Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child. Installation view, Gropius Bau (2022). © The Easton Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 photo: Luca Girardini

Acts of Reparation: Spiders, Needles and Cells in the Work of Louise Bourgeois

By Julienne Lorz

“My mother would sit out in the sun and
repair a tapestry or a petit point.
She really loved it. This sense of reparation
is very deep within me.” (1)

Louise Bourgeois grew up with tapestries. Her parents ran an antique tapestry gallery on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris while also managing a tapestry restoration atelier, first in the Parisian suburb of Choisy-le-Roi and later in the suburb of Antony. While her mother, Josephine Fauriaux Bourgeois, oversaw a team of tapestry workers and executed repairs in the suburbs, her father, Louis Bourgeois, sold the tapestries in the gallery in the city. (2) Since the tapestry restoration business was also the site of the family home, Louise Bourgeois witnessed these activities from an early age, and even became involved with them, helping to draw in missing elements – often the feet – on figures in damaged tapestries. (3)

That her childhood experiences in the family atelier, and moreover tapestries, fabrics and clothing, would one day become of major importance in Louise Bourgeois’s oeuvre was not immediately apparent when she started out as an artist in the late 1930s. There were however early hints at what was to come. For what is continually fascinating about Bourgeois’s artworks, over the course of seven decades of creation, is the way in which her motifs, ideas, forms and materials are revisited and reused, resulting in an extensive web of associations that relate not only to her biography, but also to broader, universal themes such as reparation and the complexity of human relationships. (4) The spider – a key motif in Bourgeois’s work – is a case in point. Bourgeois associates this creature – a tireless weaver and repairer – with her mother. In the text for Ode à Ma Mère (1995), a book of nine dry points, each depicting arachnids, Bourgeois writes poetically about her mother and their relationship, and why she thinks of her as a spider:

Louise Bourgeois, The Woven Child, installation view, Gropius Bau (2022)

© The Easton Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022. Photo: Luca Girardini

“The friend (l’araignee – pourquoi l’araignee?)
parce que my best friend was my mother and she
was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable,
dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as an araignee.” (5)

Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child, installation view, Gropius Bau (2022)

© The Easton Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022. Photo: Luca Girardini

Two ink and charcoal drawings from 1947 represent the earliest appearances of the spider in Bourgeois’s work. The drawings are figurative and expressive, even childlike. The spider appears in the Work of Louise Bourgeois again in an engraving made the following year, titled Araignée. This time its form is abstracted, exaggeratedly multi-legged and closely recalls the tall, spindly-legged buildings found in Bourgeois’s portfolio of nine engravings, He Disappeared into Complete Silence(1947). It is unclear whether, at this time, Bourgeois had made the connection between her mother and the spider. (6) After these early works, she does not return to the motif until 1994, when she began a series of steel sculptures, all titled Spider, as well as a multi-spider work titled The Nest, and several spider drawings. Additional sculptures and works on paper, such as the aforementioned Ode à Ma Mère, soon followed. In a 1998 interview, Bourgeois discussed the notion of her mother as a spider in the broader context of reparation: ‘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.’ (7) Bourgeois considered the act of reparation as symbolic of the psychological impulse to make amends. Her lead wall relief Repairs in the Sky (1999) points to the Sisyphean labour of attempting to repair the irreparable. In this work, a series of holes resembling eyes or mouths are partly stuffed with bits of blue cloth and jaggedly sewn with blue thread. In a smaller work, Mending (1989), an irregularly shaped hole in a yellow piece of paper is ‘repaired’ with a small piece of blue paper roughly stitched to it with black thread, forming a mismatched ring around the hole. Rather than fixing the tear seamlessly, this ‘repair’ frames and emphasises the damage in the paper. It is the exact opposite of the kind of ‘invisible mending’ practiced by tailors, dressmakers or restoration workshops, such as the one Bourgeois worked in as a child. In reference to a similarly constructed piece, Reparation (1989), Bourgeois wrote:

“Sewing implies repairing. There is a hole … you have to hide the damage … you have to hide the urge to do damage. There is a background of drama here … that something bad you have done must be undone. I sew … I do what I can. This goes back to my mother … she repaired things … she repaired everything. But there is a limit to that. When you mend things, it allows you to have your hands occupied, to look intensely, and never meet the eyes of other people. You can even be moral about it … you can appear to do things for others … you can say, ‘I am repairing your clothes’.” (8)

Sewing, for Bourgeois, goes beyond restoration on a material level. Instead, it is a metaphor for psychological repair and for exploring the complexity of human relationships. In her art-works, ‘repairs’ remain visible, becoming conspicuous scars. Sewing becomes a subtle form of communication and an attempt at atonement, where the gesture and labour involved can evoke complex feelings – among them guilt and gratitude – in another person. For Bourgeois, the act of reparation was a defence against fragmentation and disintegration, and sewing a way to ward off feelings of abandonment or separation – an attempt to keep things whole.

