Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
‘The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it’
‘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’
Spider III is among the most significant and personal works created by Louise Bourgeois, an artist whose career spanned over seven decades of remarkable productivity. This rare and unique steel example of her iconic arachnid motif, executed in 1995, represents the first conception of Spider III: for each new realisation of her Spider sculpture series, before the subsequent bronze editions, Bourgeois produced a single version in steel, intended either for the artist herself or for acquisition by museums or close personal friends. Among the most rich and complex images of her long and varied practice, the spider first appeared in Bourgeois’ work as early as 1947, but began to dominate her output from the mid-1990s. Charged with the paradoxical nature of the creature itself, and reflecting Bourgeois’ own turbulent relationships with those closest to her, the spider’s wider symbolic associations are deeply entwined with its profound personal import for the artist. With its combination of irregular, hand-worked surfaces and smooth, highly finished elements, Spider III is a complex hybrid of menace and emotional vulnerability. Rearing up almost a metre in height upon its eight legs, the work is one of the earliest versions of a sculptural form she would revisit throughout the 1990s, and whose various manifestations grace major museum collections worldwide. From Tate Modern in London to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Bourgeois’ arachnid presences have been celebrated by critics and public alike.
The human scale of this particular Spider creates a sense of preternatural unease, offering a more unsettlingly intimate encounter than larger spider sculptures such as the monumental Maman (1999), one version of which today towers ten metres tall outside the Guggenheim Bilbao. The tense, arched front legs of Spider III suggest that the creature is bracing itself for a burst of activity, either to flee an approaching threat or poised to attack a creature who dares to wander into its lair. Its material formulation is uncanny, reflecting the duality of a work structured on contradictions. The textural fascination of its steel surface, transitioning between the smooth, attenuated areas of the vertical elements and the molten knots of welding at the joints and abdomen, beckons tactile engagement, while our fear of the spider – itself a cocktail of innate, primal drives and cultural conditioning – inevitably flares up in response to its eight-legged form. Spider III is at once repellent and hypnotically attractive, a sinuous, sophisticated creation that nonetheless seems dredged from the very depths of the dark subconscious.
As with all of Bourgeois’ work, Spider III is intensely autobiographical, relating particularly to her early childhood and the difficult relationship she had with her family. Bourgeois has widely acknowledged that the spider motif is an ode to her mother, who repaired tapestries in the family textile restoration workshop in Aubusson. 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, with whom her relationship was rather more complex. Louis Bourgeois was a philanderer whom Louise both admired and detested. Entangled in his own web of infidelity and deception, her father could not extricate himself from his ten-year affair with the artist’s governess that continued throughout much of her childhood. The spider, the spinner of webs, with its dual role of predator and protector, becomes the perfect totem for Bourgeois’ emotionally fraught upbringing.
The weaving of webs is an important metaphorical motif that runs throughout Bourgeois’ practice. From its long associated the idea of sewing and repair – and in turn, the image of a spider – with her mother, who she saw as a protective, nurturing figure, and who had herself been irreparably damaged by her husband’s unfaithfulness and cruelty. Beyond the idea of a spider as patient, meticulous maternal weaver, the creature can also be as a stand-in for Bourgeois herself, making a defiant statement of female creativity in a field dominated by male artists. Her own weaving of artistic forms and narratives is no domestic chore, but a mode of visionary fabrication from deep-seated strands of self. As Eva Keller has written of Bourgeois, ‘She produces by secreting … 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’ (E. Keller, ‘Unraveling Louise Bourgeois: An Attempt’, in Louise Bourgeois: Emotions Abstracted, Werke/Works 1941–2000, Zurich, 2004, p. 27). The legend of Arachne, the talented mortal weaver who was turned into a spider by the goddess Athena for daring to challenge her skill, further conjures mythic associations of female envy and jealousy.
Louise Bourgeois’ reputation as an artist grew steadily during the later decades of her life. Having been overshadowed for many years by first-generation Abstract Expressionists, her major importance came to be recognised in the 1980s with a series of one-woman exhibitions in New York. In 1982, she was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and had her first exhibitions in London and Paris. By the time she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1993, her reputation as an influential and innovative artist was firmly established. Amid a varied body of work that has encompassed drawing, lithography, carving, casting, assemblage, installation and performance art, her spider sculptures remain the central icons her artistic output. Intensely personal yet elaborating universal themes, Spider III brings together the tangled skeins of Bourgeois’ life: a duplicitous father, a protective mother, and the artist, who re-enacted her psychic torment in various material forms throughout her practice. Ultimately, for all its darkness, Bourgeois’ spider is an avowal of strength, and an embodiment of the therapeutic power of artistic creation. ‘The spider is a repairer’, the artist once claimed. ‘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).
19 x 35 x 37½in. (48.3 x 88.9 x 95.3cm.)
Executed in 1995, this work is unique
There is a later bronze edition of six plus one artist's proof.
Edition number five of six from the bronze edition is in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D. C.