Louise Bourgeois’s spiders, towering and delicate, are located around the world, from Kansas City to Seoul. The largest sculpture in the series, “Maman” – French for mother – stands 30 feet tall at London’s Tate Modern; powerfully crouched, its spindly bronze legs taper down to exquisite pinpoints. Underneath the spider’s abdomen, a metal egg sac full of white marble orbs hangs ominously over viewers’ heads. Though Bourgeois didn’t begin her spiders until she was in her eighties, they have become her best-known works.
Bourgeois’s origin story is recounted often in the numerous monographs, films, and exhibitions devoted to the influential late artist, whose biomorphic, large-scale works rank among the most important of the past century. She was born in 1911 in Paris, where her family operated a business restoring tapestries. As a child, she honed her drawing skills by illustrating the scenes missing from the fabric. When Bourgeois was young, her father began a years-long affair with Sadie Richmond, the family’s English governess. It was one among many infidelities that formed for Bourgeois a kind of primary wound – a betrayal to which she would return again and again.
When her mother died of Spanish flu in 1932, her sense of abandonment further deepened. Bourgeois would revisit these early traumas throughout the course of her long career, recreating the rawness of the pain in her work, as loss, attachment, sexuality, and resentment became her perpetual themes.
Giving form to emotion
Bourgeois initially began studying mathematics at the Sorbonne in her native city, but turned to art after the death of her mother. She studied at a series of Parisian art schools, including the studio of famed painter Fernand Léger, who recognized her potential as a sculptor. In 1938, she married the American art historian Robert Goldwater, and they settled together in Manhattan, where they had three sons.
In her early works, Bourgeois already began to fuse the bodily with the architectural to create unsettling forms. Her “Personages” series of this era were spine-like totems carved from found wood. Though Bourgeois had ties to Surrealism, and her work was commonly exhibited alongside the Abstract Expressionists, she remained reclusive and never a part of any one scene.
The singularity of her vision did not gain wide recognition until decades later, when the Museum of Modern Art mounted a self-titled survey of her work in 1982. It was the museum’s first retrospective dedicated to a female sculptor.
“The strength of Louise Bourgeois’s art derives from her ability to translate emotion into visual form,” said Jerry Gorovoy, her longtime assistant who is now president of her estate. “In delving into her psyche and the unconscious, Bourgeois revealed universal truths about the nature of desire and love, fear and loneliness.”
Her work, haunted by the figures of the mother and father, often takes up archetypal themes – the family drama amplified to the status of myth – as she reconciled her roles as mother, wife, daughter and artist. In the 1974 “Destruction of the Father,” – symbolizing, she claimed, the dismemberment and consumption of the patriarch at the family dinner table – the globular forms of latex-coated plaster bake under a uterine red light.
Bourgeois did not take pains to hide her anger, in either art or life – a feat, considering how women are so often conditioned to express only niceties. “I am a wild beast some of the time,” she acknowledged in a 1994 BBC documentary, which showed her hurling her plaster casts onto the floor of her studio. While presiding over the long-running salons she regularly hosted in her New York studio, in which would-be artists presented work for her judgment, she was known for her withering criticisms.
“Though she wanted to love and be loved, she often acted out aggressively to those closest to her,” Gorovoy said, noting that she often sublimated her rage through the process of art-making. “She would turn her aggressiveness towards the material, but as a form would take shape her anxieties would recede.”
The duality of spiders
If Bourgeois’s earlier work was dominated by the father, her later work explored the complicated character of the mother. Her spiders first appeared as an ink-and-charcoal drawing in 1947. Decades later, sprung off the page to massive three-dimensional proportions, they became the centerpieces of Bourgeois’s late-in-life renaissance.
The metal spiders are ambivalent creatures. The spider is an image of creativity and industry – like Bourgeois’s mother, the spider is a weaver – and also one of fear and disgust. They are sized to make one feel small against an otherworldly presence, and yet also protected beneath its powerful shelter.
“The friend (the spider – why the spider?) because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as a spider,” she wrote in Ode à Ma Mère, an illustrated book from 1995.
Bourgeois carried on creating art until her death at 98 years old, in 2010. “Sometimes during her final, astonishingly productive decade it seemed as if she might go on forever in the crepuscular light of her Chelsea townhouse, making objects and prints by day and drawing into the small hours of the morning while singing Dada lullabies to herself in her beautiful cracked voice,” wrote her biographer Robert Storr in the magazine Art Press the year of her death.
While her themes remained the same, her art continued to adapt and transform. “Earlier in her career she worked with wood, and then marble – hard materials that she could physically react against,” said Gorovoy. “Later she began using her own clothing and fabrics. Instead of fighting against something, she was bringing things together: sewing and repairing instead of cutting and destroying.”
Bourgeois continued to explore the powerful effects of maternal presence and absence in her work up until the end of her life. In “I Am Afraid,” created a year before she died, a poem is delicately threaded into the canvas, the last line reading: “THE FALLING INTO A VACUUM SIGNALS THE ABANDONMENT OF THE MOTHER.”
Bourgeois’s body of work, in its endless restagings of familial pain, are monuments to the unfinished business of the psyche. In her spider sculptures, both beautiful and monstrous, she gave form to the deepest human needs and desires.