Maman, the vast steel and marble sculpture in the form of a giant arachnid was created by the French artist Louise Bourgeois in 1999.
The sculpture, at thirty feet high and more than 30 feet wide, is one of the largest sculptures in the world. It was first unveiled as a commission of the artist for The Unilever Series, at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2000. However, several versions of the sculpture were cast in bronze, many of which were placed on permanent display at galleries around the globe, from Spain, to Canada and Korea.
Evoking the nightmarish and surreal, Bourgeois’ huge spider installation may be viewed in terms of Western arts ability to embody both wonder and terror. The 18th century Irish born philosopher Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime was one involving a complex physiological and emotional response, easily related to the feelings inspired by viewing Bourgeois’ own work. Burke stated:
“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
Maman, with its sinewy long legs and towering presence, in turn, certainly excites the imagination, as if a horror creeping from the pages a Gothic novel or a malevolent invader from an apocalyptic B-movie.
Despite an arachnophobic response to the artwork however, Bourgeois’ own philosophy regarding her work is both convoluted and surprisingly sensitive. The spider first appeared as a motif in the artist’s work in 1947 in a small drawing and has continued to be part of Bourgeois’ themes throughout her long artistic career. ‘Maman’ is the French word for mother and the sculpture itself is representative of Bourgeois’ own maternal parent.
The artist’s mother died when Bourgeois was a young woman, leaving a deep emotional scar. Her grief was so profound in fact, that a few days after her mother’s death the artist tried to drown herself. The trauma which began in her childhood, including her father’s infidelity which caused much instability within the family, was compounded by her loss. Rather than a symbol of horror, the spider is representative of a protective presence for Bourgeois therefore. Her mother worked with tapestries and hence the connection of the spider spinner and weaver with maternal womanhood. Maman, while carefully storing her marble eggs, is not only a fierce female protector but also a repairer, both literally and metaphorically a mender of the emotions of fear, loss and abandonment. Her scale, in turn, is representative of her importance, while the structure itself is one of strength combined with a certain vulnerability.
“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.”
“…..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…” Louise Bourgeois.
Maman, the mother as a sculptural embodiment of fear, vulnerability, female protection and awesome power is an iconic and complexly beautiful artwork from a prolific and hugely gifted artist.