‘The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was a tapestry woman. My mother was my best friend. She was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as a Spider’ (Louise Bourgeois, ODE À MA MÈRE, 1995).
Delicately perched on eight spindly legs, a female spider stands protectively over her offspring in Louise Bourgeois’ Spider Home, 2002. Above them hangs a beautiful web containing the body of a fly caught within its silken threads. Contained within a perfectly-formed vignette, Spider Home brings together the artist’s most important motifs, weaving a complex narrative of family, femininity, intimacy, and domesticity. Intrinsically autobiographical, the motif of the spider relates to Bourgeois’ early childhood and the difficult relationship she had with her family. This work follows the series of large scale sculptures of the singular spider which dominated the artist’s practice throughout the second half of the 1990s, including monumental renditions such as Maman, 1999, exhibited to great acclaim at Tate Modern, London, and Guggenheim Musem, Bilbao.
The subject of the spider first appeared in Bourgeois’ work as early as 1947 and is among the most charged and complex images of her long and varied career. Bourgeois has widely acknowledged that the figure of the spider was an ode to her mother, Josephine, a woman who repaired tapestries in her father’s textile restoration workshop in Paris. As the artist has described: ‘My mother was my best friend. She was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as a Spider’ (L. Bourgeois, Ode à ma mère, Paris 1995, p. 62). Bourgeois had a somewhat more complex relationship with her father, who had entertained an affair with the children’s English governess Sadie. The presence of this second female figure in Bourgeois’ life introduced an emotional rival for her father’s attention. The trauma of the affair was one which Bourgeois investigated through her sculptural practice for the next seven decades. She relentlessly tried to unearth and confront the deeply repressed issues that conditioned her youth, an endeavor that dominated her long career.
Bourgeois shared an intimate bond with her mother, whom she had lost at a young age. In Spider Home, Bourgeois extends this narrative, presenting the smaller spider as a personification of the artist herself. Speaking of Bourgeois’ spiders, art historian Robert Storr suggested, ‘She produces by secreting. Ceaselessly, she spins the space of her life and work, increasingly inventing and redefining it. Her own extended body determines the space of her web. It incorporates the wiles of the hunter; it is host to elementary needs - for the spider, mystery and secretion are intimately allied’ (R. Storr, Louise Bourgeois: Emotions Abstracted, Werke/Work 1941-2000, Zurich 2004, n.p.). In Spider Home, this dichotomy between maternal love and death, as depicted by the entombed fly, mirrors the difficult familial relationships that the artist had with her own parents.
Building a stage for her sculptures, Bourgeois creates an intimately domestic space in which the sculptures can interact. This space illustrates not only closeness and dependence, but also projects a darker sense of claustrophobia and enclosure. As she explained, ‘with the spider, I try to put across the power and the personality of a modest animal. Modest as it is, it is very definite and it is indestructible. It is not about the animal itself, but my relation to it. It establishes the fact that the spider is my mother, believe it or not... At some times of the day, the spider is at her best, raring to go and kind of aggressive. She relates to a whole house and she has tentacles that are quite real I connect her to my mother because the spider is a cornered animal, she finds security in the corner’ (L. Bourgeois, Interview with M. Cajori and A. Wallach, quoted in J. Gorovoy et al., Louise Bourgeois: Blue Days and Pink Days, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Milan, 1997, p. 254). The spider, the spinner of webs, with its dual role of predator and protector, becomes the perfect foil for Bourgeois’ emotionally fraught childhood. As a result of the paradoxical nature of the creature itself, and also reflecting Bourgeois’ own turbulent relationships with those close to her, the spider’s rich symbolic associations along with its deeply personal meaning for the artist have resulted in a powerful body of work whose legacy continues today.