In Bourgeois’s work, symbolic associations with the needle – the tool most closely related to this psychological and practical task – are just as complex. As critic Paulo Herkenhoff has written, the needle is ‘an instrument of labour’ and ‘a therapeutic device, a cure for guilt and a tool for craft’. (9) Bourgeois’s amplification of the dimensions of a typically curved tapestry needle to human scale in her sculpture Needle (Fuseau) (1992) transforms this ordinary, everyday item into something closer to an object of worship, demanding – at the very least – our attention and respect. Despite the needle’s potentially nightmarish magnification, its sharp point is rendered harmless and its lower curvature stabilized by a metal stand. Positioned on either side of the needle are two large wooden spheres. When contemplating the work from the front, the sculpture loosely resembles Bourgeois’s phallic sculpture Fillette (Sweeter Version) (1968–89). Should the needle be read, then, as a needle-thin phallus standing precariously in the balance, a tribute to the craft of sewing or as an exaggerated emblem of repair and regeneration; a celebration of joining things together, rather than severing, cutting or breaking apart? Like many of Bourgeois’s works, it is resolutely ambiguous, not least in its relation to the body: the two wooden spheres might also be read as breasts, the flax the long, blonde hair of a woman. An ordinary-sized tapestry needle appears alongside other needles in Bourgeois’s small, hand-sized sculpture Femme Pieu (ca. 1970), which critic and curator Lucy Lippard describes as ‘a headless, armless, legless, helpless woman as a pincushion, lying on her back like an upended turtle’. (10) Crammed together in a brutal jumble with bits of thread, the needles – some stuck into the wax – are placed where the genitals might otherwise be in relation to two breast-like mounds. The needles here – far less serene than the enigmatic Needle (Fuseau) – suggest a visceral, even savage sexuality.

In appearance as well as thematically, Needle (Fuseau) has a close relationship with other works created the same year, including the free-standing In Respite (1992), a sculp-ture that features an elongated pink rubber form pierced by sewing needles. Black thread passes through these needles and connects to spindles and spools of different sizes; these sit at the ends of metal arms resembling the branches of a tree. Both Needle (Fuseau) and In Respite coincide with Bourgeois’s first large-scale spatial environments: the beginning of her Cell series. It is a time of heightened creativity for the artist, already in her eighties, and comes a decade after moving to a larger studio (a former sewing factory for blue jeans), and her retro-spective exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. (11) In Bourgeois’s Cells, various thematic threads, present in previous individual works, are reiterated within a confined space and explored with greater intensity. ‘When I began building the Cells’, the artist stated, ‘I wanted to create my own architecture, and not depend on the museum space, not have to adapt my scale to it. I wanted to constitute a real space which you could enter and walk around in.’ (12)

In one of these Cells, titled Spider (1997), several key motifs and concerns are brought together. The spider is architectural in scale: its body merges with the roof of the mesh cage of the Cell, while each of its skilfully articulated, sinewy steel legs extend beyond it. (13) In critic and theorist Mieke Bal’s words, the enormous legs become ‘a skeleton of the house’ and ‘having become architectural in size, they become architectural in essence: the body is a building.’ (14) In Spider, the arachnid’s body appears to be in possession of – or protecting – the Cell’s contents, the focus of which is a low empty chair covered with a worn piece of tapestry. Other tapestry fragments – some featuring body parts including feet, as well as a nude cherub figure with its genitals snipped out – partially cover the Cell walls, while an elongated black rubber sculpture hangs from an inside wall, acting as a pincushion for large needles and a safety pin holding coins and other lucky charms. Suspended from the ceiling are chains with various trinkets attached: a pocket watch, locket, medal and a bottle of Shalimar perfume. The spider’s body, filled with glass eggs, extends through the centre of the Cell’s roof. In Spider, Bourgeois conjures a dramatic scenario inflected with and enlivened by autobiographical references, specifically to her mother, the ‘useful spider’ and careful restorer of damaged tapestries.

