It’s not your usual Smithsonian exhibit.
At the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, there is a new room that is a remix recreation of James McNeill Whistler’s iconic “Peacock Room” in the Freer Gallery of Art next door.
Only instead of the ornate, gilded 19th century dining room full of beautiful paintings and objects, this “Peacock Room Remix” is a magnificent ruin, with shattered pots, dripping paint, peacocks that attack each other and a portrait of a headless, kimono-clad creature that looks like a shade from the dark side instead of the original’s beautiful “The Princess from the Land of Porcelain.”
Artist Darren Waterston has created “Filthy Lucre,” a work that tells the bitter backstory of the fabled “Peacock Room,” a seeming masterpiece of the decorative arts that became a standoff between artist and patron, between art and money.
At the time it was created, 1876-1877, in Victorian London, there was already tremendous tension about the disparities between rich and poor as new wealth contributed to “The Gilded Age.”
According to Lee Glazer, the Freer/Sackler associate curator of American Art, Waterston’s remix was “inspired by both the artistic mastery demonstrated by the room—long regarded as the period’s greatest surviving decorative interior—and Whistler’s bitterness over its creation.”
“The room in patron Frederick Leyland’s London home became Whistler’s playground,” said the release that described the exhibit, “as he was left to his own inspiration and proceeded to cover every inch with painted peacock motifs in shimmering golds, blues and greens.”
The press release for the show added that “Leyland was furious at Whistler’s audacity, and the home-makeover gone awry spiraled into a clash over artistic freedom. Fueled by dueling egos, the argument was splashed across London’s society tabloids, turning the once-intimate friends into mortal enemies.”
Leyland also refused to pay and the dispute became the tipping point for Whistler’s economic downfall, combined with financial mismanagement, leading to bankruptcy.
All of which, in turn, inspired Waterston, a contemporary artist based in New York City.
“I set out to recreate Whistler’s fabled Peacock Room in a state of decadent demolition—a space collapsing in on itself, heavy with its own excess and tumultuous history,” said Waterston. “I imagined it as an unsettling cacophony of excess, with every interior surface and object within sumptuously painted.”
Years later, American businessman Charles Lang Freer purchased the room for his Detroit mansion. After his death, it was moved to the Smithsonian art gallery specializing in Asian art that opened in 1923 and bears his name.
The exhibit’s title “Filthy Lucre” is inspired by Whistler’s angry cartoonish portrait of Leyland as a scaled peacock-like creature who wears the patron’s signature frilly shirts. It is called “The Gold Scab; Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor)” and, on loan from San Francisco’s de Young Museum, is part of the show.
“Darren Waterston’s ‘Filthy Lucre’ is a remarkable work in its own right, and it also gives us a new appreciationfor the intense, even visceral, emotional afterlife of the Peacock Room,” said Glazer. “Far from being a static monument, the Peacock Room continues to inspire artistic ambition and creation.”
The “Peacock Room Remix” exhibit in the Sackler Gallery is open from May 16, 2015 through Nov. 29, 2016. However, The Freer, including the original “Peacock Room” will be closed from Jan. 2016 through the summer of 2017 for renovations.