The Greatest Scottish Painter of the First Half of the 20th Century

Many years ago when I was teaching art in a high school, the certificate for 4th year pupils required the submission of two short written pieces, one on a designer and the other on a painter. A rumour went round that one teacher had guided his charges to produce both on Charles Rennie Mackintosh, treating him as a designer and as a painter. Apparently, the markers decided that Mackintosh was a designer and not a painter and all the pupils were failed.

No doubt, the teacher had not behaved very wisely. Career teachers who become markers to add something to their CVs or to earn a little extra cash are not necessarily experts on the history of art or even very knowledgeable. But if the story was true, the exclusion of Mackintosh from the profession of painters was definitely wrong. He had turned his back on architecture in disappointment and resolved not to have anything to do with it again. in 1923 he moved to Roussillon in south-west France to make his way as a fulltime painter.

Mackintosh is said to have admired the Viennese painter, Gustav Klimt, probably in the days when as an architect and designer he was being fêted by the Secessionist artists. No one would deny that Klimt was a painter. Yet his paintings veer far closer to pure design than Mackintosh’s landscapes ever do. Mackintosh in his last period was indeed a painter and a very fine one. He was more original and weightier than any of the Scottish Colourists and he achieved this status with barely forty works in the medium of watercolour. To find anything comparable, where an artist established himself by sheer quality with such a small oeuvre, we would have to turn to the history of music where in the field of the art song, the French composer Henri Duparc, placed himself alongside the immortals of the genre with only fourteen superb songs.

The major art exhibition during the Edinburgh Festival in 2008, Scotland and Impressionism, only served to highlight how inferior Scottish efforts, that might have some resemblance in subject matter, were to French examples. If it’s felt necessary to recover a little national pride try this: place a reproduction of a Mackintosh painting, one with buildings or a rocky landscape, next to a plate with a similar subject by Cézanne. The Scottish work will stand up very well. Try the same thing with a work by J.S. Peploe and we immediately become aware of a crude follower. Mackintosh, on the other hand, owes nothing to Cézanne. He has his own style and methods. It could be said of him as Cézanne said of himself, that he was doing Poussin after nature, such is the analytical intensity that he brings to his landscapes.

One of the things that turned Mackintosh from architecture and design to painting, it might be said to be the last straw, was the criticism that he was old-fashioned. It was bound to happen. An undoubted genius in those fields, he was an exponent of what has come to be called design fascism. He would design everything in a building down through the furniture to the light fittings and cutlery. That is apt to put an insupportable burden on anybody who has to live in it. Mackintosh would design you an exquisite bookcase but you wouldn’t be able to become much of a book collector or even have many reference books. Even his architectural masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art, apparently the nation’s favourite building, and it is easy to understand why, probably isn’t really very suitable for purpose. His designs have a continued life as ‘Mockintosh,’ jewellery and other artefacts drawn from them. In the end, perhaps his design work has proved too precious in the derogatory sense, while his late paintings are the real gems. But then, aren’t we lucky to have both.