STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A legendary piece of art from the 19th century has been ruined here in Washington - and that's by design. Two Smithsonian institutions - the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian art gave their blessing. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg is on it.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The Peacock Room at the Freer is an actual dining room from London decorated by James McNeill Whistler in 1876. Its blue-green walls are covered with golden designs and painted peacocks. Gilded shelves hold priceless Asian ceramics - an expensive, lavish cocoon rich in beauty and a dab of menace.
Guard, what is it like to be in this room all day?
SHAQUAN HARPER: It gives me a sense of meditation.
STAMBERG: This is security guard Shaquan Harper's third month at the Freer.
HARPER: Like a peaceful, free kind of spirited vibe that I get. Blue is my favorite color, and whenever I wear jewelry, it's gold. So I kind of make a personal connection with the room. It's one of my favorite galleries in the Smithsonian collection, period. So...
HARPER: ...Yes, good job, Smithsonian.
LEE GLAZER: Even though it's a room, it's really a six-sided painting that you literally walk into.
STAMBERG: Curator Lee Glazer. The Peacock Room is gorgeous, but airless, a gilded cage.
GLAZER: You have no sense whatsoever of the outside world. It's a world in which art has completely overtaken life.
STAMBERG: It was shipping magnate Frederick Leyland's world, created in the Victorian era when self-made men with new fortunes were buying their way into British society through fine houses and important works of art. Whistler paints his wealthy patron as a golden peacock at one end of the dining room - nearby, another peacock, representing the poor artist.
GLAZER: They're actually in a face-off.
STAMBERG: Fighting, for reasons to be revealed in a bit - a dispute about art and money, although Whistler named the room "Harmony In Blue And Gold."
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STAMBERG: For a new take on that room, walk next door to the Sackler Museum. That's where painter Darren Waterston has reproduced and re-interpreted Whistler's dining room. Filthy Lucre - it means dirty money - Peacock Room remix looks as if a wrecking ball has slammed into Whistler's work.
You have taken what in the original are priceless Asian vases and just smashed them so that there are shards of them littering the floor over here. Describe what you did with the shelves.
DARREN WATERSTON: Well, the shelves are all broken. The gold gild is either melting off or puddling on the floor.
STAMBERG: The original room feels claustrophobic in its excess. This one feels scary, as if there's just been an earthquake and another tremor's coming along any minute.
WATERSTON: Yeah, there's the sense of danger a little bit.
STAMBERG: Darren Waterston seems so cheerful and sweet. And yet...
WATERSTON: My work absolutely has a perversity. There's always an underbelly to it.
STAMBERG: Why? Waterston says he wanted to show the volatility of beauty and the big, cancerous, gilded cysts that he's blobbed onto Whistler's reproduced golden shelves, the spilled paint oozing onto the rug are his reaction to what's happening between art and money these days.
WATERSTON: This is what it means to be a living artist in this contemporary art world that is so filled with excess and this incredible consumption, this insatiable consumption of the object and of aesthetics.
STAMBERG: The most vivid, even yuck-making example is what Waterston's done to Whistler's two golden peacocks; in this remix, the birds aren't just fighting, they're deeply into evisceration.
WATERSTON: Literally disemboweling each other. One has the other's entrails being pulled out - talons are out.
STAMBERG: They hate each other's guts, which is exactly what happened between Whistler and Frederick Leyland. The patron asked the artist to just make some modest adjustments in his new dining room. Curator Lee Glazer says Whistler put a few wavy dabs of gold paint here, some metal color there.
GLAZER: And everyone was very happy with that.
STAMBERG: Leyland and his family left London for the summer.
GLAZER: And that was when Whistler's imagination took flight.
STAMBERG: He transformed the room - covered every surface with blue and gold paint, worked like a madman.
GLAZER: Whistler talks about being up on the scaffolding at 6 in the morning, not coming down till 9 at night. I'm blind with sleep and blue peacock feathers, he says.
STAMBERG: He kept his friend and patron informed, more or less, about what he was doing.
GLAZER: All through the summer, Leyland had received letters from Whistler talking about the gorgeous surprise that Whistler was preparing for him and the family.
STAMBERG: Well, Leyland comes home, sees the extent of the work and what Whistler wanted to be paid for it - 2,000 pounds, about a quarter of a million dollars today - and, as they used to say in those proper Victorian days, Leyland blew a gasket. In the middle of the dispute, with Leyland paying half of what Whistler requested, the artist went back to the dining room to finish up.
GLAZER: And that was really when he exacted his vengeance.
STAMBERG: He painted those fighting peacocks - the just-plain-angry ones, not Waterston's gut-wrenching birds. He laid on even more blue paint. Then Whistler left and never saw the Peacock Room again. Now, we cannot end this story without asking curator Lee Glazer what Whistler's mother - that iconic profiled figure in gray and black - what mama Whistler thought of the whole thing - the frenzied work, the manic effort. Seems she was worried about her son, thought he was working too hard, not eating, not sleeping.
GLAZER: She chides him about that and says, you know, Jimmy, a gentleman's house isn't an exhibition, meaning get out there and make some money and make some things that are going to sell. And so perhaps always listening to his mother - Whistler was kind of a mama's boy - he did invite the press in to watch him work in the Peacock Room.
STAMBERG: Another thing he forgot to tell Frederick Leyland. The results of all this deliciousness can be seen at the Freer, site of the original Peacock Room and Filthy Lucre, Darren Waterston's remix of the original, is over at the Sackler Museum. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: And if you can't make it to the galleries, just make it to the web. You can see some before-and-after photos of the Peacock Room at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
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