Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Feathers Will Fly



Rarely have I walked into a room where I felt an emotional coldness, a sense of dread, abandon all hope. Except perhaps a haunted house.

Through the ages there have been rooms. The grand duke Franz Ferdinand had a room devoted to his game hunting skills. Approximately 100,000 trophies were on exhibit at his Bohemian castle.

Wealthy industrialists have sought to have rooms reconstructed after the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Henry Clay Frick who made his money from coke (coal) had installed in his Fifth Avenue mansion panels painted by Fragonard, “The Cycle of Love”, with a drawing room designed around them in 1915/16. The boiseries, or painted wall panels, were designed and executed in Paris by Auguste Decour in the Louis XVI style.
There have been rooms inspired by Japanese aesthetics or by nature. Frank Lloyd Wright designed his house/studio around a willow tree that would eventually “grow” in the front entryway.

Indeed one can easily identify a Wright room or one designed by William Morris of the Arts & Crafts movement with its lush wallpapers and floral window treatments.
Or rooms arranged around a specific time period.Such as "modern."

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) decorated his congressional office Downton Abbey style—and immediately resigned for “unknown” reasons but largely due to spending controversies.


So there is a history of rooms—both infamous/famous. One such room is the Peacock Room designed by James McNeill Whistler for his patron at the time, Frederick R. Leyland, a wealthy shipping magnate from Liverpool.
During the early 1870s Whistler was a regular fixture at Speke Hall the Leyland country residence where he did pen and ink drawings of Mrs. Leyland and her three daughters. Whistler described himself as a “never-ending guest.” Not only was Leyland a patron, but a friend and Whistler was a favorite of the whole family.

Sometime later about 1876 Leyland “commissioned” Whistler to design/paint the dining room at his Kensington, London townhouse. Whistler threw himself into the work. Over the fireplace was hung Whistler’s painting, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, to serve as the focal point of the room. The room was actually under the direction of Thomas Jeckyll who was instructed to create a space to display Leyland’s porcelain collection. Jeckyll fell ill and Whistler took over, going above and beyond with his flourishes and expenditures. All while Leyland was away.

Whistler covered the leather wallpaper with a blue/green color and coated the ceiling with imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He gilded Jeckyll’s walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks.  He wrote to Leyland that the dining room was “alive with beauty.” This was the Gilded Age famous for its excesses. So who would be surprised???

When Leyland returned . . . he was shocked. At first Leyland refused to pay, then wrote a check for half of the amount. Whistler just couldn’t leave well enough alone. He had to get back at Leyland. Somehow he got back into the house and continued painting on the opposite The Princess. The birds on a background of Prussian blue faced each other as if about to fight, on ground strewn with silver shillings. Whistler aptly titled the mural Art and Money.

Whistler never returned to Speke Hall or to the Kensington home. From this point on Leyland and Whistler were bitter enemies. Money had indeed, corrupted both men.

Upon Leyland’s death in 1892 his widow Frances boxed the room up and auctioned it off. It was purchased by Charles Lang Freer, who took the room apart and reinstalled it in his house in Detroit. Later, upon his death in 1919 the room was again boxed up and sent to the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

Jump ahead now to the 21st century, to a Peacock Room re-Mix. Contemporary artist Darren Waterson explored the idea of creating a room, a physical installation the public could walk through. He turned to research what other rooms had been done in the past and was drawn immediately to the fracas of the Peacock Room. And to the broken relationship between the two men. Both of them never completely recovered. Leyland and his wife eventually separated and Whistler spiraled into financial ruin, mostly because of a drawn out court case against John Ruskin for libel.

Waterson set out to de-construct the room based upon his research. Not since Ivan Albright’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” have I felt the impact of humanities choices, the wretched state we are in.
 
Upon entering the room I felt the cracks and fissures wrought by enemies. There were shards of broken vases littering the floor. The once gilded room was ravaged by an intense rivalry. The beloved painting above the mantel, its colors ran, the face blotted out. The gilded spindles of walnut wood looked like melted wax. Time seemed to have taken its toll. I felt the loss of friends, family, reputation. Every surface told a story of disappointment, betrayal. Add to this atmosphere a haunting soundtrack by BETTY.


The peacocks on the back wall appear to be not only fighting but eviscerating one another, pulling out the guts with their long, probing beaks. There is gold paint spilt, bleeding across the floor. The dim, red-tinted lighting in the room contributes to the eeriness, uneasiness.

Welcome to Filthy Lucre, Waterson’s re-mix, now installed in the Sackler Gallery adjoining the Freer where the original Peacock Room resides. Money and art are a bad combination, evident in this new show that runs through January 2, 2016.

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