Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 2, 2012
The Peacock Room Comes to America
Exhibition schedule: Freer Gallery of Art, April 9, 2011–Spring 2013
James McNeill Whistler. Room installation Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876–77). Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood. Gift of Charles Lang Freer.

The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art has been many things to many people. Designed by Thomas Jeckyll as a dining room with leather walls and intricate shelving, and radically redecorated by James McNeill Whistler in 1876–77, it originally grew around Whistler’s Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (1863–64) and showcased the blue-and-white Chinese porcelain of Whistler’s London patron Frederick Leyland. In 1904 it was purchased by Charles Lang Freer and installed in a special wing of his Detroit home. By that point, Freer had already begun to envision the room in his future museum, and it has been part of the Freer Gallery since the museum’s opening in 1923. The room has therefore existed somewhere between a discrete work of art, Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, and an exhibition space. Describing Freer’s initial approach toward the room, Linda Merrill once called it an “extravagant frame” for other objects (Thomas Lawton and Linda Merrill, Freer: A Legacy of Art. Washington and New York: Freer Gallery of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 1993, 179).

Hitherto, the room was most commonly known along biographical lines as the object of a series of brokerages between Whistler, Jeckyll, and Leyland. Whistler directly shaped this mode of engagement through his creation of the south wall mural of the two peacocks and scattered coins, which bears the putative title Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room. As the poet Robert Hayden emphasized, the Peacock Room paradoxically transports visitors to an exotic, otherworldly realm without concealing either its constructedness or the social and financial transactions that made it possible (Robert Hayden, “The Peacock Room,” Angle of Ascent: Selected Poems, New York: Liveright, 1975, 28).

Departing from biographical or anecdotal approaches, a new installation, an archived online colloquium, and other online components unpack some of the Peacock Room’s spatial, temporal, and conceptual densities. These materials invite viewers to understand the room as a dynamic entity and underscore the tensions between a work and its installation, the history of the Western acquisition and display of non-Western objects, and other issues associated with the period room or museum in the present day. Before turning to this still-expanding online framework, however, it is important to acknowledge the extraordinary physical transformation occasioned by the exhibition The Peacock Room Comes to America. Referencing a series of 1908 photographs that Freer commissioned from George Swain to document the room, museum staff removed the sparsely installed Chinese blue-and-white porcelain that had represented the room’s appearance for Leyland, its original patron, and carefully matched the over two hundred ceramics in Swain’s photographs with Freer’s originals from the museum collection. The newly installed works are gray-, green-, white-, peach-, brown-, purple-, blue-, and turquoise-colored ceramics from East Asia and the Middle East that Freer mainly collected in the first decade of the twentieth century. At the time, such vessels had begun to attract Western attention against the backdrop of growing debates on decorative art and the status of ornament: Freer’s vessels create visual interest not through figurative design, but through the color and texture of the glaze and its reflectivity, the interaction of the glaze with the vessel surface, and through color modulations that occur in firing, such as mottling and iridescence, or in aging, such as the buildup of mineral deposits on the surface of wares that had been buried in the ground. Several panoramic views available on the Freer and Sackler’s website provide alternate experiences of the Peacock Room: in its earlier blue-and-white manifestation, empty, and installed with Freer’s ceramics. A forthcoming website will allow viewers to examine each ceramic vessel in detail.

While a restoration of the Peacock Room to its 1908 appearance might seem to be a straightforward curatorial decision, its realization is the product of considerable expertise that yields a stunning visual effect that far exceeds what might be envisioned virtually or theoretically. Rather than presenting the ceramic works randomly or according to period and geography, Freer arranged them so that their colors and shapes interacted with each other and with the gold shelving and wall accents. The room’s southwest corner, for example, is enlivened by several thirteenth- to fourteenth-century Chinese Jun wares, blue with red-purple splashes that are interspersed with white and dusky-colored vessels ranging from the Eastern Han to the Qing dynasties. Nearby, on the west wall, a collection of vessels in simple forms and muted colors gives way to a constellation of turquoise Raqqa wares from Syria, which are juxtaposed with other works from China, Japan, and the Middle East and are adjacent to a cluster of elegant Korean Goryeo celadons. The arrangement of vessels appears both random and deliberate, and because of the way the colors transition gradually as one traverses the room, the objects give the impression of being in motion.

The exhibition text describes the room as Freer’s private aesthetic laboratory, and suggests that it was continually subject to rearrangement. Because of this, however, we are led to wonder about the precise relationship between the installation and the 1908 photographs, which are not readily available for comparison with the installation. Associate Curator of American Art Lee Glazer has confirmed that the present installation matches the photographs with only a few small exceptions. It may thus be treated as a reliable indication of Freer’s own engagement with his collection.

When I visited the exhibition I was surprised to discover that it did not provide label information for the individual ceramic vessels. This result leaves the viewer with a certain degree of ignorance about the objects, emphasizing Whistler, Jeckyll, and Freer’s authorship while de-emphasizing the vessels’ identities. At the same time, the lack of specificity—about the vessels’ identities and about the installation’s degree of fidelity to the photographs—yields a powerful effect: it prompts viewers to resist canonizing the version in Swain’s photographs any more than they might continue to privilege Leyland’s installation as the authoritative one. Viewers are led to imagine that the configuration documented by Swain was one moment in a rotating assemblage. Like Aby Warburg’s library or his Mnemosyne Atlas, Freer’s installation of ceramics in the Peacock Room appears as part of a virtually endless process of objects in motion (see Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, trans. Sophie Hawkes, New York: Zone Books, 2004, 15).

