ARTS Mocking a myth

DESIGN; Charles Rennie Mackintosh is the toast of Glasgow. But, says Alan Crawford, they've got the wrong man
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GLASGOW used to be the image of Britain in industrial decline. Remem-ber the empty shipyards and the grainy photographs of soot-covered tenements? It was a landscape of despair. The new tower blocks and motorways did not make it any better. But it has changed, or at least the image has. Glasgow has a new look: smart, cultured and post-industrial. The soot has gone, the Burrell Collection has come. In 1990 Glasgow was the City of Culture and in 1999 it will be the City of Architecture and Design.

It also has a new hero, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He has been dead for some time, but he was Glasgow born and bred. Any taxi driver in the city will tell you about the policeman's son, born in 1868, who won international fame as an architect and whose elegant high-backed chairs look as if they were designed only yesterday. Mackintosh is everything the old image of Glasgow was not. He is clean, he is art, he is international. For post- industrial Glasgow, he is a heritage godsend.

Twenty years ago most Glaswegians had not heard of him. Now he is one of the city's growth industries. The buildings he designed in the centre of Glasgow, such as Glasgow School of Art and the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street, are a tourists' mecca. The Salon de Luxe at the Willow, where Edwardian ladies took tea sitting bolt-upright on strange silver chairs, has been restored, and the School of Art stands on Gilmore Hill, like some eternal movie star with cameras clicking round her all the time. What is more, Mackintosh's rise to fame has been accompanied by a flood of often tacky neo-Mackintosh products; people call it ''Mockintosh''.

The city council should do a "Mockintosh'' map of Glasgow, with ratings out of 10. The Mackintosh House at the university's Hunterian Art Gallery (which has the largest collection of original Mackintosh drawings and furniture anywhere) is a superb reconstruction of the home in which he lived with his wife, the painter Margaret Macdonald, from 1906 to 1914. "Mockintosh" rating: nil. In the city's gift shops you can buy T-shirts and jewellery sprinkled with Mackintosh's favourite motifs, squares and stylised roses. "Oh," I heard someone say, "I didn't know he did jewellery." One or two drawings apart, he didn't. Mock-intosh rating: five. In the shopping centre in Sauchiehall Street, the fast-food court has high-backed chairs made from tubular metal which look like Mackintosh-meets-the Daleks. Mockin-tosh rating: 10, definitely.

But the rise of Mackintosh has been more than just a marketing bonanza. Glaswegians have taken Mackintosh to their hearts. His photograph, aged 25, has become an icon in the city; the big, floppy artistic necktie is everywhere. The Mackintosh story has become part of popular culture. And Glaswegians' pride in their tough, creative city has got mixed up with a particular version of his career.

While I was researching my book on Mackintosh in the city, I found myself listening more and more to what people were saying around me, and began jotting down the fragments of the Mackintosh story that I overheard. ''He died penniless," people would say. ''All the wood was dark then and he came and painted it all white. It must have been terribly modern.'' A small Glas-gow boy asked, "Why is it all white, Dad?'' And Dad said, ''Because the man was a genius."

I began to see that two images lay behind the remarks, and I knew where they came from. In 1952, an architect called Thomas Howarth published a study of Mackintosh which became the standard work. He argued that Mackin- tosh was appreciated only by a few discerning patrons in his native city; that he was rejected by the English; that when he exhibited in Vienna in 1900, he was greeted with widespread acclaim; and that he was so frustrated by being welcomed abroad and cold-shouldered at home that he left Glasgow for good in 1914. Here, effectively, was a misunderstood genius. It was a powerful story with excellent credentials, going back to the German critic Hermann Muthesius. Muthesius thought Mackintosh was almost the only British architect to understand the Continental notion of a ''room as a work of art'', and therefore presented him, as early as 1902, as a prophet save in his own country.

The more I worked on Mackintosh, the more shaky I found the story to be. I found that Mackintosh was appreciated in Glasgow: for most of his career he was busy with designs for buildings, interiors and furniture commissioned by Glaswegians. If he had been appreciated any more, he would have had to work nights. And a year after the Willow Tea Rooms were opened, Glasgow was almost as full of Mackintosh imitations as it is today.

And the English didn't reject him; they just weren't very interested. He got some favourable notices in the English press in the 1890s and then they tailed off, because progressive English architects increasingly were interested in Classicism, town-planning and large office buildings, and Mackintosh wasn't.

