Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Peacock Room

A friend who is studying interior design and I went down to the Freer yesterday to see the Peacock Room. Learning is always enhanced by taking a good hard look at what not to do. The Peacock Room is a perfect example of that.

It is a very disturbed space, dark and creepy, overdone in every way possible. Not only does it not enhance the porcelain pieces it was meant to showcase, it renders them pretty much invisible. I can only stand to stay in that room a few minutes before I have to get the hell out of there. It truly is a weird space.

I've always wondered what happened to Whistler while he worked on this room. Most of his art is not nearly so over the top. In the case of the Peacock Room, things definitely got out of hand. Who knows why?

Yesterday, gazing at the fighting peacocks, the Princess from the Land of Porcelain, (I mean, really!) and all that dark paint, the thought came to me that many of my romantic relationships took the same route as that room, beginning so joyfully and with the best of intentions, but eventually becoming overdone, overpainted, overworked. In the end, all my past romantic relationships were terrible burdens that had to be jettisoned. Things always got too heavy to bear.

And yet, the Peacock Room is on permanent display in the Smithsonian. It is honored as art. Isn't that something?

I'm thinking it might be time for me to build an overwrought altar to lost loves, a piece that honors the artfulness of those liaisons, including the artful darkness that brought each and every one of them to their knees. When I build this altar, I will let go of restraint and just keep adding more and more until it's as weird as the Peacock Room. Then what? Maybe I'll bury it, because I'm pretty sure the Smithsonian will not want to display it. We'll have to see.


Unknown said...

An interesting idea-- for me there are past loves very connected to my poetry that are problematic-- in the sense that their existence seems so entwined with poetic creation. Would like to hear more about this project on your blog if you decide to go ahead with it.

A Concerned Citizen said...

When I was much younger, I loved the over-the-topness of the Peacock Room. Now it creeps me out.

Your analogy of the Peacock Room to romantic relationships that ulitmately failed is very, very interesting. I shall have to ponder that a bit today.

Reya Mellicker said...

I'm definitely going to go ahead with it. More and more I'm thinking Miles Davis was right when he said there was no such thing as a mistake. We humans learn "the hard way," always. Why not celebrate our hard headedness?

Well, why not?

Tom said...

i think the Peacock room sounds blaringly neat, but i haven't seen it. Maybe we all need some bit of cacophony in our lives...ocassionally it ought be brought out and showed off.

Cyndy said...

The Peacock room is very interesting to look at but it's probably really difficult to think in a room like that.

I find that most mistakes are like a bend in the road in the overall scheme of things, and they give you the opportunity to learn something you might not have otherwise chosen to learn.

Aroma said...
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Hammer said...

I went to the Peacock Room a couple months or so ago, and yeah, it's a weird space. The struggle between all that ornate and overblown contrivance and what the room really wants to be is palpable. It is a possibly haunted and definitely unsettled place - reminds me of the "dark ambient" music of The Caretaker, a guy over in the U.K. who takes golden age dancehall music and runs it through a ton of loops and effects to get something that is simultaneously beautiful and absolutely evil.

But an overwrought altar to lost loves? Really? Good Lord why? Especially in the midst of all this reinterpretation you're doing. The odds of "getting it right" just seem so very low, even after all the hours of effort it would require.

Maybe you could jusy get a really good bottle of wine, listen to some Waterboys and save all that creativity for the WaPo's upcoming annual Peeps diorama contest.

Reya Mellicker said...

Yes, Hammer, the room is definitely haunted. See? You're as much of a psychic as I am.

Here's the deal about the altar - as part of revisioning, I want to honor my past relationships. Instead of thinking of them as "miserable" the way I used to think of my years in high school, I want to recognize that there were wonderful aspects included in all of them.

The piece is about healing and understanding, and self love, too. It will get gaudy and bizarre, but then isn't that one path love can take? It'll be cool.

Reya Mellicker said...

Hammer, why don't you and I buy bags of Peeps, drink beer, listen to the Waterboys and collaborate on a Peeps diorama?

Hammer said...

I will only endorse your altar if you promise to load it with fireworks and blow it up after you're done.

Or maybe not. I guess cathartic art for cathatic art's sake has a place too, ala Chris Stevens:

I'll give the diorama idea some thought. No promises yet though.

Reya Mellicker said...

Blow the altar up? What a great idea!

Reya Mellicker said...

Though - this isn't about catharsis. I've done plenty of that re: old relationships. This altar is about bringing these relationships back into my heart, even as gaudy and bizarre as they were. Because they were also great, artful and loving, at least in the beginning. It's about gentle healing.

I wish I expressed myself better! Yikes.

Butternut Squash said...

The only thing better than reading your post every morning, is reading the responses to it. Very funny!

I love the Peacock Room, spooks and all. It reminds me of my childhood. Every 82 year old aunt that I had aspired to a room like that. What I don't understand, is the peacock itself. I didn't believe that they existed in the real world until I saw a wild one while I was riding and elephant through the Chitwan forrest in southern Nepal. Don't you think that they would be the first critter that any ferocious wild beast would want to eat?

Val said...

ha - brilliant!! love it all x

Nancy said...

This is a very interesting blog. The Peacock Room and and your response to it makes me want to see it. I get "feelings" about spaces, but usually homes. (Places where energy is concentrated.) Connecting it to past relationships was genius.

ArtSparker said...

