Reigning over a vast web of intrigue, Louise Bourgeois’ architectonic Spider confronts its viewer poised somewhere between fight and flight. Executed in 1996, this mammoth bronze arachnid takes the form of one of the artist’s most enduring and iconic motifs. From Tate Modern in London to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Bourgeois’ arachnid forms have found appreciation among critics and the public alike. With its combination of irregular, hand-worked surfaces and smooth, highly finished elements, the spider form is a complex mix of menace and emotion. Stretching upward over ten feet, Spider ’s exaggerated legs recall the arches of so many Gothic cathedrals. Its yarn-like body suspended in air, Spider’s form becomes an airy mass—creating a space of both asylum and inquisition. A source of extreme fear for some, the artist’s giant spider cannot help but conjure up cult American science-fiction movies of the late 1950s or early 1990s, exploiting the notion of arachnophobia by positing the end of the Earth through the diabolical acts of an eight-legged monster or deadly arachnid. For Bourgeois however, the spider takes on a much gentler role, acting as the embodiment of her own turbulent autobiography.
Throughout her long and distinguished career, Bourgeois has imbued her work with the memory of her own tumultuous childhood. “My childhood has never lost its magic,” the artist has stated, “it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama. All my work of the last fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in L. Neri, “The Personal Effects of a Woman with No Secrets,” in Louise Bourgeois oeuvres récentes/Recent Works, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London 1998, p. 81). Even at the age of eighty-three, when Bourgeois once again adopted the spider motif she had first explored in 1947 in two small ink and charcoal drawings, the impact of her youth remains the central theme in her art.
Indeed, Bourgeois has widely acknowledged that the figure of the spider was an ode to her mother, Joséphine, a woman who repaired tapestries in the family’s textile restoration workshop in Antony, a suburb of Paris. As the artist has described: “My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as a spider” (L. Bourgeois, Ode à ma mère, suite of nine prints with text in portfolio, 1995). Bourgeois adored her mother and when she died in 1932, Bourgeois attempted suicide by throwing herself into a river—only to be rescued by her father. Bourgeois’ relationship with her father was often a difficult one. A charming philanderer, Louis Bourgeois was simultaneously admired and detested by his namesake daughter. As Bourgeois described their relationship: “A daughter is a disappointment. If you bring a daughter into this world, you have to be forgiven, the way my mother was forgiven because I was the spitting image of my father. That was my first piece of luck. It may be why he treated me like the son he always wanted. I was gifted enough to satisfy [him]. This was my second piece of luck” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in J. Gorovoy and P. Tabatabai Asbaghi, Louise Bourgeois: Blue Days and Pink Days, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Milan, 1997, p. 25). In fact, the Bourgeois household would come to be characterized, by the artist herself, as part Marcel Proust, part Colette—a family riddled with secrets, deception and a web of infidelity. In addition to his various inappropriate advances launched toward his female workers, Bourgeois’ father began an illicit ten-year affair with the young artist’s English governess, Sadie. Positioned as the emotional rival for her father’s attention as well as the usurper of the kind and gentle mother whom she adored, Sadie sparked a dislike in Bourgeois. In relation to her life-sized Spider sculptures, Bourgeois 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. But she, in fact, is not cornered, but she tries to corner the others. Everything is balanced. A long time ago I also associated the spider with the hooker. The prostitute and my mother, they were victims of their physical frailty. This is the connection. They were victims of their tiny size” (L. Bourgeois interview with M. Cajori and A. Wallach, quoted in J. Gorovoy and P. Tabatabai Asbaghi, op. cit., p. 254).
Emerging as both predator and protector, Spider materializes as the perfect expression of Bourgeois’ traumatic childhood. “I came from a family of repairers,” the artist fondly remembered, likening the spider’s ability to weave webs with her mother’s own dexterity in mending textiles. “The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in F. Morris, Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2009, p. 272). Certainly, the spider’s own use of silk to not only spin webs but also construct cocoons and bind its 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. Joining a powerful lineage of depictions of motherhood in the history of art—from the rearing of Remus and Romulus in the Capitoline Wolf to Michelangelo’s Pietà, through to Kathe Kollwitz’s war-charged imagery of the maternal savior, Mary Cassatt’s tender paintings of mother and child, and Henry Moore’s large-scale amorphous embraces—Spider speaks to the incredibly complex role of the mother as nurturer and guardian.
With its sensitive and carefully articulated attention to the female role in the household, Spider confirms Louise Bourgeois’ place amongst the pantheon of feminist artists. “She produces by secreting,” the art historian, Eva Keller, wrote of the artist. “Ceaselessly, she spins the space of her life and her work, incessantly 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” (Eva Keller, “Unraveling Louise Bourgeois: An Attempt,” in Louise Bourgeois: Emotions Abstracted, Werke/Works 1941–2000, Zurich, 2004, p. 27). However, as the artist herself has noted the image of the spider forms a slightly different relationship to her own character, “My mother was a restorer, she repaired broken things. I don’t do that. I destroy things. I cannot go the straight line. I must destroy, rebuild, destroy again. My rhythm is not the same. My mother moved in a straight line; I go from one extreme to the other” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in J. Gorovoy and P. Tabatabai Asbaghi, op. cit., p. 21). By selecting 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 devours her partner immediately after mating, Bourgeois confronts the bittersweet experience of being human and in particular a woman, wife and mother. The fact that Bourgeois also chose the traditionally male-dominated domain of sculpture as an articulation of her emotions intensifies its effect, representing a repudiation of the dominant and mercurial father with whom she grew up.
