04 July 2014

Japanese symbolism in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work

I’ve been interested in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s architecture for a long time, but it took me a while to realise that there was a Japanese influence on his work, and that maybe this is the reason I’m so attracted to his art.

There were strong Japanese influences in Scotland at the time that Mackintosh was learning his craft. Japan had opened to trade with the west not long before Mackintosh was born, and so Japanese art and crafts began to appear on the market. Many other Scottish (and particularly Glasgow) artists were also influenced by Japanese art.

From Mackintosh’s own living room, it was obvious that he had been exposed to Japanese art. There were Japanese ukiyo-e prints on the walls and mantelpiece, Japanese tea bowls, and ikebana-style flower arrangements.

It’s difficult to put your finger on what is specifically Japanese about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work, but it evokes a Japanese feeling of simplicity and calm. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s interiors seemed simple, modern and minimalist to Scottish eyes at the time, with their strong horizontals and verticals, and strong contrasts between light and dark. He made good use of light, bringing as much light as possible into his interiors. He made good use of natural materials, had respect for the materials and worked with their natural properties

His furniture was either very dark or very light, and the shapes of the furniture had a Japanese aesthetic. He designed a number of kimono shaped storage units, which are narrower at the bottom than the top, or have doors that open at the top and are designed to be left open to create a kimono shape.

Many of his windows were reminiscent of Japanese shoji screens, with a framework of squares or rectangles. This is particularly visible on the windows of Glasgow School of Art, particularly the library windows. Many of his chairs also repeat this design of squares, and he repeated the design of squares with patterns of tiles, and on his clock designs and various other places.

He made a lot of use of projecting timber roof beams, which look very Japanese.  Many of his lights, which are square in shape and consist of panels, look similar to Japanese lanterns. The Janitor’s room at Glasgow School of Art is actually said to have been designed to look like a Japanese teahouse.

The finials on the posts outside Glasgow School of Art are based on the idea of Japanese family crests (mon), and with their designs based on insects and birds they take their theme from the natural world as many of the Japanese crests do. Like the Japanese artists producing the crests, Mackintosh simplified and abstracted the designs. He also used similar designs elsewhere, for example on the windows at the front of the Willow Tearooms.

One of Mackintosh’s trademarks is elongated female figures in flowing garments that are reminiscent of Japanese ukiyo-e prints (and his wife Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh also produced similar designs). The beautiful flower watercolours which he produced in his later years, with their crisp edges and muted colours are also reminiscent of ukiyo-e prints

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