Executed in 1996, Spider is one of Louise Bourgeois's most enduring and iconic motifs. The second of an edition of six brilliantly rendered sculptures, it picks up the theme of the arachnid that Bourgeois had first contemplated in a small ink and charcoal drawing in 1947. In the second half of the 1990s this became a dominant preoccupation for the artist, creating colossal renditions such as Maman, 1999, standing at almost nine meters, which was exhibited to great acclaim at Tate Modern, London, and Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa. Towering at over three meters in height the monumental, bronze Spider finely balances upon its lean, spindly legs, its body poised somewhere between fight and flight. Its abdomen and thorax are made up of ribbed bronze, tightly wound into a dense center, as if a ball of yarn suspended from a great height. Crafted with Bourgeois' characteristic dexterity, the creature appears remarkably animated--some anomaly of nature come to life. A source of intense phobia for some, the artist's giant spider cannot help but conjure up cult American science-fiction movies of the late 1950s, positing the end of the Earth through the diabolical acts of an eight-legged monster. For Bourgeois however, the spider takes on a more nuanced role, acting as the embodiment of her own turbulent autobiography.
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). The two shared an intimate bond and when her mother died in 1932, Bourgeois, who had left school to nurse her ailing parent, felt bereft. Bourgeois had a somewhat more odious relationship with her father, a charming philanderer who his daughter simultaneously admired and detested. By the artist's own account, the Bourgeois household was part Marcel Proust, part Collete, the family riddled with secrets, deception, and a web of infidelity. Alongside various inappropriate advances to his female workers, the artist's father also began an illicit affair with the children's English governess, Sadie, lasting for ten years. The young Bourgeois detested this woman, the emotional rival for her father's attention and the usurper of her kind and gentle mother whom she adored. 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).
With its wealth of associations, both as predator and protector, Spider becomes the perfect expression of Bourgeois's traumatic childhood. Certainly the spider's own use of silk to construct cocoons as well as to bind prey embodies both the strength and fragility of the family unit. While the tall creature with its almost Gothic, arched legs imbues a sense of awe and fear, the precarious balancing on such slender limbs conveys an air of poignant vulnerability.
Spider with its sensitive and carefully articulated attention to the female role in the household, confirms the artist's place amongst the pantheon of feminist artists. By choosing the symbolically charged image of the spider, with its references to both the Greek legend of Arachne, the tale of the great mortal weaver who challenged the Goddess Minerva and was condemned to becoming a spider, as well as the mercenary Black Widow who eats her partner immediately after mating, Bourgeois confronts the bitter sweet experience of being human and in particular a woman, wife, and mother. The fact that she also chose the traditionally male-dominated domain of sculpture as an articulation of her childhood intensifies its effect, representing a repudiation of the dominant and mercurial father with whom she grew up.
Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911. As a student in the city, she lived in a building on the rue de Seine that also accommodated the Galerie Gradiva, a Surrealist exhibition space. During the Second World War, Bourgeois moved to New York and spent time with a number of members of the exiled Surrealist circle including André Breton, Andre Masson, and Joan Miró. In Spider a sense of her contemporaries' aesthetic is perceptible, with its exaggerated and fantastical form. While the Surrealists cultivated the dream as a means to access their unconscious, in Spider, however, the recesses of Bourgeois's fertile psyche emerge almost unwittingly, producing a feverishly brilliant image born out of the memories and experiences of her own emotional life.