Her father’s own deceit left Bourgeois with the permanent understanding that men were typically childish and weak, yet it also led her on a search for father figures amongst her artistic role models, such as Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi. Bourgeois moved to New York City in 1938 with her husband, the American art historian Robert Goldwater. She would come to associate with a number of exiled Surrealists, such as André Breton, André Masson and Joan Miró who had relocated to the United States during the Second World War. In fact, because of these close associations, clear elements of Surrealism are found in Bourgeois’ work from her early drawings to her later, larger sculptural installations, referencing her interest in sublimation and the unconscious. The artist’s Surrealist tendencies have often given her work a dreamlike, and even haunting feel, as her imaginative installations and anthropomorphized figures border between reality and otherworldly. Indeed, the subject of the spider has been explored in works by Joan Miró, who evoked image of the spider through simple Surrealist automatism, Marcel Duchamp, whose Hat Rack echoes the body of the arachnid suspended from the ceiling, and Man Ray’s Spider Woman with its cool composite of fashion model and femme-fatale symbolism.
It was in 1966, in the wake of the male-dominated movements of the preceding decades, that Lucy Lippard launched her now famous exhibition, Eccentric Abstraction, which gave way to Bourgeois’ first major breakthrough, putting her work in contact with a younger generation of feminist curators and scholars, along with the rising group of post-Minimalist artists such as Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman. Employing diverse materials, from cast bronze to carved marble to stitched fabric, Bourgeois has used sculpture to investigate projected psychological states. “I could not be a painter,” Bourgeois has stated of her own practice. “The two-dimensions do not satisfy me. I have to find the reality given by the third dimension” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in Alex Potts, “Hybrid Sculpture,” in Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2007, p. 258). Setting her apart from her post-Minimalist contemporaries whose forms were a philosophical and conceptual reaction against Minimalism, Bourgeois’ abstracted forms were informed and inspired by her own experiences. Inherently linked through their autobiographical, highly personal exploration, Bourgeois’ concern with the body and memory resonates throughout her artistic practice. As the artist stated, “It is not an image I am seeking. It’s not an idea. It is an emotion you want to recreate, an emotion of wanting, of giving, and of destroying” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in C. Meyer-Thoss, “Self-Expression Is Sacred and Fatal: Statements,” Louise Bourgeois: Designing for Free Fall, exh. cat., Zurich 1992, p. 194).
However, it would not be until the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a major retrospective, and their first devoted to a female artist, of the work of the then seventy year old artist in 1982, that Bourgeois would become the celebrated feminist icon that we know today—a label which she herself has reluctantly embraced. There, her highly original work earned a mainstream reputation for the tremendous impact it had quietly exercised on contemporary art for decades. In a review of the artist’s 1982 retrospective, art historian Robert Storr offers these reflections on the importance of the ideas of metamorphoses and transformation within Bourgeois’ oeuvre: “What is most important about [her autobiographical narrative] is not its richness of detail, but the archetypal roles played by its cast and the almost infinite variety of emotional nuance it evokes in both teller and listener. We are thus confronted with a persuasive reality that echoes the dialectics of both modern psychology and classical myth, in which gods and demiurges act out their desires with the paradoxical combination of fickleness, cruelty, and powerful constancy we accept as inevitable...Just as the gods vacillate between disruptive whimsy and destructive anger, changing themselves or men without warning to beasts or trees or stone, each quality or image in Bourgeois’ world is subject to unexpected transformation into its opposite or into a composite of supposed opposites” (R. Storr, “Louise Bourgeois: Gender and Possession,” Art in America, April 1983, p. 135–36).
In her vast body of work, Bourgeois oscillates between the evidently figural and the more abstract; between the real and the uncanny. Spider is boldly direct in its figurative nature, yet it is unlike any spider that exists in life; rather it seems to have crawled to life from the pages of a Surrealist journal. Without frame or pedestal, Spider steps into the viewer’s reality, breaking the distinction between the two separate planes of the real and the imagined. Both eerily real and larger than life, the work defies the viewer’s expectations and questions the preconceived notions of the way a spider should inhabit space. The spider motif remained one the most iconic and meaningful to the artist during a career that spanned nearly eight decades. Representing not only Bourgeois’ intimate connection to her mother, but also her own identity as a mother and female artist, Spider blends together the various stages of the artist’s own biography, while also evoking an extreme power found within the universal trope of motherhood.