How do you squeeze the life of one exemplary Mobilian – called in 1924 one of nine “distinguished living citizens” and honored at the Alabama Day of the Southern Exposition in New York City – into 2,000 square feet? It’s nearly impossible, so the History Museum of Mobile is tackling a single breathtaking chapter.
They’ll reveal the attempt Oct. 16 when “Ark of India” features the work of artist Roderick D. MacKenzie during his career-defining time in Asia. The show will run through September 2015 and will bring together the realms of art and history in a way not often seen here.
Most illuminating for our fellow Mobilians is likely the story of the artist himself. Though highly accomplished in his time and the feature of a 1997 retrospective at the Mobile Museum of Art, local awareness of MacKenzie’s story isn’t widespread these days, what with his lack of touchdowns and all.
Born in London as the American Civil War concluded, MacKenzie moved to Mobile when he was just seven years old. When his mother died of yellow fever in 1880, his father split the family and a teenaged Roderick moved to the Episcopal Ward for Orphans, a predecessor to Wilmer Hall. Luckily, administrators recognized and fostered the artistic talents he inherited from his father by funding his education at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for two years.
Back in Mobile in 1886, MacKenzie’s star rose and in a couple of years he was drawn to Paris, the world’s epicenter for his artistic pursuit. In 1889, he enrolled in L’Académie Julian but it proved insufficiently challenging so he moved to the venerable l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Around the same time, MacKenzie met Boston native Charlotte Barnes and despite her 20-year seniority to the young man, the relationship resulted in marriage. The newlyweds were barely settled when the adventure of a lifetime called.
Art dealers in Calcutta, India were impressed with MacKenzie’s work and beckoned the rising star to come capture their exotic natural world. The MacKenzies would remain there the next 14 years, in service to the East India Company.
Most notably, MacKenzie was enlisted in 1902 to create the official depiction of Edward VII’s coronation as Emperor of India, in particular the miles-long procession known as a Durbar that would draw a million people to Delhi. Featuring marchers in brightly hued uniforms, horses in flowing colors, some of the 50 bejeweled elephants carrying dignitaries by regal parapets, the 11-by-18-foot painting was so overwhelming MacKenzie was soon lauded as “the best artist in Asia.”
The exhibit has a replica of the painting as its centerpiece, an awesome work that oddly filled my head with the exotic strains of The Decemberists’ “The Infanta” as I spiraled into its grandeur.
MacKenzie was fascinated by not just nobles, but also average people with their customs, traditions and daily lives. He swam in the Ganges, haunted the markets and bazaars and was captivated by the Taj Mahal in the moonlight. In Benares, he witnessed the rituals surrounding a solar eclipse and followers of Shiva who he said slipped through the streets “with a bold consequential swagger … like perfect incarnations of the devil.”
The artist drank in the entirety of the Asian subcontinent, on hunts and expeditions through the bush, from steamy tropics to the rocky Khyber Pass. The fruits of those labors made it back to lauded exhibits in Paris and London.
In 1906, MacKenzie returned to Paris, then moved to London from 1908-1913 before Europe’s pre-World War I political turmoil pointed him homeward. Regretfully, some of his work left in London under the eye of Raphael Tuck and Sons was lost to the London Blitz of WWII.
After a quarter century away from Mobile, MacKenzie returned to praise. Various Alabama artists studied with him in his studio at 200 Dauphin St., or privately in Birmingham.
Despite some work for the government during WWI, he and Charlotte scraped by in a lifestyle far removed from what they experienced abroad.
When Charlotte died in 1920, he began to travel through the state, painting industrial scenes, bucolic landscapes, portraits and whatever struck him. The state named him Art Commissioner and he was invited to join the American Federation of the Arts. Though a 1925 fire destroyed his Dauphin Street studio, he was also inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame that year.
By the time he died in 1941 and was interred in Magnolia Cemetery, MacKenzie might have been the most celebrated visual artist Alabama had produced. His legacy remains across the state, in murals at the State Capitol Rotunda in Montgomery, in a collection of more than 50 paintings of Birmingham’s steel works, in portraiture found in museums and personal collections and in foreign lands.
This occasion prompted the museum to launch a keepsake hardcover book, the body penned by Curator of History Scotty Kirkland. He took pains to assure every aspect was locally sourced, from its assembly by Tom Mason Communications to its publication by the museum itself.
“Ark of India” gives a fascinating glimpse into the Asian mysteries that fascinated MacKenzie. Through its employ of more than 100 artifacts, sketches, engravings, paintings and sculptures, it reveals his remarkable skill and incredible eye.
With the recent announcement the city is dropping the $7 entrance fee at the museum door come October, there’s no excuse not to indulge. Despite his global meandering, MacKenzie adopted Mobile as his own. Now, we can repay the favor.