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Inside Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre

The artist reveals how his Sackler exhibit pays dark homage to Whistler’s Peacock Room

Architect, December 2015

In his paintings, the artist Darren Waterston often returns to the complex relationship between beauty and decay—the moment when a flower fades or a tantalizing piece of fruit starts to go rotten. He has now explored the theme on a much larger scale, with a dark homage to one of the most famous interiors in art history. Filthy Lucre, on display until January 2017 at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is a full-scale, detailed replica of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876–77), a richly decorated dining room crammed with porcelain that Whistler called his “harmony in blue and gold.”
Chock-full of Asian ceramics, with peacock feathers swirling over almost every surface and a moody Whistler portrait on one wall, the Peacock Room is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk. It was originally designed as the dining room in the London home of Frederick R. Leyland. In 1904, a Detroit industrialist and art patron named Charles Lang Freer acquired the artwork—which can be taken apart and reassembled—and bequeathed it to the Smithsonian. It’s now on permanent display at the Freer Gallery, which means that visitors to Filthy Lucre can also see the inspiration behind it.
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