Freer’s engagement with the Peacock Room is addressed in detail in the online colloquium Cross Cultural Interchange and Aspirations of Universality: The Peacock Room in 1908, which took place on 11 May 2011, and is available as an archive on the museum’s website. Glazer and Patricia de Montfort provide detailed presentations on the Peacock Room at various moments in its history. Joshua Neds-Fox and Shawn McCann introduce an additional web project currently underway in collaboration with Wayne State University, and Ayako Ono and Arabella Teniswood-Harvey examine the reception and reinterpretation of Whistler’s art and ideas in early twentieth-century Japan and Australia, respectively. Together the presenters emphasize that the Peacock Room’s transformations were part of a broader series of changes that affected Whistler, Freer, and ideas about Asia from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

The online colloquium was an energy-filled gathering of participants and listeners from across the globe. By using Adobe Connect meeting software facilitated by the Learning Times, listeners were able to introduce themselves and post questions and comments in a chat box that remained open throughout the course of the event. Some of the presenters used a feature that allowed them to poll participants and post the results in real time, and the chat dialogue accommodated several conversation threads. By and large, the event proceeded like a typical symposium: presenters orally addressed questions toward the end, though time constraints limited the discussion. While allowing more time for discussion would have provoked movement in a variety of interesting analytical directions, a longer discussion may also have moved away from the interests of some of the audience members. In order to attract a large, diverse audience and to foster the type of detail-oriented, often contentious discussion that evolves at more intimate workshops and symposia, an optional follow-up discussion might have been a welcome addition. That said, in its current form, the online event was engaging, it successfully united specialist and non-specialist audiences, and it contributed much to the viewing experience.

It should not be forgotten that such a thorough reconstruction of Freer’s version of the Peacock Room was only possible thanks to the collector’s exceptional act of documenting it in 1908. As Stephen Bann once stated with respect to another private collection museum,

it might reasonably be argued that the entropy which affects any such assembly [of objects in a private display space] with the passing of time is of so high a degree that we can never in practice recover the integrity of the original system or code. Perhaps it might be contended that such a recovery is not even desirable, since the objects themselves should be emancipated, through being incorporated into new meanings, from the paranoia of an all-embracing system. But . . . to reconstruct the formative procedures and principles which determined the type of a particular museum, and to set them in relation to the epistemological presumptions of the period, is also crucial to any history of collecting and display practices and also to the history of aesthetic and (art) historical discourse itself. (Stephen Bann, “Historical Text and Historical Object: The Poetics of the Musée de Cluny,” History and Theory 17, no. 3 (1978): 252)

While Freer’s engagement with the ceramics was, as Glazer suggests, likely casual and intuitive, his efforts invite comparison with other cases in the early twentieth-century Western reception of Asian and Middle Eastern ceramics, and with the modern history of the reception, display, and historical study of art across traditional cultural or disciplinary boundaries, not only by those in Whistler’s circle, but also by contemporaries and successors such as Warburg, Yashiro Yukio, and Henri Focillon.

The online complements to the physical reinstallation of the Peacock Room help balance the room’s status as historical material with what Bann called the benefits of the objects’ emancipation, their freedom to be incorporated into new meanings. Similar to the room’s relationship to the objects housed therein, the online components are more than an elaborate frame for the physical exhibition; they are an integral part of it, which allows visitors to experience the same objects and space in a variety of ways. This experience will be enriched by the site currently under construction (in collaboration with Wayne State University), which will allow the viewer to interact with each ceramic piece individually, and will display both the current object label and evidence of the identity the object had for Freer (see the presentation by Neds-Fox and McCann in the online colloquium).

It is worth noting that similar work is ongoing in other parts of the Freer and Sackler galleries. The display of Korean ceramics in an adjacent gallery does not separate the vessels by age and region, as is customary, but instead groups them by function, uniting, for example, storage jars of a variety of periods and surface treatments. Downstairs in the Sackler special exhibition galleries, Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan uses a combination of ancient Chinese artifacts, interpretive websites, panoramic views of cave interiors, and digital reconstructions to indicate what the caves and sculptures once looked like, without suppressing the fact of the stone carvings’ forcible detachment from the cave walls and sale on the international art market in the early to mid-twentieth century (click here for review). One of the exhibition’s centerpieces is a stone stele carved on all sides that unites the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, a recurring theme in the Buddhist cave universe. The holistic view which conjoins and then distinguishes several temporal realms represents a new stage in what museums can achieve through a combination of physical and online exhibitions, so that a sixth-century Chinese stele resonates with curatorial directions facilitated by a renewed commitment to digital technology and a foregrounding of the museum’s own cultural role in framing and re-framing the object in a conscious and conspicuous way.

Chelsea Foxwell
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Chicago

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