“I came from a family of repairers. 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
By Matilda Ruck
Most web spinning happens under the cover of darkness. The spider starts by pulling silk from a gland in its fourth leg and with the opposite leg, casts strands of silk onto nearby surfaces. With a framework in place, the spider then works tirelessly, spinning its web from the outside in and clawing each segment with its spindly legs. Slowly concentric circles of delicate dewy threads start to form within its frame, creating an intricate tapestry of fibres, best known as the spider’s web.
Although objectively being a thing of beauty, these webs have long been synonymous with ideas of death and decay. Despite their small frame and generally industrious nature, the seamstress spider has been characterised as a frightening creature, who’s nervous scuttles and spindly form evokes anxiety and unease in so many people. The same could be said about Louise Bourgeois and the arachnid approach to her erratic and deeply evocative art.
At 5ft tall, with fierce blue eyes and an anxious manner, Bourgeois was a straight-talking, formidable character in the art world. She was one of the most prolific and versatile artists of the 20th century. Living close to the age of 100 and still creating work well into her eighties, Bourgeois‘ career spanned over seven decades and covered many different mediums, from towering sculptures and supersize prints to woven tapestries of text and illustrations.
While Bourgeois contributed significantly to the Surrealist and Post-minimalist movements, as well creating installation art, she was in many senses a creative shapeshifter whose constant evolution kept her free from artistic pigeonholing. Yet despite her versatility, a constant undercurrent of powerful autobiographical introspection and drama ran deep into the fibres of both her work and life.
Just like the daily web-weaving of a spider, much of Bourgeois’ work features spiralling threads, tangled bulging bodies, twisting fibres and erratic stitching. As a daughter of tapestry repairers, this also influenced her craft and the dynamic, biomorphic forms in her work show her expressions towards the chaotic dance of life. You only have to read a few interviews with the artist to understand her work was informed by her struggles – touching on ideas around the human body, male and female energies, sex and birth.
Despite marrying American art historian Robert Goldwater and moving from Paris to New York in the 1930s, it was the memories and experiences of childhood that primarily informed her work. Bourgeois claimed that “everything I do is inspired by my early life”, but her childhood was by most accounts an unstable one. Growing up she experienced her mother’s prolonged suffering from Spanish Influenza, as well as dealing with her declining mental health, her father’s infidelity and the shame that surrounded it. His affair with Bourgeois’ young tutor, Sadie, whose neck, the artist said many years later, she would “like to twist”, proved a particularly thorny memory at the heart of her work. And if her frank accounts weren’t enough, the vulnerable and overtly violent sexual iconography of her art would seem to suggest she never forgot nor forgave any of it.
In tow with her dynamic artistic temperament, Bourgeois clearly understood the malleability of pictorial space, shown in her ability to translate experience and emotion into a visual (and often visceral) logic. Women became houses (Femme Maison, 1946) and husbands became overtly sexual effeminate sculptures. Her work Nature Study (1984), features a many breasted headless sphinx and The Destruction of the Father (1974) shows various phallic, breast-like forms protruding around a central plinth. Attempting to describe her work in words is a task in itself, but Bourgeois was almost always entirely open about the narrative behind her pieces. The Destruction of the Father she explained, was based on a childhood fantasy, in which a father is dragged onto the family dinner table and “gobbled up”.
In his retrospective account of the artist’s life and work, a close friend of Bourgeois, Robert Storr remarked how, in her best work, the primary symbolism lies not in interpretation but in the viewer’s direct experience of “a phenomenological ambush set by the artist herself”. And he’s not wrong. It is the impression, rather than the interpretation of her work that makes it so powerful. The stuffed, lifeless bodies hanging from the ceiling, a red and pink tapestry of spattered hands and angry letters, all on show at her Tate Modern retrospective exhibition several years ago, are imprinted in my memory with lingering unease. The need to explain or analyse their subtleties seems irrelevant, given the main purpose of her work was to release strong emotion and any visceral reaction from the viewer was simply a bi-product.
As I alluded to earlier, one of the most obvious themes and clear metaphors behind her work was that of the spider. Arachnid forms first appeared in small etchings in 1947, which she later anthropomorphised with human faces, hands and feet. Indeed, one of Bourgeois’ most famous sculptures is that of a giant spider ambiguously titled Maman, which was the largest of a series of steel and marble spider sculptures that Bourgeois created in the second half of the 1990s. On first appearance, these eerie towering sculptures would appear to be an expression of profound anxiety or perhaps a manifestation of something hostile. However, for Bourgeois, the spider was the embodiment of the protective wisdom and ingenuity of her mother. In 1995, Bourgeois published this poem, Ode to my Mother (‘Ode à ma mère’):
"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 useful as an araignee. 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.
Why do you?
My reasons belong exclusively to me.
The treatment of Fear."
Whilst the industrious nature of the spider and their oppressive scale could symbolise her mother’s power, confined to the domestic sphere, it could also be perceived that these spiders are metaphors for Bourgeois’ own creative process. Much like a spider weaves at night, Bourgeois was a lifelong insomniac and would often work late into the night, sketching ideas or archiving her memories into diaries. In an interview with Jerry Gorovoy, Bourgeois’s assistant likened the creature to the artist in the way that it “built its own architecture out of its body”. Much like a spider weaves its forms from the inside out, her work was an extension of herself. Bourgeois herself once commented: "What is a drawing? It is a secretion, like a thread in a spider’s web”.
Stylistically it is clear that her experiences in tapestry work and her affiliation with spiders wove its way into every piece of work. As with Bourgeois’ complicated view on life, her art was no different and she often claimed that in her mind, art and life were one, stating that: “Art is not about art. Art is about life, and that sums it up”. Just like a spider creates, lives and sleeps in its web, Bourgeois’ domesticity was her art.
One of Bourgeois’ most famous mantras was “I do, I undo, I redo”. In the same way that a spider or seamstress works methodically, weaving, repairing and fixing, Bourgeois continually cast and recast the same subjects in different forms, refining and re-exploring different fragments of her psyche. In the late 50s and 60s, it is said that Bourgeois underwent psychoanalysis and so it is possible to think of the repetitions within her art as a form of self-analysis, through which she would cast out a web into her past and hope that it might entangle new memories or insights.
Observing her work, it is clear that art was more than just a passion for Bourgeois. It was the means to her existence and her way of making sense of the world. Jerry Gorovoy, the artist’s longtime assistant, once described that “she had this pathological need to record”. This need for emotion to manifest in physical form was made clear in her reflections of early childhood:
“At the dinner table when I was very little, I would hear people bickering – the father saying something, the mother choosing to defend herself. To escape the bickering, I started modelling the soft bread with my fingers. With the dough of the French bread – sometimes it was still warm – I would make little figures. And I would line them up on the table and this was really my first sculpture” – Louise Bourgeois
If I can take anything from Bourgeois, other than her magical unruly brain, it is her arachnid approach to art and life, as she untangled and teased out the threads of her own inner world and majestically wove them into strange, instinctual forms. Whilst not suggesting one ought to scuttle around wearing black or stay up late into the night, next time you find yourself upset or frustrated, why not be a bit more Bourgeois about it all. Turn it inside out, spin it on its head. Reclaim the joy and release that can be found in the simple act of knotting, scribbling and scrunching. Just like the spider purges its silk and weaves it into a beautiful web, excrete some of your own internal chaos in whatever mad forms that arise, for as Louise Bourgeois famously said...
...and who knows, you might be able to sell it one day.
Original article posted on The Qwerk