Rich in personal connotations and primal associations, Louise Bourgeois’ oeuvre is replete with her signature motif: the Spider. For Bourgeois, art was more than a means of expression – it was a way of existing in the world– and the metaphors and symbolic figurations that populate her oeuvre navigate the thin divide between several dualities: the self and the other, nurture and destruction, love and abandonment. At once poignant, powerful, menacing, and nostalgic, Bourgeois’ Spider I grips the wall, legs alternately advancing with an upward momentum or coiling reflexively in repose, suggestive of both action and contemplation. Emerging first in the ephemeral environment of her early drawings, Bourgeois’ Spider eventually towered triumphantly over the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2000 with the gargantuan Maman (1999). The resurgence of the Spider in sculptural form in Bourgeois’ work of the mid-1990s was momentous and revelatory, attesting to the primacy of this frightening yet fragile creature in the artist’s imagination. Bourgeois’ expressive and potent arachnid also looms large as an icon of the Twentieth Century with several Spiders held in prestigious private collections and museum collections, along with casts of the present work in the collections of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City and the artist’s Easton Foundation.
Images of a spider recur throughout Bourgeois’ work, constituting a prolonged series of drawings, sculptures, prints, and installations, each representing a large creature, hovering over a page, a wall, a ceiling, a room, or above one of the artist’s architectural Cell installations. Spiders are powerfully evocative, sparking primal emotions ranging from fear to comfort, and for Bourgeois, they spoke of childhood and a narrative of home, filled with woven webs of past memories informing her present. In a text published for her 1998 European traveling exhibition, the artist related an extensive dream narrative about visiting a house that is in fact her subconscious. Within this house of memory and reflection, the Spider is the other being, acting as both an entrapping predator and a benign presence fostering creativity. As the Spider wove, so Bourgeois drew and sculpted. In biographical terms, the Bourgeois family business was to restore antique tapestries, so the narrative aspect of art was a core concept that Bourgeois used to potent effect with her metaphorical mother, the Spider. “An eight-legged shadow will loom over me. I wouldn’t be afraid though. ...The spider would… begin to sew, for me and forever, a huge web to tuck me in. She’d seal all the openings, block all the doors, repair all the torn fabric, line the stairs with downy threads to soften potential falls, fill all the empty corners. ...She’d stay here forever, by my side…” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Louise Bourgeois, 1998, p. 10)
The maternal, nurturing character of the Spider is unmistakable in Bourgeois’ dream-play, and becomes explicit in a text published with a suite of nine Spider etchings from 1995 titled Ode à Ma Mère: “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 as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me, …” The final allusion to a need for protection hints at the very contradictory emotions and impulses of this most complex artist, all emanating from the basic trauma of her early life which she filtered through her art to construct a mythic legend that permeated her aesthetic psyche. Outwardly, the Bourgeois family was a model of gentility and her father provided well for his family in their residences in Paris and in the countryside. Yet, the inner life of the Bourgeois home seethed with marital tensions that were not well-hidden from the children. Their tutor was a young woman who was also their father’s mistress, a situation reluctantly accepted by their mother, who eventually died after a protracted illness. The profound and complex psychological effect of this marital triangle with its underlying cross-currents of betrayal and fidelity have become the accepted “myth” around which Bourgeois’ artistic identity has been constructed, both by critics and the artist herself.
While Spider I and its illustrious family of arachnids of different shapes and sizes are exceptionally personal works, Bourgeois’ art still retains a deeply mysterious and subtle air, hinting at reserves of experience and memory that may mirror both the artist and the viewer’s perception. In writing of Bourgeois’ rich metaphorical landscape, Jerry Gorovoy commented, “Through shape and line, material and texture, Bourgeois is able to give a palpable specificity to her memories. More than just marking time, and nostalgic reminiscing, Bourgeois wants through her sculpture to re-create the past, to have total recall to the emotions, to analyze the event, to control it, to correct it, and finally to forgive and forget it. …Bourgeois’ sculptures mark a collection of traumas, fears, anxieties, resentments, and unfulfilled desires which through her sculptures she is able to exorcise.’’ (Exh. Cat., Yokohama Museum of Art, Louise Bourgeois: Homesickness, 1997, n. p.)
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