Retained in the same private collection since the work was executed in 1999, Louise Bourgeois’s Spider V is a unique version of the artist’s now iconic arachnid forms. The spider became an intensely personal motif for the artist, first making an appearance in two drawings in 1947, before finally emerging as sculptures beginning in the 1990s. Bourgeois became captivated with the spider because the artist said it reminded her of her mother, “My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, near, and useful as a spider” (L. Bourgeois, Ode à ma mère, suite of nine prints with text in portfolio, 1995, [3/19/2021]). The motif has since become one of the most celebrated in contemporary art, with examples housed in many of the world’s most important museum collections including: Tate Gallery, London; Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, near, and useful as a spider.”
Striding purposefully across the floor, Spider V mesmerizes with its ability to command the space it occupies. The weight of its compact body is supported on the tips of its eight long delicate legs; angled, and with one lifted slightly off the ground, they give the impression that the animal has been caught mid-step, as if considering its environment before deciding in which direction to move next. The combination of this solid, yet at the same time almost weightless, body conveys the duality contained in much of the artist’s work, and remains the quality that defines the very essence of her Spiders.
Bourgeois’s work transcends its medium, defying the heaviness of its steel construction for a more captivating grace and beauty. With its more intimate scale, the burnished surface takes on a rather anthropomorphic quality. Eschewing an entirely smooth patina, Bourgeois fully displays Spider’s hand-crafted origins. The surface of the spider oscillates between a sense of irregularity and evenness, resembling the texture of human skin. At once, the sculpture’s mottled surface summons the viewer’s touch while simultaneously repelling it. Spider emphasizes the entirely human essence of the artist’s sculpture, imbuing the surface of the object with the emotions of its creator.
For the artist, the spider is both an architect and a destroyer, a protector and a predator. Spending its entire life building intricate, diaphanous webs within which to ensnare its prey, the spider is able to create a work of delicate yet dangerous beauty. When a creature becomes trapped in its web, it is at the mercy of the spider, which pierces its prey with lethal fangs and wraps it, cocoonlike, within its mellifluous threads. Bourgeois similarly ensnares the viewer within the filaments of her own creation, allowing viewers to explore the depths of their own psyche within the scope of her autobiographical art.
Bourgeois’s work, particularly her Spiders, are grounded in memories of her turbulent early years. “My childhood has never lost its magic,” she 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. 91). As such, Spider V has the ability to awaken youthful notions, nightmares, and fears that call upon the inner crevices of one’s childhood. Its illustration-like figuration conjures up a sense of playfulness while also invoking a deeper, darker side to the imagination.
Bourgeois has widely acknowledged that the spider motif is an ode to her mother, a woman who repaired tapestries in the family’s textile workshop in Antony, a suburb of Paris. Bourgeois adored her mother and when she died in 1932, Bourgeois attempted to end her own life, only to be rescued by her father. Louis Bourgeois was known as a charming philanderer whom Louise both admired and detested. Mixed up in his own web of infidelity and deception from which he could not escape, her father was a complex character and his relationship with his daughter was a difficult one. As such, the spider, with its dual role of predator and protector, becomes the perfect foil for Bourgeois’s emotionally challenged childhood.
My childhood has never lost its magic... 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.”
Louise Bourgeois’s reputation as an artist grew steadily during the later decades of her life. Having been overshadowed for many years by her male counterparts in the Abstract Expressionist generation of painters, her importance as an artist finally began to be recognized in the 1980s. In 1982, her work was the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1985 she 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.
Despite her extensive body of work, Louise Bourgeois’s spider sculptures remain firmly at the heart of her artistic output. Intensely personal, yet discussing universal themes, this work is a powerful metaphor for the artist’s life; a duplicitous father, a protective mother, and herself as a creator. The result of the spider’s creation, the web, can also be seen as a metaphor for life—a silken thread spun out from one’s own body and connected from a central core to form a network that is both strong and fragile, permeable and transparent. If one image is to represent Bourgeois’s long and prolific career, her spider would be hard to beat—the pinnacle of a seventy year career and yet continuing to challenge and influence a new generation of artists around the world.
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