The highly decorated Peacock Room is “almost too much,” Waterston says. Golden peacocks strut and pose on blue-green shutters and walls. Gilded shelves reach to the blue-green ceiling, where gold-leafed wainscoting frames ornate pendant lanterns.
“Even without knowing the backstory, there’s a sort of heaviness to the room,” Waterston says. “It becomes even more emotionally charged once you understand how it came about.”
What happened was: A wealthy Englishman named Frederick R. Leyland asked his friend Whistler what color he should paint his dining room, which contained one of the artist’s paintings. Whistler volunteered to retouch the walls and add some decorative waves to the wood paneling.
Leyland left town on business and Whistler went wild, gilding the ceiling and painting golden peacocks on the shutters. When the artist presented Leyland with the bill: 2,000 guineas (about $200,000 today), the businessman balked, and eventually paid half.
Incensed, Whistler finished the project by painting two peacocks poised for a fight: One of the birds represents Leyland and has silver coins scattered around his feet. The other one, representing the artist, has silver in its crest. (Whistler was known for the white lock in his otherwise dark hair.) Driving home the point, Whistler titled the painting, “Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room.”
Waterston’s “Filthy Lucre” creates an alternate reality where Whistler and Leyland’s soured friendship is physically corroding the room. Shelves are buckling, broken pottery litters the floor and the fighting peacocks are in an all-out brawl. Entrails dangle decoratively between their grasping claws and golden blood pools on the floor below.
“I didn’t want it to look like some particular traumatic event took place, like an earthquake,” Waterston says. “I wanted it to feel much more dreamy, like a surrealist painting.”
To that end, Waterston hid speakers inside a few of the urns and created a soundscape of whispers and dissonant music by the indie-rock group BETTY.
“They composed a symphonic piece of music that was absolutely beautiful, and — not unlike the way the rest of the room was approached — we shattered it,” he says. “We broke it up so it didn’t work as a whole anymore.”
A close-knit team of about a dozen artists, architects and carpenters helped put “Filthy Lucre” together for its debut last year at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. They formed a sort of “Filthy Lucre family” that’s stayed in touch after finishing the project, Waterston says.
“When we were putting this thing together, Mass MoCA curator Susan Cross and I were spending every waking moment together,” he says. “It was like a love affair, it was so intense. We don’t get to see each other as much anymore, but she still calls to check up on me.”
By symbolically destroying the Peacock Room, it’s almost like the artists took away its friendship-corroding power.
“That’s the real legacy of ‘Filthy Lucre,’ the wonderful relationships that came out of it,” Waterston says. “It’s the total opposite of the Peacock Room.”
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