Louise Bourgeois: The Woman Behind The Spider Sculptures

Written by - Essie King
Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 2001, - Spain, Bilbao, near Guggenheim MuseumImage © Kamahele, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons / Maman © Louise Bourgeois 2001
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Louise Bourgeois was a French-American artist known for her sculptures that explored themes of fear, loneliness, and trauma. The spider is a crucial motif in Bourgeois' work and her monumental Maman marks a pivotal point in her career. To this day, Bourgeois' work continues to have a profound impact thanks to the universality of her works focusing on the intersection of motherhood and art.

The Life and Art of Louise Bourgeois

Bourgeois was born on Christmas day in Paris in 1911 and grew up in a family of tapestry restorers. Her parents owned a business that specialised in repairing antique tapestries, which exposed her to the world of art and craftsmanship from a young age. Bourgeois' early artistic influences were rooted in the works of her parents and the tapestry business. She learned the techniques of sewing, weaving, and embroidery from her mother, and her father's appreciation for ancient art forms inspired her interest in sculpture.

Bourgeois' style is characterised by a use of organic forms inspired by works from artists like Henry Moore and Jean Arp, using materials, such as plaster, bronze, and fabric. Her sculptures often featured fragmented and distorted body parts, which were meant to evoke a sense of vulnerability and the fragility of the human condition. She was also known for her use of sexually charged imagery, such as phallic shapes and suggestive forms, which were a reflection of her own experiences with sexuality and her fascination with the human body.

Throughout her extensive oeuvre Bourgeois' works are permeated with themes influences by her own life experiences with trauma, loneliness, and betrayal. The artist's experiences led to sculptures which evoke feelings of anxiety and isolation, emotions any audience can understand and relate to.

In addition to her exploration of personal themes, Bourgeois was also interested in the larger cultural and political issues of her time. She was a feminist and believed in the importance of addressing the ways in which women were marginalised in society. Her works often dealt with issues of gender and sexuality, and she was known for creating powerful works that challenged traditional gender roles and societal expectations.

One of Bourgeois' most notable works is Maman, a sculpture of a giant spider that stands over 30 feet tall was first exhibited at Tate Modern in London in 2000. Since then, it’s been displayed in various locations around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada and is currently on view as a permanent installation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Bourgeois received numerous awards and honours throughout her career, including the National Medal of Arts in 1997 and the Legion of Honor in 2008. She continued to produce works until her death in 2010, at the age of 98. Today, her works can be found in major museums and collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern, and the Centre Pompidou.

"The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it.
Louise Bourgeois
Maman by sculptor Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain.Image © Fernando Pascullo, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Maman © Louise Bourgeois 1999

The Symbolism of the Spider in Bourgeois' Work

The spider is a symbol that has been interpreted in many ways throughout history. In Bourgeois' work, the spider has been seen as a symbol of feminine power, creativity, and independence. It has also been interpreted as a symbol of fear and anxiety, as well as the cycle of life and death. It’s widely recognized that the complex nature of Bourgeois' family can be interpreted in her work as well.

Bourgeois saw the spider as a powerful symbol of resilience and adaptability, qualities that she admired in herself and in other women. Though it has been interpreted in many different ways, it is clear that the spider holds a significant and personal meaning for Bourgeois. The spider is a tribute to her mother, a symbol of her own resilience, and a powerful image of maternal protection.

Maman: Bourgeois' Iconic Spider Sculpture

Maman is an iconic sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, and serves as a compelling illustration of her utilisation of the spider as a symbol throughout her artwork. The conception and presentation of Maman represented a pivotal juncture in Bourgeois' career, and its enduring impact on both the art world and the general public has been noteworthy.

The Creation and Installation of Maman

Bourgeois completed Maman in 1999 after a challenging and complex process requiring her to work with a team of fabricators. The sculpture made its debut at London’s Tate Modern after being cast in parts and assembled on site, requiring a significant amount of engineering expertise to ensure that it was secure.

The Significance of Maman's Size and Setting

The physical characteristics and placement of Maman play significant roles in conveying the sculpture's intended meaning and impact. Standing over 30 feet tall, the monumental presence of the spider demands attention and inspires awe, emphasising the work's importance and power.

Moreover, the sculpture's location is a crucial aspect of its symbolism. Displayed in various locations across the globe, such as outside museums, public squares, and gardens, the sculpture’s placement highlights a message of protection and nurturance. As a public artwork, its placement is a testament to its ability to connect with audiences, showcasing its significance as an enduring work of art.

Maman's Impact in 2023

Bourgeois’ popular spider sculpture has been widely celebrated as a masterpiece of modern sculpture, and it has had a praiseworthy impact on the art world and the public. Maman continues to have a significant effect on the market, expecting to sell for up to $40 million at Sotheby’s this month. The price estimate helps cement its status as one of Bourgeois' most valuable and sought-after works. Even if it only meets the low estimate, it will still position Bourgeois to make a record breaking sale.

The Intersection of Motherhood and Art

Bourgeois was an artist who delved deeply into the intersection of motherhood and art in her work, creating a multifaceted and deeply personal exploration of the maternal experience. Her art depicted the complexities of motherhood, including the struggles and challenges faced by mothers, as well as the emotional bonds between mothers and their children.

Through her preoccupation with motherhood, Bourgeois also challenged traditional notions of femininity and motherhood as passive, purely nurturing roles. Through her art, she depicted maternal figures that were powerful and imposing, representing the strength and resilience of motherhood. Her work highlights the complexity and strength of the maternal experience, subverting traditional gender roles.

