This poster for the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts is characteristic of the idiosyncratic visual language that the Macdonald sisters and McNair pioneered. Its muted colors and linear stylizations of human, plant, and bird forms, combined with blocks of irregular lettering, connect it with the Art Nouveau of mainland Europe; the influence of Celtic imagery, however, makes it also a uniquely localized expression. In the early 1890s, the creative talents of the Macdonald sisters and McNair were fostered in the hothouse atmosphere of the Glasgow School of Art, a progressive institution that offered an innovative curriculum and welcomed female students. The sisters set up their own studio as professional designers in 1895, and although neither they nor McNair had any formal training in the design of lithographic posters, they experimented jointly with a series of large-format designs.
By arranging their three names in a vertical column on the poster’s left side, the artists highlighted a collaborative approach in which their individual contributions are often indistinguishable. As McNair later wrote, “It is hard to say how much is the suggestion or influence of the one and how much that of the other.” The posters found favor in progressive arts publications and with European decorative artists and designers, especially the Secessionists in Vienna, but also attracted vehement criticism for what critics called their “ghoul-like” and androgynous representations of the female form, which contradicted conventional ideals of feminine beauty.
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)