Covering up the Cracks: The Return of Wallpaper

How artists from Édouard Vuillard to Dorothea Tanning and Kehinde Wiley used wallpaper in their work 

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BY Shelley Klein in Frieze Masters | 24 SEP 20

Forget fragrant roses and honeysuckle. Forget soft-throated songbirds and sunflowers. I always see spiders in wallpaper. My eyes trace the patterns, searching them out, those crooked arachnids. The mere hint of one turns my stomach. Look: there’s one! Tarantula-black, wriggling through that ivy-blossom, crouching behind those camellias. See its distended abdomen, those unwieldy legs?

What this says about me, I don’t want to know, but spiders also spring to mind whenever I think of a certain painting by Édouard Vuillard. Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893) is a most peculiar work, wrought with invisible tensions. The manner in which Vuillard configures his mother and sister hints at a curious dynamic, one more commonly imagined between a spider and a fly. Here is Madame Vuillard, a throbbing black presence, legs set wide apart, hands placed defiantly on her knees in as dominant and sinister a pose as she can muster. To the left, Vuillard’s sister, Marie (or Mimi as she was known within the family), looks as if she is being engulfed by the wallpaper. Or is she already trapped? Can you hear the frantic buzzing as she struggles to escape? It’s almost unbearable. Marie is ensnared; it’s as if Madame Vuillard has forced her into a web. The awkward angle at which Vuillard composes his picture fosters this tension. Somehow, the artist seems to suggest, maman is driving her daughter into dangerous territory. 

Or is she? Is Vuillard really attempting to convey that his mother is pushing his sister not only to the limits of physical space, but also of sanity? Although the narrative is not explicit, Vuillard painted several similar portraits of his mother and sister that imply domestic disharmony. In The Door Ajar (1891), for example, Marie appears alone, this time peering into a room as if she wants simultaneously to enter and retreat. Marie’s dress and the wallpaper are barely distinguishable from one another: the maggoty yellow pattern of the latter insidiously overlaps with the strange crescent moons of the former to suggest … what exactly? Is Marie, once again, being pushed in to the web of the wallpaper? Or is something else at play? Could Vuillard be trying to capture some deep-seated predisposition in his sister? Perhaps, psychologically speaking, Marie wants to entwine herself with the background of life. As in Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, rather than being pushed out of the room by maman, Marie is perhaps choosing to contort her body so as to escape? Whatever the case, for Vuillard, wallpaper is never simply decorative. Loaded with narratives, in the artist’s hands it becomes a metaphor for the divide between physical and psychological space, between inner and outer realities.

Édouard Vuillard, Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, 1893, oil on canvas, 46.3 x 56.5 cm. Courtesy: Museum of Modern Art, New York and © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Édouard Vuillard, Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, 1893, oil on canvas, 46.3 x 56.5 cm. Courtesy: Museum of Modern Art, New York and © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

A little less than 100 years after Vuillard completed Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, a young woman on the east coast of America took a series of photographs, ‘Space2, Providence, Rhode Island’ (1976–77), one of which could stand as a companion piece to his painting. An eerie connection exists between the two works, a conversation of sorts across the decades. Here is the image of another young woman who appears to want to escape and who uses wallpaper as the means by which to do so. Unlike Marie, however, who is the subject of her brother’s narrative, the woman in this photograph is most definitely the author of her own disappearance. Using strips of paper to cover her face, breasts and legs, Francesca Woodman attempts to take herself out of the photographs she so carefully constructs. Like wallpaper itself, with its repeating patterns and shapes, the desire to remove herself from the picture occurs throughout Woodman’s work. 

