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Vol. 13, No. 6, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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whistler and waterston

reviewed by


Anthony Merino, renowned independent art critic, has published over 70 reviews. He is a ceramic artist and has lectured internationally on contemporary ceramics.


One of the most common tropes in art is the masculine crazed genius. This trope works on the assumption that some men’s genius consumes so much of their psychic energy that they have nothing left for manners and civility. These deficits most commonly manifest as self-obsession and narcissism. Some of the more prominent manifestations of this have been Peter Shaffer’s portrait of self-indulgent Wolfgang Amedeus Mozart in his play and movie Amadeus. Joyce Cary constructs the foot obsessed egotistical irresponsible artist, Gulley Jimson to be the main character of his 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth. David Sure and Paul Attanasio tweaked this type, borrowing an addictive personal and freakishly deductive mind from Sir Author Conan Doyle’s beloved character Sherlock Holmes, to create the equally superhumanly insightful and self-obsessed character Gregory House for their popular television drama House.

Such caricatures are not created out of a vacuum. Transcendent narcissists saturate history. One of the most spectacular was 19th century American expatriate painter, James McNeil Whistler. A man so invested in the myth of his own genius that he sued contemporary critic John Ruskin for stating that one of his paintings was tantamount to “flinging a pot of paint into the public’s face.” The true crescendo of his self-obsession happened a year earlier, when he began work on his second most famous work: Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room.

The incident started when Whistler sold a painting, La Princesse du pays de la porcelain (1863-1864), to shipping magnet Frederick Leyland. The work was hung in the dining room of Leyland’s London residence. The room also housed Leyland’s extensive collection of blue and white Chinese Qing dynasty (1644-1911) porcelains. The painting was commissioned as part of noted architect Thomas Jeckyll’s remodeling of the room. During the project, Jeckyll fell ill. Whistler offered to pick up and finish the project. This began a series of outrageous actions, disputes and retaliations that resulted in Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room.

Leyland and Whistler’s dispute would become case study in the need for artistic liberty and restraint. Whistler strained the romantic notion of the artist as a mad genius. Whether or not The Peacock Room is a masterpiece of interior design is totally subjective. The fact that Whistler abused the trust of his patron goes without question. Leyland had granted Whistler limited permission to make changes to the room, some minor alterations to the wainscoting and cornices.

In his patron’s absence, Whistler made bolder revisions. He covered the ceiling with Dutch metal work. He then gilded Jeckyll’s walnut shelving. In a room that Leyland intended to be bright and open, he installed wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks. Perhaps most outrageously, in order to have the room be a better foil for his painting, Whistler painted every inch of the walls a bright Bristol blue. Leyland had lined the walls with Spanish leather covering, claimed to have once belonged to Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. Accounts of the timeline vary, but two very important events happened. Leyland, outraged over the expenses, paid Whistler less than half of what he was invoiced. Whistler got into the room and opposite the original painting, painted two warring peacocks. The larger one represented Leyland, the smaller Whistler. The larger one is attacking the defenseless peacock in a fit of rage, spurred by greed.

Almost 150 years later, the room on display at the Freer Gallery in Washington, Smithsonian Institution, still captures the public’s imagination. In a 2011 article in The New Yorker, critic Peter Schjeldahl described the room as “the most intoxicating decorative ensembles in the world.” Around this time painter Darren Waterston became interested in the room and began working on an installation based on the room: Filthy Lucre. A fully enclosed room, this installation is the centerpiece of his exhibition Uncertain Beauty at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Mass MoCA (8 March 2014 through 1 February 2015). As a commentary on the original work, the piece from its conception flawed. However, the work does depict Waterston’s own personal obsessions.

In the museum’s promotional video, Waterston describes Filthy Lucre as both an homage to and parody of The Peacock Room. On his website he states that the main intent of the room is:

The installation hints at parallels between the excesses and inequities of the Gilded Age and the social and economic disparities of our own time. At the same time, the work raises questions about patronage and the relationships between artists, collectors, and institutions.

This intent to recast the room as a social statement is doomed for two reasons.

First, the original Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room is so complex and arresting, it does not lend itself to being decontextualized. Waterston is trying to make a statement about our current state of arts and patronage, but the statement he makes is little more than a tepid whisper of the original. In this way, Waterston makes the same mistake that Gus Van Zandt did in his remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1998), which was panned by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, “The most dramatic difference between Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Gus Van Zandt's "shot-by-shot" remake is the addition of a masturbation scene. That's appropriate, because this new Psycho evokes the real thing in an attempt to re-create remembered passion."

Indeed, Van Zandt and Waterston share a hubris, causing them to have a shared problem. They take on the task of trying to expand onto or make contemporary a source object that is essentially timeless. Whatever they do -- it will be measured against the original. With both the Psycho and The Peacock Room, the second version is going to be a pale uninspired mockery of the original.

Second, Waterston’s own idiosyncratic aesthetic undermines his stated intent. He wants to draw a comparison of our current age with the gilded age. Waterston however loves decay and decomposition. This is the signature element of all his work. Waterston purposely constructs a room that is in the throws of decay of decomposition. He presents the room not as a resplendent example of taste and connoisseurship but as a decaying husk of capitalist gluttony. In here we see the problem. Dankness permeates the exhibition. He replaces La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine with a painting of garish figure that looks like a melting wax figurine. The shelving is broken. The many of the ceramics are cracked or in shards. Judging from his stated intent the purpose is to recast our current age of excess, acquisition and consumption. Some look as if they slumped and pooled in place over time. Because of this Filthy Lucre can never be read as a contemporary room. The point of Waterston’s work is at odds with the intent of the exhibition. People do not read art as both decaying and contemporary at the same time.

Waterston does succeed in creating a crescendo to his personal aesthetic passion. The room works as an extension of Waterston’s personal aesthetic reflected in the rest of his paintings and also featured in Uncertain Beauty. Waterston creates very erudite images out of conglomerations of caustic tints, repulsive textures and melting limp forms. In this aspect, his work is a spot on homage to Whistler’s original. In both The Peacock Room and Filthy Lucre the artists place a passionate devotion to their personal aesthetic above all other considerations.


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