Over the course of her remarkably long and storied career, Louise Bourgeois developed a unique and moving body of work that reaches deep into the human psyche, probing the subconscious mind for visions and dreams to create a visual iconography that’s so universal as to be cherished by viewers around the world. Taking its cues from her own childhood, Louise Bourgeois’s Spider is a deeply personal creation, rendering viewers spellbound in rapt amazement as they first encounter its colossal form. “The crafty spider, hiding and waiting, is wonderful to watch,” she has remarked. Indeed, this magnificent Spider evokes a range of emotions that veer from childlike wonder to primordial fear. So, too, does Bourgeois’s depiction of the spider move beyond mere representation to become a larger, deeper, more haunting and moving portrayal, eschewing straightforward anatomical details in favor of a more expressive and unique version. Conceived in 1996, Spider is not only her signature motif, it ranks among the greatest contributions to the history of Modern art.
Spider is a truly monumental creation that dwarfs the viewer under the graceful curves of its Gothically arched form. As one of her most enduring and iconic motifs, Spider is a creation of grandeur and mystery, a brilliantly realized sculpture whose enormous legs span a distance of nearly twenty-five feet. The Spider comes to balance on its eight graceful legs in a frightening pose that makes it seem to rear up, ready to strike at any moment, while one of its legs extends outward, delicately probing its environment as if reaching toward its prey. Much as the curious child stares in rapt amazement at the industrious spider, whose bulbous body seems disproportionately large compared to its slender legs, so too, does the viewer marvel at Bourgeois’s depiction of the Spider, where the colossal creature is fabricated out of heavy bronze. Indeed, the elegance of the spider’s thin, graceful legs belies the heaviness of its construction, leaving the viewer to trust that the effects of gravity will be kept at bay as they wander amidst its sizable, ten feet tall legs. For to encounter the spider is to walk into the spider, wandering into and out of its labyrinthian system of delicately balanced limbs.
Disorienting and destabilizing, the effect of encountering the sculpture throws off the viewer’s equilibrium of the everyday world in favor of a more evocative one, where tiny creatures are enlarged to gargantuan proportions and shed their connections to the physical world. For in her depiction, Bourgeois has not simply recreated the anatomical features of the spider, but instead created an archetypal version. Its ingeniously clever design is revealed in the expressive quality of the twisted and knotted bronze of its construction, where its orb-like head is conveyed by a swirling mass of distorted metal. Its legs undulate outward from the central body in writhing and tangled spikes that are marked in bulbous knots and lumps, where its mottled surface beckons the viewer’s touch while simultaneously repelling it. Indeed, the Spider seems to have been made from the same filament with which it spins its webs, as Bourgeois wraps and binds the spider’s body in a swirling mass of thickened, ropelike spirals, from which emanate its long, delicate legs. They perch upon the solid ground with pointed ends—seeming to pierce the ground itself.
The spider, then, becomes the visual embodiment of the daily work that defines her—the spinning of webs. She seems to be molded from this very material in fact, in the looping skeins of twisting filament surrounding her abdomen, becoming one with her own life’s purpose. This spider is both a creator and a destroyer, capable of great feats of beauty but also lethal destruction, for she spends her life making intricate, gossamer webs whose primary function—despite their physical beauty—is to ensnare its prey. Once caught in the web, the spider will pierce its prey with its lethal fangs and wrap it, cocoonlike, within its silky threads. So, too, does Bourgeois ensnare the viewer by nature of her intricate, technically complex yet utterly beautiful creations, leaving them in the precarious predicament of pondering what exactly is her aim in these sinister yet glorious creations. Is this a friendly garden spider, or the lethal black widow? And oh, what a tangled web she weaves.
While it’s true that Bourgeois came of age in Paris in the 1930s alongside the Surrealists (she famously rented an apartment above André Breton’s Galerie Gradiva in 1937), she repeatedly denied any associations with that group, having developed her own distinctive artistic vernacular. Hers was a personal art form deeply influenced by her own memories and experiences that still managed to stay with her despite the many years that had passed. “She could be moved to tears describing a childhood incident, even some five, six, seven decades later,” Museum of Modern Art curator Deborah Wye has described. “Events of the here and now stirred up by old memories and feelings not sufficiently buried” (D. Wye, Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017, p. 11).