In other self-portraits, Woodman crouches beneath a tilted door, disappears through a wall, merges with mirrors, windows and fireplaces. She is a ghost light, a will-’o-the-wisp, a haze and a blur; present only in her absence, a non sequitur made physical. Indeed, looking every bit like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), with her long blonde hair, floor-length skirts and black pumps, Woodman seems desperate to slip beyond the here and now, to use every available surface in order to vanish – not into Wonderland, but towards some other dimension. Ironically, much like the Cheshire Cat whose smile lingers long after the rest of his body has disappeared, by highlighting herself in the act of vanishing, Woodman’s spectral presence grows ever more compelling. Who is this beguiling figure dedicated to both evading and haunting? The answer is never clear. In fact, the nearest we come to it might be the manner of the photographer’s death. In 1981, at the age of 22, Woodman took her own life by jumping out of a window. 

Illustration by John Tenn iel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865. Courtesy: Getty Images

Appearance and disappearance. Repeating patterns and shapes. Integration and disintegration. A year before Vuillard completed Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, a novel was published in America that foreshadowed it. The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman takes as its subject the agonizing mental decline of an unnamed narrator who has just given birth. Confined by her husband to an upstairs nursery with bars at the window, the woman is advised to empty her mind and do nothing but rest. Instead, she begins to tell us about her predicament. Having been deprived of any mental stimulation, she begins to believe she has seen glimpses of a woman trapped behind the room’s sickly yellow wallpaper. As a metaphor for the morbidly restrictive society into which 19th-century, middle-class women were born, The Yellow Wallpaper is highly effective; on a psychological level, it is unsurpassed. As with the walls in Vuillard’s painting, the paper crawls with meaning; the narrator projects her fears onto its ‘bloated curves and flourishes’, its ‘sprawling flamboyant patterns’ and ‘wallowing seaweeds’ until, finally, they take on a life of their own and begin to seep through the paper in the shape of a deranged ‘other’. The wallpaper, in other words, has become a reproduction of what is playing out in the narrator’s misshapen psyche. 

It is hard to think of Gilman’s work without being reminded of that doyen of the 19th-century British arts and crafts movement, William Morris. The intricate wallpapers and textile designs he created for Victorian homes could easily have graced the room in which Gilman’s narrator was incarcerated. This made American artist Kehinde Wiley’s first UK museum solo show, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, at William Morris Gallery in London earlier this year more than a little intriguing. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper is something that has haunted me for years,’ Wiley says of the novella in a short film about the making of this work. ‘The idea of being in a room and not being taken seriously.’ This is not something that can be said of the six black women and two children Wiley met on the streets of east London, whose strikingly beautiful portraits filled the exhibition. Whether sitting or standing, whether their faces turn away or directly look out, each sitter is centre stage. More than that, each is engaged in a serious dialogue with the background patterns from which they emerge. These patterns are based on Morris’s own wallpaper designs that would have papered the walls of mansions inhabited by, among others, former slave-traders and plantation owners. In doing so, Wiley’s work plays on the conflict between the sinister history embedded in the prettiest detailing and the self-possessed women who emerge from the patterns, who seem to defy anyone to repeat it.

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Lindsey Mendick, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, 2020, installation detail, Eastside Projects, Birmingham. Courtesy: the artist and Eastside Projects; photograph: Stuart Whipps

Coincidentally, artist and sculptor Lindsey Mendick’s exhibition at Eastside Projects in Birmingham earlier this year was also titled ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Featuring untitled videos, ceramics and miniatures, the show pivots on a disturbing episode in the artist’s life when, during a nervous breakdown in 2006, Mendick glanced from her bedroom window to see six men dressed in black, walking up and down the street speaking into walkie-talkies. Mendick related the incident to her mother who, given her daughter’s vulnerable state of mind, found the story difficult to believe. A few days later, however, news broke that the former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, had been poisoned; he was Mendick’s neighbour. 

