If you're visiting the National Gallery of Canada, it's difficult to miss the giant black spider stationed in the plaza like a sentry at the front door. Defying camera lenses and classification, the work stands as sculpture, installation and architecture, and is a bold introduction to the world-class holdings of the gallery it guards.
Visitors to the National Gallery aren't given a lot of information upon approaching the spider, but the title of the piece is a point of departure. While spiders are rarely associated with parenting, good art shakes you out of your default mode of thinking, enabling a new perspective and promoting discussion. Maman’s sculptor came to see the spider as the ultimate symbol of motherhood, in a very personal and very universal way.
Louise Bourgeois was born in France in 1911, her parents in the business of restoring antique tapestries. From an early age, Louise was designing patterns to replace sections of tapestry that had been damaged, and went on to study at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. She went on to explore primitivism, cubism, and surrealism, dedicating more and more of her time to the medium of sculpture. Among others, she studied under Fernand Léger, who painted The Mechanic, currently hanging inside the Gallery:
Looks nothing like Jason Statham.
Bourgeois relocated to the United States in 1938 and went on to become one of the most influential feminist artists all time. While she experienced success throughout her entire career, the emergence of feminism in the 1970’s brought about a heightened awareness of her role in an unfolding art history. Bourgeois is rather exceptional as an artist in that she was still producing influential and ground-breaking works at a point in her life and career in which other artists have usually slowed down and retired (she created Maman when she was in her late eighties).
Spiders have been an essential part of her work since 1947. For Bourgeois, the spider embodied nurturing, protection and weaving. She is quoted as having said, “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 a spider, 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.” When Bourgeois was eleven, she witnessed her father embark on a ten-year affair with her live-in English tutor, while her mother, suffering from Spanish Influenza, required constant attention. The resulting emotional damage of her young life directed and informed her art until the end of her days, causing her to explore themes of pain, violence, sexuality and suffering, with spiders often figuring prominently throughout.
Maman is menacing in appearance, but ever-protective of the 26 eggs in the sac that dangles from her body. Her twisted legs form a classic dome design, echoing other Ottawa landmarks, such as the Library of Parliament. It's easy to feel anxious or threatened when standing before her towering needle-like legs, but the mood changes once you're within the closed circle.
Ottawans and Canadians have come to love their giant spider, or at least appreciate its presence in the capital city. It impacts the walker's experience, inviting play and people-watching, and is an irrefutable eye-catcher for drivers and commuters. It stands in contrast to the straight-edged steel and stone that makes up the downtown. It’s become a staple of the tourist agenda, and likely stands as one of the most memorable aspects of a visit to Ottawa. But it’s hardly unique. In fact, there are a total of seven Mamans around the world.
The original Maman, made of stainless steel, made its first appearance in a 2000 exhibition held in the Tate Modern’s magnificent Turbine Hall. The exhibition was immensely successful, and this sculpture remains on loan to the Tate Modern:
However, six bronze casts were made of the sculpture, and have been purchased by art institutions around the world. So where are they now?
One bronze cast lives at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain:
Another can be found at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia:
There’s one just down the road (relatively speaking), at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri:
And there are smaller spider sculptures in museums and institutions by Bourgeois the world over.
The National Gallery paid 3.2 million dollars for its Maman back in 2005, which, at that time, represented more than a third of its annual acquisitions budget. Purchases on this scale always generate discussion over spending on the arts, but after living with Maman for six years, its impact on the permanent and visiting public is undeniable. Plus, having one of the six bronze casts of Maman keeps the National Gallery in good company. And isn’t it cool to think that there are six other places in the world where you can see a giant spider that will make you feel right at home?