Whistler’s Peacock Room and the artist as Magus - NMS Research Repository
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Whistler’s Peacock Room and the artist as Magus

15 November 2013

Abstract

This paper is a reassessment of the much-discussed topic of Whistler’s aestheticist interior Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. Drawing upon Whistler’s correspondence, papers, lectures and writings—including his 1885 Ten O’Clock Lecture and his subsequent dialogue with Oscar Wilde about the nature and function of art, which was published in the Pall Mall Gazette—the paper offers a new interpretation of Whistler’s use of symbolism in the room and the ways in which the Peacock Room communicates his vision of the role of art and the artist in culture. It argues that Whistler took the ideas and symbolism of the Green Dining Room by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company in the nearby South Kensington Museum (now the V&A)—a room imagined as a public expression of a collective Aesthetic endeavor that would create a new form of interior space as communal art, a shared “Arcadian” idyll, and “Green World” in the heart of urban London—and radically reconfigured them into an interior that expressed his own, somewhat Paterian, conception of the aestheticist interior as an articulation of individual sensory and spiritual experience. From this perspective the Peacock Room can be seen as an exploration of the perpetually fluid and complex relationship between the interior self and the physical and sensual world. The paper contends Whistler deliberately envisioned and created the Peacock Room as a site of multifarious myths in which he not only referred to the Japanese art and design that has been so often cited as influencing his work, but he also deliberately alluded to narratives of metamorphosis in the work of Ovid and to the highly symbolic images and descriptions of transformative process that occur in both historical and more contemporary alchemical literature and illustration. Indeed, Whistler used the process of decorating, displaying, and promoting the room and, subsequently, the legends and stories that surround it, to explore playfully and seriously the myth of the artist as magician, alchemist, and/or creator, and to articulate the tensions inherent in artistic practice between the desire for creative autonomy and the need to earn money. This paper offers a reconsideration of the Peacock Room as more than just a beautiful and controversial work of art but as an intentionally provocative and fascinating contribution to contemporaneous debates among thinkers, critics, artists, and writers, such as Morris, Wilde, Ruskin, Carlyle, and Pater, about the meanings, practice, and experience of Aestheticism, the relationship between fine and decorative art, and the nature of artistic creation itself.

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