I found that Mackintosh was not greeted with widespread acclaim in Vienna in 1900. He and a few close colleagues exhibited a delicately sensuous room, full of images of half-dreaming women with long, stylised bodies, and the critics found it disturbing: "this hellish room,'' they wrote, ''furniture as fetishes . . . a hobgoblin's closet''.

And I found that Mackintosh did not exactly leave Glasgow in 1914. He and Margaret were on holiday at Walberswick, a village in Suffolk, when the First World War broke out. They decided to stay on for a rest, and somehow never went back.

I began to wonder. If the story was not entirely true, perhaps the stereotypes weren't true either. Perhaps "lonely genius" and "pioneer" weren't the best ways of looking at him. And in fact the man who began to emerge - not easily, for little is known about his personal life - was less heroic and much more engaging than the stereotypes. He seemed to me an ordinary working-class Glaswegian with an extraordinary talent who did not quite know where he was going. The 1890s and early 1900s were a time of intense creativity as he poured out designs for buildings, interiors and furniture. Then, around 1906 or so, something went wrong. The symptoms were rows with clients, missed deadlines and loss of work. Perhaps he was having some sort of crisis, perhaps he was just creatively exhausted - certainly heavy drinking had something to do with it.

The disorientation of the war, and the experience of being expelled from Suffolk on suspicion of spying - letters from Germany were found in his house - made matters worse. After the war he tried to re-establish himself as an architect, but failed. In 1923 he and Margaret went for a long holiday in the south of France; again, it turned into something more permanent, and they spent four years at Port Vendres. Mackintosh painted a series of brilliant watercolours, and they were perhaps happy there. Letters written to Marga-ret at this time reveal a funny, observant, slightly defeated and still very loving man. He died of cancer, having smoked too much, in 1928. He was lonely at times, and he certainly did not die a rich man. But none of this warrants the drama of misunderstanding and rejection which Howarth used to authenticate his hero as a Romantic genius. It is the story of an ordinary life, full of circumstantial accidents, partly unfulfilled, like yours and mine.

As for his work, on which his reputation should depend, I found that the stereotype of ''the pioneer of Modern-ism" simply did not do justice to its richness and complexity. For a start, there was a decorative strain in it - the subtle interiors, the strange narrow chairs, dreaming women and little glass baubles - that made Thirties' Modernists uneasy, and they generally put it down to Margaret's influence, which amounted to dismissing it as feminine and trivial. Recent historians have turned this argument neatly, and rightly, on its head, making the decorative interiors central to Mackintosh's work and insisting, as he himself did, on the importance of Margaret. She made him think of domestic interiors as chambers of the heart and mind, and some of the white rooms they created in the early 1900s have an erotic intensity unequalled in Britain at that date.

The Modernists liked to focus attention on Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh's undoubted masterpiece. Howarth called it "the first important architectural monument to the new movement in Europe". But it is the School of Art, above all, which demonstrates the poverty of their approach. As I studied the building the words ''complexity and contradiction'' ran through my head; they come from the title of Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, one of the bibles of Post-Modernism. There was enough in this extraordinary building to satisfy the steel-and-glass functionalists of the 1930s that they were looking at something truly modern. But Lord, how much they missed. Even today they say that the interior plan dictated the nature of the elevations. It did nothing of the kind.

Only plodders think that inside and outside, plan and elevation, have to go together. Mackintosh knew that they did not. He created gaps between them, and he played in the gaps. He lit the School of Art Library with three great oriel windows. But then he made the interior a four-sided galleried space.

At the bottom of the windows there are five courses of stone; four have splayed sides, the bottom one does not. It juts out, as if the stone-mason had made a terrible mistake. It is only a detail, but it is disturbing, and the School of Art is full of such discontinuities. Functionalism could never match, or measure, his peculiar speed of thought and elegance of form.

This is a new Mackintosh. Not a lonely genius but a fallible, ordinary man, an architect with the temperament of an artist, whose work is so rich and subtle that it can embrace Modernism, Post-Modernism and, for all I know, the orthodoxies of the next century. I do not know whether he will replace the old Mackintosh in Glasgow. A lot of money and effort has been spent on him, and people need stereotypes to think with. But it would be a pity if he didn't. Post-industrial Glasgow deserves a Post- Modern Mackintosh.

! 'Charles Rennie Mackintosh' (Thames & Hudson; pounds 6.95) by Alan Crawford is published tomorrow.

Comments