This week’s work is Louise Bourgeois’s Maman from 1999. Bourgeois was a sculptor, painter and printmaker, who died this weekend at the age of 98. Born in 1911 in Paris, as a youth, Bourgeois assisted her parents in their tapestry restoration business. She first began studies in mathematics before deciding to pursue the arts - she then studied with many notable artists in Paris including Fernand Léger. In 1938 she married the American art historian and critic Robert Goldwater, and moved to New York, where she met Le Corbusier, Joan Miró and other European expatriates. Bourgeois was always at the forefront of new developments in art of the twentieth century, but she pursued a wholly personal path. She explored her ideas in painting, printmaking, sculpture, installation and performance, using extraordinarily varied materials, from wood and stone to latex, rubber and fabric. However, this was balanced by an obsessive continuity of subject matter; often deeply autobiographical references to Bourgeois’ childhood. Maman is a monumental spider, so large that it can only be installed outside, or in an industrially-scaled building. Made of steel it stands nine metres (thirty feet) high and has a legspan of ten metres, allowing the viewer to walk directly underneath the meshed egg sac containing seventeen white and grey marble eggs. It is the largest of a series of spider sculptures that Bourgeois created in the second half of the 1990s, and was cast for the opening of Tate Modern in May 2000 as part of her Unilever Series commission for the Turbine Hall. Maman is French for ‘Mummy’- the familiar way a child calls its mother. Bourgeois alludes to the strength of the mother (and specifically her mother), drawing on metaphors of spinning, weaving, nurture and protection. Bourgeois said of the spider motif :
The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.
Bourgeois emphasised the positive attributes of a spider, but spiders are usually thought of as frightening or threatening, and Bourgeois was not afraid to explore ambiguous ideas about motherhood. Maman’s towering scale and sharply pointed feet also evoke a sinister and menacing feeling, despite the fact that this spider is clearly also nurturing her eggs. Encountering Maman always from the perspective of the child looking up from below, it can be perhaps seen as an expression of anxiety about a mother who is universal - powerful and terrifying, beautiful and, without eyes to look or a head to think, curiously indifferent. Maman was last on display at Tate Modern in 2007 to coincide with her major retrospective exhibition. Bronze casts of Maman are on permanent display at The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea, Mori Ar tMuseum, Tokyo, Japan and theNational Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.