Unlike Gilman’s narrator, what Mendick had seen was real; however, in her exhibition she, too, played with the idea of wallpaper as a borderland between sanity and insanity. The show also included other domestic items as receptacles into or onto which all that was unendurable could be projected. A large teapot (with a hole in one side through which you could view the vessel’s interior) contained two small ceramic figures taking tea from a large teapot containing two ceramic figures taking tea from a teapot, in what felt like a claustrophobic dance to the death. Nor did the claustrophobia end there, for all the pieces in the small, over-lit gallery spoke of other confined and confining spaces – from the hollowed-out, ceramic head of Russian President Vladimir Putin, inside which the figure of a distraught woman (Mendick herself?) sits on a toilet within a cramped bathroom, to a 1960s-style bedside cabinet inside which reside Mendick’s family members, configured weirdly as Russian dolls. But, of all the dialogues taking place inside this room, the loudest is also the most hallucinatory: the one inside my own head between Gilman and Mendick. What is it they are saying? That yellow is an unfortunate colour with which to decorate a room? That the divide between sanity and insanity is paper-thin? Or that even the most innocuous of objects can pulsate with the unconscious? 

Dorothea Tanning, Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot, 1970. Courtesy: © Service de la documentation photographique du MNAM - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP © The Estate of Dorothea Tanning / Adagp, Paris
Dorothea Tanning, Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot, 1970. Courtesy: © Service de la documentation photographique du MNAM - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP © The Estate of Dorothea Tanning / Adagp, Paris

This is a sentiment with which the surrealist artist, sculptor and writer Dorothea Tanning would surely have agreed. Writing in the catalogue for her 1979 exhibition at New York’s Gimpel-Wietzenhoffer Gallery, she declared of her hometown of Galesburg, in rural Illinois, that ‘nothing happened but the wallpaper’. Tanning’s Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot (1970–73) is a three-dimensional, life-sized room in which two grubby pink torsos, shaped as if carved from ham, poke through the dingy wallpaper while the chimney breast gives birth to three further mutations – although whether these are animal, vegetable or some other tumorous mash-up, it is impossible to say. The work was partly inspired by a song Tanning recalled from her childhood: ‘In Room 202’ (1919) composed by Dave Harris with lyrics by Edgar Leslie and Bert Kalmar, tells the story of Kitty Kane, a gangster’s moll who poisoned herself while staying at a hotel in Chicago.

In room two hundred and two
The walls keep talkin’ to you
I’ll never tell you what they said
So turn out the light and come to bed.

But if the song suggests talking walls, Tanning pushes this idea to its very edge, wishing to create a space in which the wallpaper, as she once explained, would ‘tear with screams’ while maintaining ‘an odd banality’. The latter is captured by the dreary ordinariness of the installation’s wallpaper while the former is contained in the hotel’s name: pavot is French for poppy, the flower from which opium is derived. By conflating these disparate ideas, Tanning succeeds in heightening the room’s creepiness; this in turn precipitates a sense of impending doom. What springs to mind is a back-street abortionist’s or the lair of a serial killer such as John Christie who, over several months in the early 1950s, murdered (among others) Kathleen Maloney, Rita Nelson and Hectorina MacLennan, hiding their bodies in a kitchen alcove, which he subsequently wallpapered over as if it were a solid wall. The women’s bodies were only discovered after Christie moved out of the house and his landlord, wanting to redecorate, tapped on what he thought was the rear wall to the kitchen only to discover it was hollow. As Ludovic Kennedy wrote in Ten Rillington Place (1961), the landlord then ‘pulled away a small piece of paper and shone his torch inside. Whatever he expected to see, it could hardly have been what he did see: the naked seated body of Hectorina MacLennan.’ You can almost envisage the landlord stumbling backwards in horror, just as the chambermaid might have done when she pushed open the door to Chambre 202. This is a room that distils much of what the work of Mendick, Vuillard, Wiley and Woodman makes clear: that wallpaper does not so much cover the cracks, as serve to reveal them. 

Main image: Lindsey Mendick, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, 2020, installation view, Eastside Projects, Birmingham. Courtesy: the artist and Eastside Projects; photograph: Stuart Whipps 

Shelley Klein is a writer who lives and works in London, UK. Her memoir The See-Through House (2020) is published by Chatto & Windus.

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