The Sankofa Signature Interview is all about candid responses from individuals — yours and the interviewee’s. TSR contributors choose paintings and share them with people from all walks of life — from professors, lawyers, and doctors to entertainers, farmers, and wine makers of Europe — just before asking them to discuss their natural first impressions to these thought-provoking works. It’s a fascinating look at how much our personal interests and experiences influence the way we interpret paintings. How will your reactions compare?
McMillen on Mackintosh
Interviewed by Jennifer King
From the very first glance, branding expert Marcia McMillen is immediately drawn to the feminist imagery in this Art Nouveau classic by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
JK: Looking at this painting for the very first time, what is your first impression?
MM: It seems very familiar to me, like coming home. I believe it’s a painting by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. I’m of Scottish descent, and when I went to Scotland a few years ago, I discovered Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and then her sister Frances Macdonald and her sister’s husband Herbert MacNair. They were known as the Glasgow Four. Anyway, I felt an affinity for the painting right away. It’s symmetrical and geometric, but at the same time, there’s a softness to it. There are circles and curved lines. I resonate with curves and fluid, interlocking shapes that are integrated and work together.
JK: What are two or three things you like or dislike about the painting?
MM: Well, first it makes me wonder what it’s about. What is the story here? Is it a mirror image because it’s about the self, or is it about two sisters? Regardless, it is full of female symbolism, which I resonate with. Look at the seeds and the other feminine and masculine references, such as these vaginal and phallic shapes, but notice that they’re subtle, not in your face. My favorite thing is probably the composition. Look at how the intertwining shapes and fluid lines move your eye through it. I can really appreciate that as an artist.
JK: So would you say you’re most attracted to the technical aspects of the painting?
MM: No, what’s more important to me than the composition is the messaging. I love how the symbolism and the color palette are very female-oriented.
JK: What is one thing that you would like to ask the artist about the painting or just about his or her work in general? Why?
MM: I want to know who the two women are. Is that the artist in a mirror, or is it herself with her sister? And there are four pink circles. Do those represent the two sisters and their two husbands? And then notice the two half-circles at the edges. Could those be referencing their children, or the rest of their family? I guess I’d like to know if these represent specific people or women in general. Knowing that would change the message for me.
JK: If this were actually painted by Macdonald’s husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, would that change how you respond to or interpret the painting?
MM: [long pause] No, I don’t think it would. I think I would still respond to it the same, and still have the same interest and questions about it.
JK: What would you ask others to look for or notice in this painting?
MM: I suppose I’d point out that this is a wonderful example of Art Nouveau, for those people who aren’t familiar with this style or period. The fluid yet graphic, interlocking shapes and lines that lead your eye from one element to another, and also the subtle symbolism, are typical of this period.
JK: What title would you like to give to the painting?
MM: That’s hard to say. I think I would choose something that emphasizes the relationship between the two women, maybe something about sisterly love. But I might also choose something about reproduction, something that suggests the absolutely necessary role women play in bringing about each new generation.
JK: Now that you’ve taken some time to study and think about the work, please make a comment about it.
MM: I think this painting speaks to the power of women. In a patriarchal society, women are often passed over and not appreciated. But this artist is raising women up to be equal to men. It was really unusual when this painting was made around the turn of the 20th century, and it’s just as important today.
JK: Is that what you think the artist wanted to say or convey in this painting?
MM: Yes. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the artist was trying to say that women are better than men, but just that we deserve the same recognition. We have the same value and essential presence.
JK: Do you think your profession, vocation, or beliefs influence the way you interpret or respond to this painting?
MM: Oh, yes, definitely. I’ve been in branding for 25 years, so I’m always working with symbols. This has more symbolism than many paintings do, and I like a painting that can be interpreted on multiple levels, just like a good logo.
JK: I think you’ll agree that there is an art to doing everything in all professions. What is your unique, artistic way of developing a brand for your clients?
MM: I’m both a branding expert and a fine artist, and both are about capturing the viewer’s attention, drawing them in, and communicating multiple messages. Think about the headline or the visual on an ad. If you can get people’s attention with one of them, you’re halfway there. And if you can hold their attention and get them to respond on a deeper level, you’ve won. The same is true of art. It’s hard to do, but success comes when you get people to engage with your image, to question, to wonder, to be intrigued. So going back to this painting, I think the artist achieved that with this work. Even though there is no visual depth to the painting, there is so much depth to the design and to the meaning that it captures our attention.
JK: So based on your experience and your observations about this painting, what’s a good takeaway for readers?
MM: I would say that it’s invaluable to recognize that art is never created in a void. Artwork is always impacted by whatever is going on in the artist’s life. That can mean everything from very broad influences, like the era when the artist lived and what was happening in the world at the time, to the very specific, such as the people in the artist’s life, how the artist felt about his or her environment, and the artwork that the artist was studying. This painting is very much about the artist’s personal life and interests, but it’s also heavily influenced by Art Nouveau and the other artists of the day, like Gustav Klimt, who was working in Vienna at the time. So it’s fun to look at a painting like this and wonder what was happening in the artist’s life at the time.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh 1868–1928 Nationality: British
Scottish architect, designer (chiefly of furniture), and watercolourist, born and principally active in Glasgow. He was one of the most original and influential artists of his time and a major figure of *Art Nouveau. His most famous building is *Glasgow School of Art (1897–9), to which he later added a library block and other extensions (1907–9). They are strikingly original in style—clear, bold, and rational, yet with an element of fantasy. In his interior decoration and furniture design, often done in association with his wife, Margaret Macdonald (1864–1933), he worked in a sophisticated calligraphic style but avoided the exaggerated floral ornament often associated with Art Nouveau. His finest achievements in this field were four tea-rooms in Glasgow, designed with all their furniture and equipment for his patron Catherine Cranston (1897–c.1911, now mainly destroyed). Mackintosh had an enormous reputation among the avant-garde on the Continent, especially in Germany and Austria, where the advanced style of the early 20th century was sometimes known as ‘Mackintoshismus’; his work was widely exhibited and he was particularly esteemed among members of the Vienna *Sezession, who urged him to come and live in the city.
However, admiration was more restrained in his own country, where he antagonized fellow architects by criticizing traditional values: ‘How absurd it is to see modern churches, theatres, banks etc.…made in imitation of Greek temples’, he said in 1896. The First World War brought a decline in his career, for there was little call for work as sophisticated as his. In 1914 he moved to London and thereafter virtually gave up architecture. He did, however, do some fine work as a designer, particularly of fabrics.
About the interviewee Marcia McMillen
Marcia McMillen is a painter who wants the viewer to be drawn into her paintings to explore the fluid movement, layer and depth of the colors. Like a dance, the color moves back and forth with intrigue and wonder. McMillen can be contacted through her website, www.MarciaMcMIllen.com.
Never one to pass up a great art museum or a great latte, Jennifer King is an artist, arts writer, and marketing specialist from Cincinnati, Ohio.