted this distinctive variant of Art Nouveau, centered around its Technical Art Studios. The Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements were in part reactions against industrialization and machine-making.
“They thought the technology was going to turn humans into automatons,” Connors said.
Mackintosh “was really rooted in Britain’s Arts and Crafts movement,” he continued, “focusing on handcrafting and reducing excessive adornment.”
The American Federation of Arts and the Glasgow Museums co-organized the exhibition with curator Alison Brown.