Truly, there is perhaps no other artist whose work was so closely influenced by her own feelings and emotions than Louise Bourgeois. Born in 1911 on Christmas Day, Bourgeois spent her childhood years in the sprawling family residences at Choisy-le-Roi and Antony, on the outskirts of Paris, where her father Louis and her mother Josephine were in the business of restoring and selling medieval tapestries. Bourgeois whiled away many hours in rapt fascination of the world around her. The gentle breezes of the French countryside and the lolling sounds of the nearby Bièvre river mingled with the ever-industrious and continual weaving and repairing of the treasured tapestries that entered and exited the workshop throughout her life. “Her childhood memories were filled with the washing, restoring, and selling of these historic textiles,” Deborah Wye continued. “She keenly remembered the workshop women on their knees at the river, washing and wringing those heavy objects, herself drawing in missing fragments of imagery, and her mother with a needle and thread, mending. ‘My mother would sit out in the sun and repair…’ she remembered. ‘She really loved it. This sense of reparation is very deep within me’” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in D. Wye, Ibid., 2017, p. 91).
The silent, contemplative act of weaving and reweaving the delicate threads of ancient tapestries was a tender, cherished act that Bourgeois shared with her mother. In a letter dated 1929, her mother has written: “Upon your return I am quite delighted to do tapestry together. You must not neglect that” (J. Bourgeois, quoted in ibid., p. 91). Indeed, the physical act of sewing, weaving and tying of knots held complex associations for the artist, bringing bittersweet memories imbued with both feelings of contentment and peace, but also fear and dread, for her mother had been plagued by illness that arose during the great influenza pandemic of 1918. She never quite recovered from her sickness, and Bourgeois had left school to become her primary caregiver, often nursing her mother’s health and traveling with her to sanitariums that might ease her discomfort. When her mother died in 1932, Bourgeois claimed that her world had fallen apart, even attempting to drown herself in the nearby river. She was ultimately rescued by her father. He was a fierce, mercurial character who later mocked the artist over the extent of her grief that she felt after her mother’s death.
As an artist whose body of work has been described as ‘personalised realism,’ Bourgeois’s memories of her mother lingered in the periphery throughout the course of her career. They waited in the wings of the drawings, etchings, wood and marble sculptures of her early work until they were able to be reincarnated in their ultimate form, once Bourgeois felt ready to let them go. Although her first depiction of a spider can be traced to a few small drawings from 1947, Bourgeois largely abandoned the motif until the mid-1990s. In this era her work matured, taking on ever greater and more intricate visual allusions, and spanning ever greater dimensions of scale. Her first series of Spider sculptures appeared in the mid-1990s, having benefited from the new studio she had acquired in Brooklyn a decade earlier. This sprawling space accommodated ever larger and more ambitious work. And although she was reaching the twilight of her life, Bourgeois seemed to finally come into her own. She received a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982, and in the years that followed, her acclaim gradually built, reaching a crescendo in the 2000 debut of her phenomenal, large-scale installation at the Tate Gallery in London, for which she created an enormous Spider along with a series of strangely industrial, spiraling staircases that led upward toward a viewing platform surrounded by convex mirrors. An Artforum reviewer described her work as “mixing Spielberg-scale spectacle with the psychological symbolism of the surreal,” amazingly, Bourgeois was nearly ninety years old (S. Madoff, “Towers of London,” Artforum, Summer 2000, p. 164).
Following their initial appearance in the mid-1990s, the Spiders multiplied. After the Tate Gallery installation in 2000, the Spiders spread around the world, with large-scale versions appearing in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, France, Germany, The Hague, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Qatar, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. Its resonance is truly universal, touching upon the latent, subliminal fears of our collective humanity, and conveying the mystery of the natural world, all of which is heightened by the artist’s sensitive rendering.
