“Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s ‘Filthy Lucre,'” that opened May 16 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is an eerie, almost transgressive re-imagining of Whistler’s Peacock Room in the adjacent Freer Gallery.
Peacockalypse! Whistler gone wild! After all, the Peacock Room is one of 35 “icons of American Art,” as determined by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
From gorgeous to grotesque, the sumptuous, resplendent masterpiece by James Abbott McNeill Whistler is reinterpreted as a nightmarish putrid ruin in “Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s ‘Filthy Lucre'”. Waterston’s claustrophobic room magnifies the cacophony behind Whistler’s “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room.” (Click here to see a video, and also click through this slideshow for a side-by-side comparison of the original “Harmony” and the “Filthy.”)
In Waterston’s installation, gold paint “drips from a wall where two peacocks are disemboweling each other, and spills on the floor like a bodily fluid,” the artist told me at a press preview. In the “REMIX”, golden stalactites dangle from broken teetering shelves, amid shards of porcelain like the Chinese ceramic collection that decorated the room. Its centerpiece, Whistler’s “The Princess from the Land of Porcelain,” is depicted by Waterston with her erstwhile Pre-Raphaelite face “blooming into spores…ecstatic that she’s becoming monstrous though beautiful,” he continued.
The room’s haunting soundscape is somewhere between monstrous and beautiful. Performed by BETTY, the International Activist Alt Music Trio (Washington, D.C.-born, New York City-based), it combines whispers of Whistler’s words like “An artist’s career always begins tomorrow” and “art for art’s sake” with mournful cello music. Creepy, BETTY.
The immersive installation is surrounded by Whistler’s paintings and sketches illuminating the precipitous deterioration of his relationship with his major patron and close friend, English shipping magnate Frederick Leyland (1832-1892), who commissioned the Peacock Room. “Once friends. Forever enemies,” as Whistler described it. (For witticisms, Whistler fancied he competed successfully with his friend Oscar Wilde.)
The first portrait shines with reverence for Leyland, and the last is a caricature, filled with revenge. Whistler (1834-1903)1entitled it “The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor),” depicting Leyland as a vicious peacock morphing into a reptilian monster, surrounded by money bags, and mocked for his passé frilly shirts. Whistler, quite the fop himself, even gave his signature butterfly a long stinging tail aiming at the creditor’s frilthy neck. In one of his last letters to Leyland, Whistler declared, “Whom the gods intend to be ridiculous, they furnish with a frill.”
Waterston’s “Filthy Lucre,” plays on the title that Whistler based on the New Testament’s repeated warnings to Christ’s disciples against seeking money (“filthy lucre”) for their teachings, and F.R.L., standing for Frederick Richards Leyland’s initials as well as his penchant for wearing frills.
The San Francisco-born artist, who says he’s a “huge fan of Whistler’s art,” explained he wanted to recreate “the fabled room in a state of decadent demolition — a space collapsing in on itself, heavy with its own excess and tumultuous history.”
Waterston said that when he first saw the Peacock Room, he was struck not only by its beauty but also by its “decadence. It’s so beautiful and excessive that it almost becomes grotesque. The underbelly of beauty is its volatility — how quickly it becomes unsettling.”
The same can be said of relationships, especially between artist and patron, and certainly between Whistler and Leyland. The friendship between the expatriate American painter and British tycoon Leyland, as well as his wife Frances and three daughters, deteriorated over art, money, creative freedom, acrimony, and egos. Whistler described this as a “story of the beautiful.” That age-old story continues today, in our latter-day Gilded Age.
The Sackler’s associate curator of American art, Lee Glazer, explains it like this: Leyland asked Whistler to make modifications to the tycoon’s recently redecorated dining room in his London mansion, and the artist did. “Money was never discussed. There was no contract.” But when the Leylands left town for the summer of 1876, the artist “completely transformed” the room, with brilliant blue and gold patterns based on peacock feathers. The artist invited the press to watch him paint, to publicize himself and his masterpiece. Leyland was infuriated about that, the scope of the work, Whistler’s bill… at best a “friendship gone awry.”
But he allowed Whistler to complete the room. In Whistler’s final mural for it, he portrayed Leyland and himself as two peacocks fighting amid silver coins. He entitled that mural “Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room.” Despite everything, Leyland kept the Peacock Room exactly as his former friend created it.
Long after Leyland died, Charles Lang Freer, another Gilded Age magnate and Whistler patron and collector (eventually 1,000 Whistler works), bought the room and all its contents in 1904. Freer (1854-1919) had it shipped in 27 crates and reassembled in a specially built annex to his Detroit mansion. He bequeathed the room, painting, and ceramics, to the Smithsonian Institution, along with funds to create the Freer Gallery of Art — Whistler had encouraged him to create a public museum.
The Peacock Room has been the crown jewel of the Freer Gallery ever since it opened in 1923.
The Freer will close in January 2016 for about 18 months for renovation — so there’s only a limited time to see the Peacock Room, and to see “Filthy Lucre” in close proximity to it. “Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s ‘Filthy Lucre'” will remain on view at the Sackler Gallery through January 2, 2017, one year after the adjoining Freer Gallery closes.
This is also the only opportunity to see the REMIX part of the exhibit because Freer and Sackler artworks never travel. Waterston’s “Filthy Lucre” room itself can be dismantled and reassembled in another location. Waterston created the work during an artist residency at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., not far from Whistler’s birthplace of Lowell, Mass.
Many events celebrate the one-time-only exhibit:
- “Peacock Room REMIX” opening night celebration May 15 was “Birds of a Feather Gala and Flock Together After Party.”
- Opening day May 16 at 3:30 P.M., a panel of collectors, artists, scholars, and market experts, led by moderator Scott Simon of NPR, discussed “Stories of Art and Money” — What is art worth? Who determines its value? And how does art’s commercial value affect its social value?
- May 17 at 2:30 P.M., a discussion and performance The Symphonic Landscape: Merging Art and Music in “Filthy Lucre” features Darren Waterston and members of the trio BETTY. They’ll examine the relationship between art and music and discuss the soundscape that Waterston and BETTY created for “Filthy Lucre.” Then, BETTY performs a short concert.
- “Third Thursday Open House” May 21, June 18, and July 16 at 5:30 P.M., combines “After Five” series with “Peacock Room Shutters Open,” a once-a-month opportunity to see the treasure really shimmer and glow in sunshine, with viewing the new “Filthy” companion exhibit, and hearing BETTY here and there around the Freer and Sackler galleries (May 21), and a performance by Museum Hack (June 18).
- “Asia After Dark: PEACOCKalypse” June 13, at 8 P.M. Put on your feathers, frills, and gold bird (not scab) temporary tattoos, then strut through offbeat tours of the Peacock Room and its “Filthy” alter-ego, imbibe specialty (pea)cocktails, and ruffle those tail feathers to tunes by BETTY. This is the only non-free event: $25 in advance; $35 at the door.
For more info: “Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s ‘Filthy Lucre'” May 16 through Jan. 2, 2017, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Avenue, S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, Independence Avenue and 12th Street, S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Free admission. The Freer closes January 2016 for about 18 months for renovation. So, strut on in before January to see the Peacock Room in the Freer as well as its “REMIX” in the adjoining Sackler Gallery.