Maman, 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
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. Her work is highly personal and autobiographical, with frequent references to painful childhood memories of an unfaithful father and a loving but complicit mother.
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. 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.
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.
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?
Which insect or small animal would you be?
First, think of a very small animal you would choose to represent yourself. Write one paragraph explaining your decision. Then, look for images of it on the Internet. If possible, closely observe the animal using a magnifying glass as well. Make a list of the things you learned about your subject from close observation. Once you are done, create a sculpture of yourself as the animal using pipe cleaners or recycled materials.
The storybook of Maman
To create the storybook of Maman, divide the class in groups of three or four students. Each group will need a ball or another small object to pass. Sit each group facing each other. The story leader begins Maman’s tale with the ball in his/her hands. Every minute or two the students should be passing the ball to the next player who continues the story. You could serve as the timer. The ball should go around several times. The goal is to build a story with an introduction, body, climax, and conclusion. You could put words onto cue cards to serve as a prompt when building your tale. Record each group story. Repeat the exercise three times. At the end, students should select the story they like the most, transcribe it, and draw, paint, or make a collage of their favorite part. Collect and compile the stories to create the storybook of Maman. Make photocopies so each student can have a copy.
Tapestry: A form of textile art, traditionally woven on a vertical loom.
Restoration: The process of fixing and repairing damaged elements in an artwork, so that it returns as much as possible to its original condition.
Commission: A request and payment for the creation of a work of art. Artworks may be commissioned by private individuals, the government, or businesses.
Metaphor: A figure of speech that identifies something—people, things, animals, or places—as being the same as some unrelated thing for rhetorical effect, thus highlighting the similarities between the two.
Guggenheim Bilbao, Maman
Bourgeois’s own words about Maman
https://assets.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/src/uploads/old/works/audios/es/bourgeois_mama_es.mp3 (In Spanish or English)
Louise Bourgeois: El retorno de lo reprimido
http://proa.org/esp/exhibition-louise-bourgeois.php (In Spanish or English)
Museo Palacio de Bellas Artes didactic material
http://museopalaciodebellasartes.gob.mx/micrositios/lb/assets/descargables/cuadernillo_louise_bourgeoise_mpba.pdf (In Spanish)
Tate Gallery entry about Bourgeois’s Maman http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bourgeois-maman-t12625/text-summary
Trisha McCrae, “Louise Bourgeois. Maman: From the Outside In,” Art & Education. http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/louise-bourgeois-maman-from-the-outside-in/