Three egg-shaped carved marble forms are held in a wrought-iron embrace, cradled and suspended beneath the looming protective torso of Spider. Executed in 1994, at the very incipit of what was to become Louise Bourgeois’ most celebrated series of sculptures, the present work is undoubtedly one of the earliest iterations on this beloved theme. Rendered in polished onyx black and intricately speckled light ochre marble, these eggs, as well as the bodily structure of the creature that encases them, are indelibly imbued with deep personal significance, becoming avatars for the artist herself and the members of her immediate family: Pierre, her brother, is embodied by the black egg; Louise and her sister, Henrietta, assume the form of the two light marble eggs; finally, and most significantly, the roughly hewn steel anatomy of the arachnid itself exists as proxy for the artist’s mother Joséphine. For Bourgeois, art was more than a means of expression, it was a way of existing in the world. 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.
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. First explored by the artist in a small ink and charcoal drawing of 1947, Bourgeois’ favored theme was not translated into the third dimension until 1994, the year of the present work’s execution. The first Spider sculpture was constructed using found forms: legs made from straight sections of steel tube bent at angles to support a torso comprised of a glass jar with a rounded base that hung below a steel globe. The present Spider is executed in the steel medium that would come to define subsequent works from the cycle, can be indubitably described as one of the very earliest mature iterations of the renowned Spider corpus. Moreover, in marked contrast to later variations on the theme, Spider is not part of a larger edition but is, in fact, unique. Like in the acclaimed and monumental Maman, executed five years later, a collection of marble polished eggs is held suspended below the body of the present spider, thus immediately identifying Spider as a female and, indeed, a mother herself and forging an immediate connection between this stunning work and its creator’s own deeply informative personal narrative.
At once poignant, powerful, menacing, and nostalgic, Bourgeois’ Spider assumes full command of its surroundings, its legs alternately advancing and 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 international private and museum collections.
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 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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