“The Yellow Wallpaper” by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman created feminist fireworks the moment it appeared in the January 1892 edition of the New England Magazine. The short story takes the form of a secret diary written by a young married woman who is suffering from a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”. Actually, the diagnosis has been made by her husband, who also happens to be “a physician of high standing”. In line with fashionable medical practice, “John” has prescribed a radical rest cure that involves separating the narrator from her small baby and confining her to the top-floor nursery of a rented country house: “I … am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.”
Gilman was writing out of her own agonising experience: five years earlier, and felled by postnatal depression following the birth of her daughter, she had been sent for treatment to America’s leading expert in women’s mental health, Dr Silas Weir Mitchell. His punishing regime for depressed middle-class female patients involved strict bed rest with no reading, writing, painting and, if it could be managed, thinking. His theory was grounded in the pervasive belief that if modern girls stopped wanting things – education, the vote but, above all, “work” – they would become happy, which is to say docile, again. Mitchell instructed Gilman to live as domestic a life as possible “and never to touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live”. Gilman wrote later of her treatment, which felt more like a prison sentence, “I … came perilously close to losing my mind.”
Which is exactly what happens to the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, as she discovers that having “no congenial work, with excitement and change” leaves her ravenous imagination at the mercy of unnamed terrors. As her mood darkens, she starts to notice unsettling things about her room: there are bars at the windows, iron rings on the walls and her bed has been nailed to the ground. More oppressive still is the sulphurous yellow wallpaper with its weird smell and sinister pattern.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
It is at this point that the reader starts to wonder whether the narrator is to be trusted. Can it really be, as she is now suggesting, that her husband and his sister are acting, not as her caretakers, but as her jailers? And what about the figure of the woman whom she claims to have spotted creeping about under the noxious yellow paper? Are we to interpret this as a potent symbol of the narrator’s repressed creative desires, her psychic shadow? Or is she simply insane?
The story’s “refusal to be reduced to a single interpretation is what makes it such a fertile work”, says Gail Marshall, professor of Victorian literature and culture at the University of Reading. Indeed, in the hundred plus years since its publication, these 6,000 words, which so convincingly skewer female oppression at the hands of the patriarchy, have mutated into endless new forms. “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been staged countless times both as a one-woman show and as an ensemble piece. It has lent itself to radio drama and has made it several times on to television, once even providing the plot for an episode of The Twilight Zone. There have been at least eight cinema versions, the most recent by Kourosh Ahari, which transferred the action to 1950s America.
In the last three years, though, this seminal text has taken on a renewed urgency. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ speaks directly to our #MeToo moment,” Marshall says; she points to the very particular kind of power that the husband in Gilman’s story seeks to exert. There is no crude physical violence in evidence here, not even a cross word. Instead what the narrator describes is a kind of psychological torture, in which her own sense of reality is constantly assaulted: “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no REASON to suffer, and that satisfies him.” Here, Marshall suggests, is a textbook account of what we have only recently come to recognise, let alone give a name to: “coercive control”. An older term for it might be “gaslighting”.
In such a rich context, then, it’s no wonder that Gilman’s tiny masterpiece is busy morphing into vibrant new forms. On 22 February a show by the American Nigerian artist Kehinde Wiley opens at the William Morris Gallery in east London, consisting of a series of female portraits made explicitly in conversation with Gilman’s classic feminist text. At first glance Wiley, who became well known in 2018 when he painted Barack Obama’s portrait for the Smithsonian, might seem an unlikely fan of the story. The Yale-trained artist, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, is best known for his hyperreal portraits of mostly working-class men and women of colour dressed in vibrant streetwear. His monumental figures gleam with health and confidence, a world away from the pale, neurasthenic Wasp-ish woman whom we picture as the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” – someone who looks a lot like Gilman in fact.
For his new show, Wiley and his team went looking for female subjects in nearby Dalston. “The streetcasting went extremely well,” remembers the curator, Rowan Bain. “Women were invited back to the gallery to be photographed, and Kehinde worked from those images.” Yet the figures that will go on show are much more than character sketches drawn from contemporary streetlife. Wiley’s practice has always depended on self-consciously inserting his subjects into the formal traditions of European high art.
This is swagger portraiture, done in the tradition of a Rococo master such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo or with the silky suggestiveness of a John Singer Sargent. The ornate gold frames resemble something a Medici might have ordered. And then there are the backgrounds. More often than not Wiley positions his figures, complete with tight black leggings, gigantic shades and Nike slogans, against a repeating floral trellis design reminiscent of a piece of classic William Morris wallpaper, saturated with the colours of West African ankara (prints). The point, Wiley suggests, is to bring together these clashing traditions as a way of thinking about the historical exclusion of certain kinds of bodies from the privileges of high art.
“The question of race is hiding in plain sight in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’,” Marshall argues. The tendency, ever since Gilman’s short story was rediscovered by second-wave feminists in the 1970s, has been to read it as the escape of a bourgeois white woman from the prison of the patriarchy. But look carefully, Marshall suggests, and you will see that something more complex is going on. The building in which the narrator is imprisoned is an old “colonial” mansion, dating from the age of slave-keeping in America. The shackles in the room hint at the violent physical restraint of black bodies. And it is not just one woman crawling under the wallpaper. By the end of the story the narrator has spotted “so many” women who she believes have scrabbled free from the garish yellow prison. “What we are looking at here is a powerful moment of women coming together to act collectively,” Marshall says.
I couldn’t do anything, but the less I did, the more ill I became. Each day a new terror would seize hold of me
It is this resonance of Gilman’s writing to contemporary women’s lives that first caught the attention of Lindsey Mendick, a young artist and sculptor whose show The Yellow Wallpaper has just opened at Eastside Projects in Birmingham. “The moment I read Gilman’s short story, the parallels with my own experience felt uncanny,” Mendick says. At 18, felled by anxiety and depression “which no one knew how to help”, she dropped out of art school and retreated to a small bedroom in her parents’ house in north London. “I couldn’t do anything, but the less I did, the more ill I became. Each day a new terror would seize hold of me and I would ruminate obsessively.”
Agoraphobic, insomniac and prey to constant panic attacks, Mendick’s mental health deteriorated to the point where she feared that she had begun to hallucinate. “One night I looked out of the window of my bedroom and saw six men in black with walkie talkies swarming around our cul de sac. It was terrifying, like the realisation of all my worst fears.” Mendick’s parents assumed this was simply the latest symptom of their daughter’s fragmented mental state, but a few days later, the news broke: the family’s neighbour had been the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, and he had been poisoned.
Mendick’s new show sets her own chilling experience in conversation with that of Gilman’s narrator. “I wanted to explore a domestic gothic, the terror that can lurk within very familiar, homely objects.”
There is yellow wallpaper here, but it is not the Arts and Crafts swirl described in the original story and even in Wiley’s rendition. Instead, these are stark mid-20th century geometric shapes that come to resemble the repetitive bars of a grid, a grille or a prison. Mendick’s family are referenced by a series of nesting Russian dolls, and Litvinenko’s story is there too, in the form of a tiny Putin head and some sinister looking sushi rolls (the poisoning of the Russian defector was thought to have taken place in a central London Japanese snack bar). In Mendick’s world, as in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, it is “those intimate, domestic, scaled-down spaces which are supposed to make you feel safe which turn out to be the most terrifying of all”.
• Kehinde Wiley: The Yellow Wallpaper is at the William Morris Gallery, London E17 from 22 February.