Louise Bourgeois's Maman in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by IQRemix, via Flickr.
This time of year comes with a certain existential dread for arachnophobes like myself. Spiders—with their menacing, furry bodies and outrageous quantity of beady eyes—are currently decorating practically every other house in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Their grotesque, spindly legs claw across brownstones, ready to cocoon you in their nets.
Fittingly for the holiday of disguises, spiders are the original contortionists. They’re capable of contracting their legs and bodies so as to pass as unseemly specks on a wall, or transforming themselves into parachutes in order to cascade down onto your head. As Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker wrote in what might be the seminal piece on arachnophobia, spiders are “mobile nightmare units put on the Earth to eat flies and frighten people by scuttling out from under the TV stand and lolloping crazily toward you.”
Some might say, though, that spiders get a bad rap. Louise Bourgeois certainly must have thought so. For a long time, I assumed that her towering spider sculptures—the most famous of which is nightmarishly titled Maman (1999) (mom, in French)—was the expression of profound anxiety, the manifestation of something hostile, invasive, and omnipotent. How could her bronze arachnid, Crouching Spider (2003), which lies in wait in an upstairs room at Dia Art Foundation’s Dia:Beacon, represent anything less than sheer horror?
But as it turns out, I was projecting. In fact, Bourgeois held spiders in great esteem. She saw them as ingenious, at once strong and delicate, and above all, as maternal protectors. The artist turned them into a representation of her own mother, Joséphine Fauriaux, who died when Bourgeois was just 21. The young Louise had assisted her mother in her work restoring tapestries. The arachnid, with its ability to produce threads of silk and weave complex webs, was the perfect metaphor for her parent. “The spider—why the spider?” Bourgeois wrote in her 1995 book of spider illustrations Ode à Ma Mère. “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.”
I checked in with spider specialist Rod Crawford, of Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, who has a whole website busting various myths about the maligned creature. Do spiders really have maternal instincts, I wondered? The answer is complicated. “Maternal care is as diverse as spiders themselves, with thousands of different variations depending on species,” he wrote via email. “Some spiders simply lay their eggs and go away. Even these, though, protect the eggs by enclosing them in a silk egg sac. Other spiders carry their eggs around with them or guard the young after they are hatched. At least one species even feeds her young.”
He was quick to offer the qualification, though, that spiders should not be perceived as mothers in any human sense. “All this is instinctive,” Crawford cautioned. “Spiders do not feel human emotions!”
But for Bourgeois, this subject was personal. Beginning in the late 1940s, she composed numerous drawings of spiders, later anthropomorphizing some of them with human faces or adding hands or feet to their wiry appendages. They surface as drypoint studies in her illustrated books, such as one titled Reproache: The Spider Is High (on Sugar), showing the cartoonish eight-legged fellow hanging upside down, looking rather startled with its mouth agape. She often depicted them in outsize form so that a giant spider is shown extended across the ceiling of an entire room, hovering from a silk thread. In one such image, a nude female figure stands beneath the matriarchal spider with outstretched arms, as though in ritualistic submission or exaltation. Like Bourgeois’s mother, perhaps, the spider here is all-powerful, but confined within a domestic space.
As with so much of Bourgeois’s work, her interest in spiders came from her early experiences. “We suffered from mosquitoes,” she once said, describing time spent in her family’s country home. “The only help was the spider. The spider is a friend.”
Bourgeois saw not only echoes of the archetypal mother in the eight-legged monster, but also a reflection of herself. In an interview, Bourgeois’s assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, likened the spider to the artist in the way that it “built its own architecture out of its body.” Like a spider’s silk, Bourgeois’s sculptures were an extension of herself, in her case a visceral and three-dimensional outpouring of her psychology. In her 1997 sculpture Spider (Cell), the creature stands guard over one of Bourgeois’s “cell” spaces, which contains objects that recall the artist’s childhood memories, including fabric scraps from antique tapestries and a pocketwatch that her grandfather once owned.
She would go on to make various iterations of her giant bronze spider sculptures, which have graced museums and public spaces all over the world, from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to London’s Tate Modern. Perched on gangly metal legs that end in points, viewers can walk beneath many of them and marvel (or recoil in horror) at their form.
For Bourgeois, spiders were to be revered—yes, even feared—but they were also to be seen not as your worst Halloween nightmare, but as innately good. Crawford agrees. He claims that a fear of spiders is something that’s learned, through media and through parents and friends, passed on through generations. Furthermore, he stresses that arachnids play a fundamental role in the ecological balance of things. “Spiders are the most abundant predators on land, and as such, the most important control on insect populations,” he wrote. “Without spiders, the ‘boom and bust’ population cycle found in African locusts would become characteristic of tens of thousands of insect species, and all life on land would change radically. We owe the status quo on this planet to spiders!”
Perhaps arachnophobes can learn a thing or two by seeing spiders through Bourgeois’s (and Crawford’s) eyes. But there is one thing we can all agree on: We draw the line at tarantulas. “The crafty spider, hiding and waiting, is wonderful to watch,” the artist once remarked. “I am not talking about the Black Spider that lives in the earth, I am talking about air spiders, tree spiders, or house spiders.”