As I was rushing through the Art Basel exhibition just before closing time, I turned a corner and was confronted by one of French sculptor Louise Bougeois’s large spiders. That definitely made me pause. The artist’s spider sculptures seem to make more of an impact indoors, where there is an element of surprise and where lighting can be used to create shadows that emphasize the spindly and pointed legs.
Louise Bourgeois: Maman
Louise Bourgeois also created a series of six 30-foot tall spiders, entitled Maman, that reside in different parts of the word. I am familiar with the one that stands outside the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
With that spider, you can see it from far away, so the effect is less visceral. By the time I actually got close enough to see the spider clearly, I was distracted by a series of thoughts: “I wonder why someone decided to put a giant spider sculpture there. Is it supposed to represent Canada? If a spider were that large, would its slender legs be able to support the massive weight?”
Some backstory is helpful in understanding the artist’s fascination with spiders. She created her spider sculptures at least in part to pay homage to her mother, who had died when the artist was a young woman. Her mother, who had worked as a tapestry restorer in the family’s workshop, was, in a sense, a weaver, as are web-spinning spiders. The artist drew other parallels between her mother and spiders; in a text accompanying a series of etchings entitled Ode à ma mere, she wrote:
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, by refusing to answer ‘stupid’, inquisitive, embarrassing, personal questions.
I shall never tire of representing her.
I want to: eat, sleep, argue, hurt, destroy…
Why do you?
My reasons belong exclusively to me.
The treatment of Fear.Louise Bourgeois: Maman
Though she focuses on the positive characteristics of spiders in her text, Louise Bourgeois’s actual sculptures don’t shy away from depicting spiders as being dangerous, threatening, fear-inspiring creatures. There is an interesting contrast at work there. Spiders create by spinning webs, which they then use to destroy life so that they themselves may live, procreate and nurture—a cycle of creation and death.
There are different versions of the sculpture located around the world. For example, in Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, you can see this slightly smaller one.
I walked right past it without noticing it. Perhaps I was distracted from the large group of Doraemon statues right beside it. Tokyo must be one of the only cities in world that is so bustling with activity that you can walk by such a large spider sculpture without even noticing it.
Louise Bourgeois: Maman (the video shows one of the Maman sculptures being assembled) by VernissageTV.
Three Artists on a Spider by Louise Bourgeois (Different interpretations of the artist’s spiders). Video from Louisiana Channel.
Louise Bourgeois: The Welcoming Hands
Spiders were a frequent subject in the work of Louise Bourgeois, but she also produced a wide range of works ranging from abstract cell-like installations (with cell here meaning room) to small, realistic sculptures of hands. The Art Basel exhibition also included this lovely bronze sculpture.
This section includes links to online photo galleries and websites, a spot-the-artwork activity and an art challenge.
Further Reading and Viewing
Louise Bourgeois: The Complete Prints and Books (a biography and a large collection of photos and articles put together by the Museum of Modern Art): www.moma.org/explore/collection/lb/index
Higher resolution images (e.g. 2048 x 1365) can be viewed online at:
I came across the painting at the Art Central Exhibition. It is entitled Starry Night – Art and is by a Chinese painting duo known as Tamen. The painting references a lot of famous contemporary artists and artworks. The pieces and artists referred to were all responsible for expanding the boundaries of art (and/or the art industry) in some way. Looming in the background in the left is one of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman spiders.
I would say the way in which the expanded the boundaries of art was break gender stereotypes—showing that a piece of art by a woman about motherhood could be strong, hard, imposing and intimidating.
After doing a bit of research (and getting some help from my friends and my sister, I could identify most of the other artists and artworks.
Can you identify all the allusions to other artists in the painting? (If you click on the picture, you can see a larger version)
- The tent
- The puppy
- The spider
- The walking figure
- The two men
- The painting being held
- The framed painting
- The bronze animal sculpture
- The urinal
- The stainless steel curved sculpture
- The balloon rabbit
- The box
- The lady in a spotted dress
- Any more?
The woman in white is one of the artists who painted the picture. Here are the answers: artjouer.wordpress.com/artists/answers-to-starry-night-art/
Let me know if I got any wrong?
Think of another creature, plant or object that, to you, can represent motherhood. Draw, paint, sketch or sculpt it.
~ text and photos by longzijun
Return to Artjouer’s Gallery of Artists