Like many of her sculptural forms, the symbolism of the arachnid has roots in Bourgeois’s childhood. Here, we look at one of the key motifs in the artist's oeuvre — illustrated with a superb piece offered in our 15 November sale in New York
Born in Paris in 1911, Louise Bourgeois lived and worked across nearly the entirety of the tumultuous 20th century. As a young artist in Paris in the early 1930s, she came into contact with Surrealists such as André Breton, and studied with Fernand Léger. Following her marriage to art historian Robert Goldwater in 1938, the couple moved to New York, where she would study painting at the Art Students League, exhibit with artists including Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, and live until her death in 2010.
Though working well before the Feminist Art movement of the 1970s (and never formally affiliated with it), Bourgeois's concern with themes of sexuality, the body, family and the home influenced many feminist artists. Much of her practice stems from her own memories, and by mining this history she attempted to come to terms with her past. ‘My childhood has never lost its magic,’ she once said, ‘it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.’
In the 1940s, Bourgeois set aside painting to focus on sculpture. ‘The two-dimensions do not satisfy me,’ she would later explain. But unlike her male contemporaries, Bourgeois made use of soft, malleable materials that mimicked the organic forms of bodies and flesh.
Situated between representation and abstraction, her works tread carefully between established movements and styles. ‘It is not an image I am seeking,’ Bourgeois later wrote. ‘It’s not an idea. It is an emotion you want to recreate, an emotion of wanting, of giving, and of destroying.’
The image of the spider was a key motif in Bourgeois’s work throughout her career. Like many of her sculptural forms, its symbolism has roots in her childhood. Her parents ran a tapestry restoration studio, and from an early age she was exposed to the comings and goings at the workshop. In many ways, Bourgeois equated her mother, Joséphine, to the thread-producing spider: ‘My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as a spider,’ she wrote in Ode à ma mere (1995).
I connect her to my mother because the spider is a cornered animal, she finds security in the corner. But she, in fact, is not cornered, but she tries to corner the others’ — Louise Bourgeois
From early ink and charcoal drawings, she returned to the spider theme in the mid-1990s. Among the most iconic of these works, Spider II is one of a small edition Bourgeois executed in 1995. Another of these bronzes is included in Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, a major retrospective of Bourgeois’s work currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Smaller than some of Bourgeois’s arachnid sculptures, Spider II clings to the wall as if frozen, eight legs splayed outward in all directions.
‘With the Spider, I try to put across the power and the personality of a modest animal,’ Bourgeois wrote. ‘Modest as it is, it is very definite and it is indestructible.’ 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. But she, in fact, is not cornered, but she tries to corner the others.’
Spider II will be offered on 15 November in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie's in New York.