The influence of Bourgeois on Contemporary Art is undeniable, with many contemporary artists citing her as inspiration. Tracey Emin's My Bed, for example, shares Bourgeois' use of personal objects to explore the complexities of femininity. Bourgeois’ work has had a domino effect on the contemporary market, inspiring many artists to continue exploring and challenging traditional gender roles and societal expectations.

Exploring Bourgeois' Artistic Range: From Sketches to Sculptures

Throughout her artistic career, Bourgeois experimented with an array of mediums and techniques throughout her career. Although she is widely recognized for her iconic spider sculptures, her extensive practice also encompasses an impressive range of mediums including drawings, prints, paintings, installations, and textile works.

Bourgeois' Use of Different Mediums and Techniques

Bourgeois' diverse range of mediums and techniques was a reflection of her artistic curiosity and desire to explore different modes of expression. She worked with materials such as marble, bronze, fabric, and latex, often combining them to create hybrid works that blurred the boundaries between sculpture and painting.

This innovative use of materials extended to her series of fabric works, which she began creating in the late 1990s. These works consisted of large-scale sewn fabric sculptures that explored themes related to memory and the body. One notable piece from this series is Cell XXVI, which consists of a cage-like structure with a fabric sculpture of a woman surrounded in a swirl of fabric.

Themes Beyond the Spider in Bourgeois' Work

Another theme that recurs throughout Bourgeois' work is the representation of the female body. Many of her sculptures depict the female form in various states of vulnerability, fragmentation, and transformation. For example, her Femme Maison series depicts the female body merged with architectural forms to create hybrid figures that explore themes related to identity and the body.

Bourgeois' Lesser-Known Pieces

While Bourgeois is well-known for her spider sculptures and large-scale installations, her body of work includes many lesser-known pieces that are equally powerful. One such work is her series of Personages, which she began creating in the 1940s. These sculptures consist of abstracted humanoid forms made of wood, bronze, and plaster. Each one is unique, and they explore themes related to the human psyche and emotional states.

Another lesser-known aspect of Bourgeois' work is her use of printmaking. She began creating prints in the 1930s, and her body of print work includes etchings, lithographs, and screen prints. Many of these works explore themes related to the body, and they demonstrate Bourgeois' mastery of a wide range of printing techniques.

Louise Bourgeois' print Spider & Snake (2003). Etched image of a black and white spider with a red snake wrapped around one of its legs.Spider & Snake © Louise Bourgeois 2003

Bourgeois' Creative Process and Techniques

Bourgeois' creative process was deeply personal and intuitive, and she often worked on several pieces simultaneously. She frequently revisited earlier works, making changes and additions over time. Her sculptures were often created through a process of carving and casting, and she would frequently work with assistants to help her realise her vision.

As with many artists, sketches were a crucial part of her creative process. Bourgeois used sketches to explore ideas and forms, and they often served as a blueprint for her sculptures. Her sketches were intimate, spontaneous, and raw, capturing the essence of her thoughts and emotions. She used a variety of materials for her sketches, including pencil, ink, and watercolour.

Her sketches were a critical part of her creative process serving as a way for her to explore ideas and forms before creating her sculptures. Through her sketches, Bourgeois captured the essence of her thoughts and emotions, creating a raw and intimate body of work. Her sketches were a reflection of her artistic range, which spanned from drawings and paintings to sculptures and installations. Bourgeois' work continues to be celebrated and appreciated for its originality, complexity, and emotional depth.

Her sketches were a critical part of her creative process serving as a way for her to explore ideas and forms before creating her sculptures. Through her sketches, Bourgeois captured the essence of her thoughts and emotions, creating a raw and intimate body of work. Her sketches were a reflection of her artistic range, which spanned from drawings and paintings to sculptures and installations. Bourgeois' work continues to be celebrated and appreciated for its originality, complexity, and emotional depth.

Her sketches were a critical part of her creative process serving as a way for her to explore ideas and forms before creating her sculptures. Through her sketches, Bourgeois captured the essence of her thoughts and emotions, creating a raw and intimate body of work. Her sketches were a reflection of her artistic range, which spanned from drawings and paintings to sculptures and installations. Bourgeois' work continues to be celebrated and appreciated for its originality, complexity, and emotional depth.

Black and white photograph of artist Louise Bourgeois with eyes half shut.Image © Oliver Mark, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Louise Bourgeois, New York 1996

Bourgeois' Feminist Art

Louise Bourgeois was a pioneering artist who played a significant role in the feminist art movement. Through her work, Bourgeois explored themes related to gender, sexuality, and the body, and challenged traditional notions of femininity and domesticity. Her art often took the form of sculptures, installations, and drawings that were expressive and psychologically charged.

Bourgeois' impact on feminist art was profound, as she was one of the first artists to address feminist themes in her work. Her art sought to dismantle patriarchal systems and subvert gender norms, as evidenced by her famous spider sculptures, which were interpreted as symbols of feminine power and protection. These sculptures, which feature large, looming spider forms, became one of Bourgeois' most iconic creations and were widely interpreted as feminist statements.

Her sculptures often featured abstracted body parts, such as breasts, vulvas, and phalluses, which challenged traditional depictions of the female body as passive and objectified. Instead, Bourgeois' work presented the female body as a site of power and complexity, capable of expressing a range of emotions and desires.

To the present day, Bourgeois's influence on contemporary feminist artists has been profound. As her work continues to inspire new generations, upcoming artists echo her themes related to gender, sexuality, and the body.

Louise Bourgeois' Maman spider sculpture. An oversized spider sculpture is pictured against a sunset and building, in Canada.Image © Sam valadi, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Maman © Louise Bourgeois 1996

Bourgeois' Enduring Influence

Throughout her artistic career, Bourgeois cemented a profound and far-reaching influence on feminism, female artists and Contemporary Art at large.

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