Peacocks & Greedy Patrons: Visiting V&A’s Filthy Lucre Exhibition

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This January, a mysterious newcomer will land in the hallowed halls of the V&A.

As decadent as its given title, Filthy Lucre is a mouth-watering installation by contemporary artist Darren Waterston that reinterprets Whistler’s notorious Peacock Room, one of the finest examples of 19th century decorative art.

The exhibition is an exercise in aesthetics. A sensory feast of unbelievable opulence. Upon arrival, the viewer is plunged into a decadent fantasy of richly dappled Royal blue walls, accented with overglazed scarlet detailing. Ornate gilded shelves criss-cross the walls like veins of gold, stacked precariously with asymmetrical, heavily patterned vases. Lustrous, metallic-green tiles wink under the glow of pendant lights. Fireplaces are simulated, with a portrait of robed beauty hanging above, larger than life. And of course, there is the pièce of résistance: the delicate golden peacocks themselves who appear in pairs on faux mantlepieces and doors. Though the depictions differ in tone. One couple wrestle elegantly, the blurring of feathers suggesting frantic movement; others appear to be peacefully embracing under a full round moon.

There is no doubt Filthy Lucre is a history lesson, the story of the original Room was a bonafide scandal that was sensationalised in the Victorian tabloids. Reports of Whistler’s wild behaviour often provided rich fodder for anecdotes. The individual objects and interiors themselves revive a period that was famed for its visual excess, providing a truly unique opportunity to walk through the rooms and experience their impact directly. The installation is such a powerful immersive piece that one cannot help but be plunged into a state of mesmerism… wandering, watching, imagining what it would have been like for Victorians to actually live in these kinds of environments. What did they think? How did it make them feel? Was it oppressive? Or a source of pride?

Whistler’s original Peacock Room. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

Yet Darren Waterston’s contemporary interpretation, once the enthralled viewer looks closer, has a sinister dimension. The gilded shelves are splintered. The vases cracked. Debris and fallen ceramics glint in the corners. The raven-haired siren in the portrait has turned her head away, we see nothing of her face. The effect is uncanny, and sorrowful.

The 19th century fever for the decorative arts had multiple roots. Queen Victoria’s stifling reign was one, it was a culture that promoted intimidating formality. The British Empire’s material wealth, network of global links and rare opportunities for cultural enrichment also played a vital part. In a way, the Aesthetic Movement was a product of a society-wide superiority complex. And Whistler’s original Peacock Room was an example in how far artistic ego could go. He dubbed his masterpiece a ‘harmony in blue and gold’ but ironically it sparked a bitter feud with his patron, the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, who had never commissioned or approved the design and was thoroughly displeased with it. A nasty row took place, with Leyland refusing to pay the artist’s fee.

Waterston’s modern experiment goes one step further, challenging the tensions between monied patron and passionate creative. There is a sense of beauty and threat. Fragility of art and strength of material wealth. It’s an unabashed shrine to the artist’s ideas, funded by a fortune made in big business. It is a wistful ode to a lavish lifestyle, and potentially a social commentary on today’s widening gap in wealth distribution (a situation that is nearing the terrifying division of wealth which dominated the Victorian age). Is it purely a historical display of interior design? Or a beautiful front to shame increasing capitalist greed?

Whistler defended his work to his angry client by saying, ‘Ah, I have made you famous. My work will live when you are forgotten. Still, perchance, in the dim ages to come to you will be remembered as the proprietor of the Peacock Room.’ And, despite the arrogance, he was right. The Peacock Room had an irresistible draw to which Waterston has added a valuable, thought-provoking layer over a century later.

Ultimately, Filthy Lucre has a magnetic aura that cannot be quantified, or put into words, though we have tried. The only thing to do about this installation, which the V&A aptly describe as ‘a magnificent ruin crumbling’, is to experience it yourself. To find out what it will make you feel you’ll have to visit the Peacock Room and do what all art wants you to do. Look at it carefully.

FURTHER INFO. ON ‘FILTHY LUCRE’

‘Filthy Lucre: Whistler’s Peacock Room Reimagined’ runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 25 January to 3 May 2020. Entrance is FREE. Find out more

It will be accompanied by a new publication, Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre: Whistler’s Peacock Room Reimagined by James Robinson, Florence Tyler and Darren Waterston, exclusive to V&A Retail and priced at £10.

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