At Mass MoCA: 'Uncertain Beauty' is excess caving in on itself


It was the art scandal of its era, a nasty public smackdown between a celebrated artist and a rich collector. It cost them money, reputation and a deep friendship, but yielded one of the most exquisite interiors of the 19th century -- the stunning blue-and-gold "Peacock Room," originally in London, and now housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The artist was American expatriate James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). The collector was British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. The result of their confrontation is being told in a visual reimagining of the "Peacock Room" opening this weekend at Mass MoCA.

The installation by New York painter Darren Waterston called "Filthy Lucre" is part of his new exhibition "Uncertain Beauty," on view through Feb. 1, 2015

The ambitious project, says curator Susan Cross, is very much in line with the themes Waterston explores in his paintings -- the marriage of the beautiful and the grotesque, the loss and suffering, the death embedded within life, the intersection of creation and destruction.

The story of how Whistler and Leyland came to blows is pieced together here from several authoritative but sometimes-conflicting accounts.

Leyland, a collector of art and Chinese porcelain, commissioned architect Thomas Jeckyll in 1876 to decorate his dining room as a showcase for his ceramics. Jeckyll envisioned a sun-dappled Chinese pavilion with the blue-and-white porcelains displayed on latticed oak shelving against walls covered with yellow, floral-embossed leather that Leyland had purchased at great cost.

An 1863 Whistler painting called "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain," was to hang over the fireplace and Leyland commissioned Whistler to create a companion mural on the opposite wall.

At some point, Leyland asked Whistler for advice on colors and approved several modest proposals -- among them gilding portions of the room with gold and toning down the red roses embossed on the leather walls by painting them yellow. They agreed on a fee of 500 guineas -- about $50,000 in today's money -- and Leyland left London for the summer.

Not long afterward, architect Jeckyll fell ill and had to withdraw from the project, leaving Whistler on his own. Disappointed in how his work was turning out, Whistler said later "I just painted on. I went on -- without a design or sketch -- it grew as I painted."

Known for his tonal portraits and dark nocturnes, Whistler turned Jeckyll's sun-dappled space into a twilight environment. He painted the leather walls a deep Prussian blue, gilded the shelving with gold, closed and embellished the window shutters with gold peacocks and, and covered the Gothic-ribbed ceiling with oxidized petals of brass.

Delighted with the results, he invited the press to his patron's house and showed off his creation to an enthusiastic reception.

When Leyland returned, he was stunned, not just by Whistler's audacity in acting without permission, but also by his spending four times what they'd agreed upon. He refused to pay more than half.

Whistler, already involved in a costly, unrelated lawsuit, had little choice but to accept. He agreed further to paint the additional mural Leyland had commissioned.

Steaming with humiliation and anger, however, he produced not the mural Leyland expected, but one of two fighting peacocks, in an allegory of their confrontation over money.

He also painted a separate, cruel caricature of Leyland as a misery peacock, found later at his home and now at the DeYoung Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco.

Waterston, 49, who has been living at the Eclipse Mill here since July as he supervised his project, took up the story from there in a recent interview at Mass MoCA.

"Whistler painted this very large and very infamous, wickedly cruel portrait of Leyland called the "Golden Scab and Eruption in Frilthy Lucre," he said. "Leyland was known for wearing these frilly shirts and he was also a novice pianist though not a very good one.

"Whistler, knowing this and how sensitive he was to these things, painted this terribly mean and wonderful portrait of Leyland morphing into this very creepy looking peacock with talons playing the piano and his tail feathers filled with coins. It's a hideous and wonderful portrayal of the whole story."

EAGLE: I understand that Leyland never wanted to see Whistler again.

WATERSTON: Yes. It ended a long friendship and patronage. But Leyland was known to have gone to that room every day to have his breakfast and he always [seated] himself looking at the peacocks.

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EAGLE: Was it part of Whistler's personality to go to such extremes?

WATERSTON: He had a very grand vision of himself. His ideas around art and aesthetics played a very heavy hand in everything he did.

EAGLE: How did you arrive at this subject for your installation?

WATERSTON: I was invited to do a site-specific wall mural (but) wanted to do something much more ambitious. I began to think of all the painted rooms in art history. I was completely seduced by the narrative of "The Peacock Room" -- so tumultuous with the complexities between the patron and the artist and all the excessiveness the room represented in money and consumption

EAGLE: Does that reflect on your own experience as an artist?

WATERSTON: Every artist has to reflect on their relationship with art and money and those two things are inexplicably connected. I think artists cannot escape that reality. Altruistic though we may want to be, the making of art requires capital. The history of western art is all about the relationship of artist and patron. Whistler's and Leyland's seemed especially fraught.

EAGLE: Do you see parallels in today's art market?

WATERSTON: It's the whole system, from the institutions, the galleries, the patrons, the artists. Everyone is implicated in some way. We're living in a time of so much excess in a small group of elite [who] end up having a heavy hand in the art that is seen, collected, commissioned, curated. That's very much the story of "The Peacock Room."

EAGLE: Is there a dark ending to all this?

WATERSTON: The reason why this room is being portrayed in this splendid ruin is that I'm looking at excess caving in on itself and the ambiguity of something horrific and something beautiful.

That's very much the theme in all my work, this play between beauty and decay. At what point does something of such great beauty hold a grotesque aspect to it as well?"

In the end, Whistler had the last word. Facing Leyland's fury, he was said to have replied: "You should be grateful to me. I have made you famous. My work will live when you are forgotten."

Time proved him right.

On exhibit

What: "Uncertain Beauty" - art by Darren Waterston featuring "Filthy Lucre," a recreation of James McNeill Whistler's "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room"

Where: Mass MoCA, 87 Marshall St., North Adams.

When: Saturday through Feb. 1, 2015. It will move to Washington's Smithsonian Institution July 1, 2015

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays

Admission: $15 for adults; $10, students; $5, children 6 to 16; Free to children 5 and under.

Additional information: (413) 662 2111;

Note: Artist's reception 5-7 p.m. March 29


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