The peacock room simply seems like a reimagining of a tomb for royalty from looking at photos on the internet - a room intended to showcase someone and inspire awe in the peasants filing past. I can't imagine it being designed as a room to hang out in. It's also dyspeptic, I believe whistler was quite cranky.

Peggy said...

What an assault on the senses! Yikes! I've not been to visit the Peacock Room, but just looking at pictures of it give off bad energy. I've always been sensitive to a place's energy, and that just raises my hackles! Grotesque.

I liked the comparison of the room to failed relationships. How nice to be able to step away from whatever went wrong in the relationship as easily as exiting the Peacock Room.

Unknown said...

Some of us just write songs about former love and how it can lead us from dark and lonely, to newer and better places:

I never knew that love
could be so binding
while at the same time
be so free

I never dreamed this life
could be so joyful
until you shared
your love with me

Every step I took was
leading me to your door
And every love I lost
just taught me
how to love you more

I had my good antenna out the day I "wrote" that one. Without past events and what can be learned from them, some may not be able to appreciate the joy presence can bring to life.

We all build our "alters to lost love". It's how we feel about them and what we do with them that makes us the people that we are.

Burying them metaphorically or literally seems healthy to me.

Reya Mellicker said...

Butternut - You like the Peacock Room? Wow. Can you sit inside for any length of time? You are mighty.

Hammer is hilarious, isn't he? I love him.

Reya Mellicker said...

And you, Danny? Still such a good friend. Thank you.

Tess Kincaid said...

Archeologists will have a hayday when they dig up your Peacock Room! You must bury an explanation tucked inside.

Sarah Laurence said...

I do love your shadow shots. You find beauty in the ordinary. Perhaps your altar to past loves could be a blog. Fun arrow photos.

Butternut Squash said...

Did you listen to The Caretaker?! It's exactly like that.

I do love the greens and gold and the weird spooky painting. If you sat and stared at her long enough, I bet she would start talking.

If I could, I would stay and sit, but my children run away.

Bee said...

I've never heard of the Peacock Room . . . but I was totally charmed by the way you linked its overwrought art with your overwrought love life. You always make such interesting observances, Reya. "Artful darkness" does describe a certain kind of seductive, but ultimately destructive, relationship perfectly.

Unknown said...

Great idea Reya !! ... kind of an exorcism ?? see? doors and windows!!!... if you do the altar you´ll be making room for new things to enter in your life !!!

Ronda Laveen said...

The altar seems to be a physical manifestation of how all of those bits and broken pieces of relation were sign posts along the path leading to a more complete and integrated Reya. The many who have become one. Please take a pic.

I can't tell if I like the Peacock Room or not from the photo. It is very busy and you can hardly see the lily for the gilding. I is hard to read the energy with out being in it but it looks cold.

Reya Mellicker said...

Well said, Ronda. The lily is completely obfuscated.

I love that word.

The room looks a lot better in the pictures than in real life. It's so dark in there. My friend was saying even a single ray of natural light would make all the difference. I remain dubious.

Steve Reed said...

That's so interesting! I've never been to the Freer or seen the Peacock Room. From the linked photo it actually looks beautiful. I guess I need to be there to see what the space feels like. Normally Whistler's sense of aesthetics is impeccable, I've found!

Reya Mellicker said...

Impeccably weird in the case of the Peacock Room. Next time you're here, Steve, let's go check it out.

Susan English Mason said...
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Susan English Mason said...

I'm sorry, Reya. I'm too OCD to leave a typo so I will try again.

I love your idea - and I vote for burying it when complete. Call it an artistic exercise representing post-relationship rigamortis.

Washington Cube said...

Oh my. When I worked as a student at the Smithsonian (I was going to be a paleontologist (HA!) I would go to the Freer on the lunch break to get away from the drone of tourists....they all thought the Freer was a post office or something. I know I've told you this could I not have?

I was dating a boy who would go there with me. His nickname for me used to be Princess in the Land of Porcelain. He still calls me that sometimes. Now he calls me (among other teasing names) Princess Chu a joke (inside.)

I won't bore you with the history of the Peacock room. You know it. I was always fascinated that Whistler painted over hand tooled leather walls, which infuriated the owner.

Now. My favorite part. The guards got to know me in there. One day I was talking to the security guard about the gauges and such to maintain the proper levels...humidity and such...and how dark the room was, and he said, "This room has a secret. It has a window. In fact, Mr. Freer put the only interior window in this room, but it's hidden. Do you want to see it?" Did I!

If you enter the room, on the opposing wall facing you, to the far right corner, underneath shutters, there is a window, and when they are pulled back, the light pours in. Amazing.

The Peacock Room, for me, is full of Whistler's rage at not being paid. Hence the proud peacocks of it's owner, and it's tail spread with the failed gold coins Whistler never received.

I have to admit, I am very sensitive to spaces and what they emit, and I was quite comfortable sitting long stretches in there on many an occasion. I don't know what that means.

The day those shutters went back for me alone and I was shown the building's became a magical space.

CJ said...

It amazes me that Whistler --famous for the drab painting of his mother, could have also painted the flamboyant Peacock Room. The last time I saw it was about 15 years ago and I understand the recent restoration has brightened it up. I can't say I loved the room, but neither did I hate it. I thought it was a curiosity ---especially when I learned that Whistler went ahead with many changes (and costs) not approved by the homeowner ---seemed awfully cheeky of Whistler. But then, I'm not a cheeky person ---but sometimes I wish i were cheeky and outrageous and flamboyant, like Whistler.