It’s taken three attempts to come and see this exhibition. Thank goodness I am a Museum of Liverpool member, as this could have been costly!!
The name Cameron Rennie Mackintosh is synonymous with the Art Nouveau movement, and today items based on his designs can be seen in many a souvenir shop nestled in National Trust properties…at least that is what I thought until I went to see this.
Affected by the growing consumer market in design, art and architecture, the movement, known as ‘Art Nouveau’ or New Art, was embraced by all nations throughout Europe.
Influenced by their own historical pasts and, especially the colonial influences, driven by the advent of illustrated magazines, and aimed predominantly at newly emancipated women, this new form was perfect for advertising in department stores, catalogues, newspapers and posters to promote the style. But while there were similarities in features such as decorative details and patterns, sensuous linear forms and symbolic devices, geographical differences were inevitable.
Starting in France, early Art Nouveau designs incorporated the stylised depictions of plants and flowers on its canvases and objects in a nod to its Japanese influence; similarly, the female form underwent a distinctive change with elongated shapes, elegantly draped clothing and brightly coloured palette.
Germany, too, had a form known as ‘Jungendstil’ and the designs became used in practical ways with wallpaper and furniture coming under its influence. However, the most extreme form could be said to be found in the architectural designs of Antoni Gaudi in Spain, with his undulating lines, mosaics and wrought iron work.
In England, the Arts & Crafts movement, and, specifically, designs of William Morris preempted the symbolism and repetitive patterns used by the artists of the period and a linear style in black and white became favoured by artists such as Aubrey Beardsley. Scotland’s Cameron Rennie Mackintosh, amongst others, revived the Celtic decoration as his contribution to the movement.
What I really liked was that this was not just about Mackintosh, but also includes those he collaborated and worked with and there were real jewels to be found here.
When at The Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh was part of a group of students known as ‘The Immortals’. The sisters, Frances and Margaret Macdonald married Mackintosh and his friend, Herbert MacNair and were all artists and designers in their own rights as well as together.
First up were these amazing posters from 1894-95.
These just were so joyful. Beautiful, simple lines, symmetry, linking with nature, Mackintosh knew how to apply the theory of aestheticism in a commercial way, yet keep the beauty alive. The catalogue notes that these were criticised at the time as “human beings drawn on the gas-pipe system” – what a cheek!
We can see this again in this large frieze by Mackintosh’s wife, Mary Macdonald Mackintosh from 1900.
Working alongside her husband as he worked on one called The Wassail, Mary is quoted as saying: “We are working on them together and that makes the work very pleasant. We have set ourselves a very large task…”
She was not kidding. You can get very close to this and it was so interesting to see how the twine works like lead in stained glass. The symmetry is not quite there, and you can spend such a long time just following the lines.
The simple line was a common theme, not just in the artworks, but in the furniture, and I spent most of the time going round coveting certain items:
My favourite item was not by Mackintosh but by book designer: Talwin Morris.
This watercolour was just exquisite, Talwin Morris worked for the Glasgow publisher, Blackie & Son as an art director and he introduced Walter Blackie to Mackintosh which resulted in a commission for the designer. Morris depicts Blackie’s house as like something from a fairy tale and this was simply lovely!
The movement itself was fairly short-lived. It could be said that the clean, sensuous lines of Art Nouveau were formed as a backlash to the stuffy Victorian model and, compounded by the political upheaval of the early part of the century, its demise was, in essence, appropriately brought about by the atrocities of the ‘War to end all wars’.
Sadly, Mackintosh suffered with the changes and his style went out of fashion. What surprised me was the paintings that Mackintosh completed in the latter years from his base in France. Absolutely loved these and a shout out to the text writer for these who used one of my favourite words: “higgledy-piggeldy” to describe the formation of the housing in Port Vendres – La Ville.
This was a brilliant way to spend Sunday and I came out of this, buoyant and full of beans, and believe it cannot fail to put a smile on the grumpiest of faces.