In 1995, Bourgeois conclusively identified the spider figure with that of her own mother, Josephine. “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 artist included this recollection in a set of etchings of 1995 entitled Ode à Ma Mère, where illustrations of spiders featured alongside the artist’s own memory-poems. By identifying the spider with her mother, and associating the spinning of a web with the mending and restoring of tapestries, Bourgeois again brought together the spheres of the natural and human worlds. In addition, she appreciated the cleverness of the arachnid, remembering how it caught mosquitos that plagued her family “…The crafty spider, hiding and waiting, is wonderful to watch,” she remarked. “The spider is a friend” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in D. Wye, op. cit., 2017, p. 149).
The Spider, then, remains a powerful and complicated autobiographical leitmotif in Bourgeois’s work, one that strikes a clever balance between the inherently lethal capabilities of certain venomous spiders and the tender feelings she felt for her own mother, who she lost at an early age. It also conveys the melancholic memories of her childhood at Choisy-le-Roi, and her profound connection to nature she experienced there. It also hints at the underlying fear and dread that had plagued the artist from a young age, having suffered panic attacks and insomnia throughout her life. Many of the experiences of her childhood were a direct result of the constantly shifting socio-political landscape of the early 20th century. Having been born in 1911, Bourgeois’s life spanned nearly the entirety of that tumultuous century. She lived through both wars, and was first-hand witness to their effects in the displacement, disease and death that inevitably followed.
When Bourgeois was only about four years old, she lost her uncle to World War I almost immediately after its commencement. Her father had also enlisted after the death of his brother and been injured, and she vividly remembered visiting him at one of the triage hospitals set up along the French countryside. The Bourgeois family hired a young governess to teach the children English. This vibrant young teacher, Sadie, had become a friend and mentor to the young Louise Bourgeois, but later became ensnared in a sexual affair with the artist’s father. Much of Bourgeois’s passion, anger and fear stemmed from this formative period in her young life, as she herself expressed: “The motivation for the work is a negative reaction against her. … Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in P. Schjeldahl, “The Spider’s Web,” The New Yorker, February 4, 2002).
The Spider exemplifies the artist’s sense of survival that allowed her to develop an innovative, meaningful and deeply personal body of work, and which sustained her across the span of more than seven decades. “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and she repairs it” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in F. Morris, Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2009, p. 272). Indeed, the spider’s daily routine of spinning its web can be likened to the artistic drive to create that Bourgeois herself experienced. In every phase of her life, she pursued a variety of artistic activities, whether drawing, printmaking, sewing, wood sculpting, performance or conceptual art. Her busy hands wove together a fascinating tapestry of work that expressed her own desires and needs: “I need to make things. The physical interaction with the medium has a curative effect. I need the physical acting out. I need to have these objects in relationship to my body” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in The Art of Louise Bourgeois, Tate Gallery website, accessed via https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/louise-bourgeois-2351/art-louise-bourgeois).
Although it did not fully emerge until late in the artist’s career, the spider has proven to be a fitting metaphor. A tiny, defenseless creature, it relies upon its own ingenuity to survive; many deconstruct their webs at night only to spin a new one each day, while others dig tiny holes in the sand that unsuspecting insects fall into, while still others never make a web at all, but hunt their prey on land. It is this persistence, coupled with cleverness and a keen, watchful eye, that links Spider with her creator, who joins with the legions of careful, inquisitive and insistent women who plied their trade while also taking on the roles of mother, wife, homemaker and caretaker throughout the course of their career. Even Penelope, that resourceful wife of Odysseus, devised a clever way to stave off an army of suitors. The tapestry she wove by day, she would unweave each night. “The weave of her work—mimicking the flux of her mind and her emotions—holds seemingly incommensurable realities together like the elaborate designs of the Baroque tapestries she grew up refurbishing,” the art historian Rob Storr has written. “Bourgeois’s recovery and recreation of her past represents an ongoing work-in-progress, whose consequences for contemporary art are, despite her obsession with her childhood and youth, is artistically more forward looking than retrospective” (R. Storr, “A Sketch for a Portrait: Louise Bourgeois,” in Louise Bourgeois, New York, 2003, pp. 92-93).