Bourgeois mama


Louise Bourgeois
, 1999 (cast 2001)
Bronze, marble, and stainless steel, 895 x 980 x 1,160 cm, edition 2/6
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

“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.” —Louise Bourgeois[1]

Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911, Paris; d. 2010, New York) was a French American artist. Even though she enjoyed an exceedingly long art career, spanning almost an entire century, she received little recognition from the art community until she was in her seventies. Bourgeois is best known for her large-scale sculpture and installation art, but her works also include painting, drawing, printmaking, and performance. In her sculptures, which range in scale from the intimate to the monumental, she employed a diverse array of mediums, including wood, bronze, latex, marble, and fabric.[2] Her work is highly personal and autobiographical, with frequent references to painful childhood memories of an unfaithful father and a loving but complicit mother[3].

Originally conceived as the inaugural commission for the Tate Modern's Art Gallery Turbine Hall in May 2000, Maman (1999) is one of the artist's most ambitious and recognizable works. The sculpture is a monumental steel spider, almost 9 meters tall. The creature has a sac containing 10 marble eggs located at its underbelly and its abdomen and thorax are made of ribbed bronze. It is the largest of a series of spider sculptures that Bourgeois created, based on a motif that she first depicted in a small ink and charcoal drawing in 1947[4]. Bourgeois began sketching spiders then, and continued depicting them until the end of her career. By the mid-1990s, the spiders held a central place in her work.

The French word Maman translates as mom or mommy, the appellation a child uses for his or her mother. Despite its fearsome appearance, the spider is a loving tribute to Bourgeois’s mother, who passed away when she was 21 years old and who was a tapestry maker. It aims to reflect the powerful impact the artist's mother left on her, and alludes to her mother’s strength, with metaphors of spinning, weaving, nurture, and protection[5].

Bourgeois’s spider also represents fertility through the sac of marble eggs and explores an ambiguous notion of motherhood: the animal is protector and predator—the silk of a spider is used both to construct cocoons and to bind prey—and embodies both strength and fragility. The spider evokes awe and fear, yet her massive height, improbably balanced on slender legs, acts at once as a cage and as a protective lair, conveying an almost poignant vulnerability[6].

3. Ibid.


Show: Maman (1999)

Look carefully at this sculpture. What do you notice? How would you describe it? Write a list of words that come to mind when you look at it. Compare your list with another student’s. Are the words on the lists similar or different? Discuss your choices.

Bourgeois created a spider that is as tall as a three-story building. Why do you think she decided to transform a tiny spider into a huge sculpture? How does her choice influence your perception of it? Maman is intended to be explored by walking around and underneath it. How would you feel doing this?

Maman, French for mom or mommy, pays homage to Bourgeois’s mother, who was a tapestry maker. If you had to choose an animal to represent your mother, which animal would you choose? Why? Which characteristics do your mom and the animal share?