Tall, dark and handsome, the chairs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh are international objects of desire. Belying their age, they stand in design studios, hotel lobbies and private homes like stylish question marks.

Where did this northern star find his modernist inspiration over a century ago? And why did he fall into hardship and obscurity?

One can ponder these questions at the Isetan Museum of Art. “Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style” follows the major epochs in his life. Paintings, graphics, jewelry and embroidery by friends and colleagues help to round out the view of this acclaimed branch of Art Nouveau.

An art poster (1895) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Mackintosh was born in a modest home in the industrial city of Glasgow, the second of 11 children. As a promising young draftsman, he joined the architectural firm of Honeyman and Keppie in 1889, and at the same time studied architecture at the Glasgow School of Art.

The Arts and Crafts movement was then at its peak, but these young Scottish art students took a different path. First they explored an eerie symbolism, which critics called the Spook School; later they developed artistic designs for living. Their early work has the look and feel of student times; the magazine covers with elongated figures and sinuous tendrils echo the decadent style of Aubrey Beardsley, and the students clearly enjoyed this new line in graphic arts.

For the women, especially, these were liberating times. In an old photograph, they peer from beneath their Victorian bonnets with a touching combination of boldness and modesty.

The two sisters, Margaret and Frances Macdonald, would eventually marry the two friends, Mackintosh and Herbert McNair. But while the work of the other three is essentially illustrative, Mackintosh used the twining leaves and stylized forms as ornament for his three-dimensional designs.

In 1896 Honeyman and Keppie, with his design, won the competition for a new building for the Glasgow School of Art. Architects still make the pilgrimage to Glasgow to admire his freestyle composition and economy of expression.

Built in an age where town halls, railway stations and other Victorian buildings were generally either rigid with columns (think British Museum) or rampant with neo-Gothic detail (Houses of Parliament), the simplicity of his art school was outstanding. Mackintosh has been hailed as a precursor of modernism. This is not entirely true.

In fact, the simplicity was due to lack of money. Mackintosh was forced to innovate with plain dressed stone, glass and iron. Yet the result is severe and mysterious, rather than plain and dull.

The design incorporates elements of vernacular architecture from as far afield as southern England and Japan. The library, for example, echoes Japanese carpentry, space and use of daylight.

Increasingly, the massive shape of old Scottish tower houses inspired him. They were shaped by the elements of wind and rain, and he combined this sensible type of native construction with artistic elegance in his stunning House for an Art Lover. This won a special prize at the 1900 Secessionist exhibition in Vienna and was eventually built in Glasgow in the 1980s. At Hill House he continued the theme. It was built in Helensburgh for a wealthy patron in the early 1900s, and is remarkable for its sturdy exterior, spacious, light-filled rooms and latticelike black-or-white furniture.

Catherine Cranston, proprietor of several Glasgow tea rooms, also gave him an important chance to spread his wings. This was the age of the Temperance movement, and Miss Cranston’s tea rooms were elegant, alcohol-free alternatives to smoky pubs. There were rooms for ladies to read or write letters, and space for gentlemen to play billiards or read the newspaper. Starting with a fine mural of women and roses, Mackintosh went on to design furniture, entire interiors and facades.

“Chair with an Oval Backrest” (1898)

Although the tables and chairs here are very interesting, they are basically fish out of water because Mackintosh designed each as part of the whole. However, there are a few contemporary photographs of the interiors, and we can trace his imagination at work.

Mackintosh’s style moves swiftly from solid armchairs planted in the craft tradition to extraordinary chairs with their heads in the clouds. For example, his “Chair with an Oval Backrest,” with a stylized bird cut into the panel, is a great imaginative leap from tradition, and yet its sober power would not be out of place in a castle.

By the 1900s, he had moved on from a flowing to a geometric art style appreciated in Austria and Germany. But still, how fluid and clear are his lines. The silver chair for the Room de Luxe at the famous Willow Tea Rooms has the subtlest curves. The catalog enticingly describes the entire room as “a jewel-like intimate space” in silver, mirrored glass and rose-purple velvet.

Mackintosh was now at the height of his reputation. He had followers in Vienna, was acclaimed in Germany and Britain, and was winning important commissions for private houses in Scotland.

When he married Margaret MacDonald in 1900, the couple designed everything for their apartment, and success must have seemed assured. Yet by 1913, Mackintosh was in the grip of depression, with time on his hands.

Like many architects in Glasgow, he suffered from a general downturn in trade. If war with Germany had not been imminent, perhaps he would have tried his luck in Vienna, where his work was more influential, rather than moving to London. His criticism of fellow designers for lack of imagination had isolated him in Britain, however, and perhaps his work was simply too avant-garde or minimalist for wider appeal.

However, during a restful year in the Suffolk countryside in 1913 he produced some of his loveliest paintings, which pointed to a new career. These exquisite sketches of wildflowers and garden plants are quite distinctive, and now are among his most popular work.

In 1917 he designed the startling patterned interiors for a house in Northampton, which was illustrated in the Ideal Home magazine of 1920. By then his financial situation was desperate, and his old patron, the owner of Hill House, commissioned him to design the book covers displayed here.

After the war, as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe ushered in a new international modernism, Mackintosh was left behind. He turned increasingly to painting. In the 1920s he and Margaret stayed in France, where the cost of living was cheaper and where he could find fresh material for an exhibition.

Mackintosh died at the age of 60, before he could establish a new reputation. But in these unusual, rippling landscapes we can still see the artist/designer hard at work, still fascinated by the flowing patterns of water, plants and stones.

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