Louise Bourgeois - The Spider Lady

Best known for her remarkable series of outsized spider sculptures, Louise Bourgeois was inspired by her childhood experiences. Eve Middleton explores the life of the Franco-American artist born on Christmas day 100 years ago...

Born in Paris as the second of three children to Louis Bourgeois and his wife Jos�phine on 25 December 1911, Louise Bourgeois grew to be a conscientious child whose emotional sensitivity would fuel a long and prolific career that lasted into her 98th year. The relationship between her parents affected Bourgeois deeply when she was young. After the family moved from Paris to nearby Choisy-le-Roi where Louis opened a tapestry restoration business, the young Bourgeois developed an acute sensitivity towards the impact her father’s infidelity had on the family, and in particular on her mother. According to the artist, her “intelligent and enduring” mother, although aware of her husband’s behaviour, chose to turn a blind eye in order to protect the family unit. This seeming duplicity marked Bourgeois and the patterns of behaviour present in her formative years later revealed themselves in the provocative themes of loss, intimacy and sexuality in her work. Bourgeois chose to pursue a scientific route in further education and in 1932 began a mathematics degree at the Sorbonne. When her mother died in the same year, she eschewed the order and certainty provided by her studies and switched to an artistic path, including a spell at the �cole des Beaux-Arts where her teachers included Andr� Lhote and Fernand L�ger, who steered her towards sculpture. In 1938 she married the esteemed American art critic Robert Goldwater and, in the same year, they left Paris for New York where he resumed his job as professor of art at New York University. For many years her work was eclipsed by her marriage, and although she collaborated with artists from the printmaking group Atelier 17 and made friends including le Corbusier, Joan Miro and Yves Tanguy among others, her career failed to ignite. Her first one-woman sculpture show in the city’s Peridot Gallery in 1949 was well-received, but soon she was eclipsed by the success of more abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. A decade went by – Bourgeois showed nothing, despite the New York Museum of Modern Art buying one of her pieces. She turned her hand to teaching, continuing to create her art alongside time spent in the classroom, and by the 1980s her work was being rediscovered by a new generation of art lovers. In 1982 she was the subject of a retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Bourgeois began using the spider as a central emblem to her work. Giant sculptures were seen at the Tate Modern in London, as well as the Rockefeller Plaza in New York and further afield.

When asked why her spider Maman figures were so called, Bourgeois explained that they were in tribute to her mother: “She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver… spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother”. This deep-seated link to the family, and the subsequent effects that formative relationships had on her work, were forever to mark her craft. At the age of 98, two weeks before her death of a heart attack on 31 May 2010, her studio manager confirmed that she was still hard at work, continuing to channel her personal experience into works of art that continue to inspire both long-term and new admirers of her inimitable oeuvre.