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A twist on Whistler in Washington

The nightmarish room where art battles money

George Pendle | May 14th 2015

In 1876, the English shipping magnate Frederick Leyland asked James McNeill Whistler, the enfant terrible of the art world, for advice on decorating his London dining room. The room was intended to showcase Leyland’s collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain—for which there was a collecting craze at the time—but when the original architect fell ill and Leyland was called back to Liverpool on business, Whistler decided to take over the project and infuse it completely with his own particular artistic genius. He painted its walls in shimmering Prussian blue and blue-green, not sparing the expensive leather wall-hangings. He ladled on gold leaf, covered the ribbed ceiling in oxidised brass, and filled every surface with delicate abstract patterns and lustrous images of peacocks.

The result, called the Peacock Room, is on permanent display at the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, and is one of the gems of the Smithsonian Institution’s massive collection. It is a must-see for anyone visiting the city, especially if your visit coincides with the one afternoon every month when the shutters of the room are opened, briefly turning the room into a dazzling jewel box of blue, green and gold. And for the next 18 months, it is being joined by a twisted facsimile, made by the artist Darren Waterston. In his version (pictured), pots and vases are melting and shattered, shelves are askew and splintered, and the ceiling sags ominously. Called “Filthy Lucre”, it is a provocative take on both the origin of Whistler’s room and the current state of the art market.

Despite its serene beauty, the Peacock Room had a tumultuous genesis. Whistler chose not to inform the absent Leyland of what he was doing to his dining room, partly because he thought Leyland—his first major patron—was in thrall to his talent, and partly because he just couldn’t stop himself from the task at hand. In a letter to Leyland, Whistler simply promised a “gorgeous surprise”. He was not wrong. There was no doubt that the room was gorgeous, but the surprise came from the fact that Whistler’s embellishments cost 2,000 guineas more than Leyland had expected to pay—over £200,000 today. Leyland was furious and offered to pay Whistler only half the sum; Whistler flew into a rage at having his aesthetic value questioned. The argument rapidly intensified. In an increasingly hysterical correspondence—wittily displayed outside “Filthy Lucre”—Leyland called Whistler “an artistic Barnum”, while Whistler called Leyland “a frilled Philistine—a Criminal of Commerce”.

It was a clash of huge wealth and a giant ego, and while Leyland never paid Whistler the full amount, the artist had his revenge. On the room’s large empty central panel, which had been awaiting one of his paintings, he painted two fighting peacocks. One struts forward with coins spilling from its breast, its feathers ruffled like the frilled shirts Leyland preferred to wear. The other steps back from the attack, affronted, a sliver of silver in its feathers, reminiscent of Whistler’s own shock of white hair. He called the painting “Art and Money: or, The Story of the Room”.

In Waterston’s new work, in a dimly lit space in the adjoining Sackler Gallery, the warring tensions between artist and patron seem to have bubbled over and infused the room’s decoration with their animosity. Gold spews everywhere, dripping in stalactites from the ceiling, festering in buboes of gilt on the shelves, oozing onto the floor and under the walls of the room itself. The half-opened shutters let in a putrid puce light, and the two golden peacocks on the wall are no longer preening, but pulling each other’s entrails out. If the original Peacock Room can seem dream-like, this other room is a nightmare, a mad relation locked in the basement, the untamed id of the stately room upstairs.

“Filthy Lucre” seems to have drawn out the bile of the Leyland/Whistler argument and distilled it into a powerful concentrate. It is leprotic, glutted with overabundance, and reeking of pride and excess. Yet Waterston's room not only comments on the Peacock Room feud, but on the broader subject of art and money, drawing on the parallels between the gilded age in which Whistler and Leyland lived, and the world of today—both eras of vast economic inequality and massive art speculation. Waterston’s work absorbs and reflects the never-ending dance of art and money, and critiques both wealthy collectors who use art as a status symbol and commodity, as well as the artists who are willing to play their game.

The arrival of “Filthy Lucre” in Washington, DC, was particularly well timed: just a few days before it opened, Pablo Picasso’s “Women of Algiers” sold for a staggering $179m, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. The battle of the two peacocks, “Filthy Lucre” seems to say, has been going on for millennia and will continue for many more. It is grotesque but such grotesquerie underlies even the most beautiful objet d’art. Walking between the two rooms is like conferring with first Dr Jekyll and then Mr Hyde, an apposite symbol for the transcendent promises of art, and the sordid reality that often lurks behind its creation.

Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, from May 16th to January 2nd, 2017

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