In a later Cell, Lady in Waiting (2003), Bourgeois addresses similar themes, albeit with a different emphasis. Within this work’s claustrophobic structure, a tapestry-covered armchair sits squarely on a wooden floor. A doll-sized armless female figure made out of the same fabric as the chair sits facing the window. Emerging from her belly are needle-like spider’s legs made of steel, while from her mouth spew differently sized and coloured threads that hover almost invisibly in the air, reaching across to five spools neatly displayed in the front windowpane. (15) Thanks to the matching fabrics of both chair and figure this woman-spider is inconspicuous and camouflaged. ‘Lady-in-waiting’ is the term for a personal servant, a woman whose role it is to exist solely in the background. This solitary figure appears to be literally waiting, anticipating an event that will never happen, engrossed in weaving a web that will never be completed. In a diary entry written nearly a decade before Lady in Waiting was constructed, Bourgeois identifies herself with this ‘invincible’ spider – a ‘lady in waiting’, steely and resolute, actively biding her time:

“Lady in waiting is
almost invincible
she’s also peaceful
and isn’t going to
bother anyone – I am
happy to be, this breathing spider.” (16)

Over the course of her seven-decade-long career, Bourgeois continuously wove elements of her own biography – and her own physical and psychological experiences – into her artworks. These threads are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the late fabric works, which draw on and explore her relationship with her mother, her experience of vulnerability, of ageing, and her attitude to and intimacy with a wide range of materials, processes, tools and techniques. In these late works, as in her career more broadly, however, these biographical threads are always part of a richer tapestry. Even in her most intimate and personal works, she skilfully widens the focus, leaving space for multiple interpretations, individual to each beholder, resulting in a subtle and complex web that continues to surprise us to this day.

The essay is part of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition with scholarly essays edited by Ralph Rugoff, published by Hayward Gallery Publishing and Hatje Cantz. 

(1) Louise Bourgeois, ‘Self-Expression Is Sacred and Fatal: Statements’, in Christiane Meyer-Thoss, Louise Bourgeois: Designing for Free Fall (Zurich: Ammann Verlag, 1992), p. 187.
(2) Joséphine Fauriaux Bourgeois came from a tapestry family in Aubusson, as Louise Bourgeois recounts in ‘A Memoir: Louise Bourgeois and Patricia Beckert’ (late 1970s), in Louise Bourgeois, Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews 1923–1997, eds. Marie-Laure Bernadac and Hans Ulrich Obrist (London: Violette Editions, 1998), pp. 117–22.
(3) Ibid., pp. 118–19.
(4) Deborah Wye has noted that ‘[i]t is not at all unusual for Bourgeois to come across an artwork made fifty years before, recognize in it emotions that are still vivid, and resume working as if not a day had passed.’ Wye, ‘The Drama of the Self: Louise Bourgeois as Printmaker’, in Wye and Carol Smith, The Prints of Louise Bourgeois (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1994), p. 17.
(5) Text from Ode à Ma Mère, cited in Bourgeois 1998 (see note 2), pp. 326–29.
(6) Antje-Britt Mählmann, The Secret of the Spiders: Work Strategies and Viewer Effect in the Late Work of Louise Bourgeois (Weimar: VDG - Verlag und Datenbank für Geisteswissenschaften, 2018), p. 26.
(7) Louise Bourgeois in an interview with Cecilia Blomberg, 16 October 1998, and quoted in ‘Spider’, in Frances Morris, ed., Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat. Tate Modern (London, 2007), p. 272.
(8) Louise Bourgeois quoted in Wye and Smith 1994 (see note 4), p. 161. Reparation was later produced in lithograph, thread and collage as a limited edition for Parkett Publishers in 1991.
(9) Paulo Herkenhoff, ‘Needles’, in Morris 2007 (see note 7), p. 186.
(10) Lucy Lippard, ‘Femme Pieu c. 1970’, in Morris 2007, p. 142. Femme Pieu can be translated as Stake Woman.
(11) Jerry Gorovoy, ‘Kate Fowle and Jerry Gorovoy in Conversation’, in Julienne Lorz, ed., Louise Bourgeois: Structures of Existence; The Cells (Munich: Prestel, 2015), p. 40.
(12) Louise Bourgeois, ‘Red Rooms’, in Marie-Laure Bernadac, ed., Louise Bourgeois: Oeuvres récentes / Recent Works, exh. cat. Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux; Centro cultural de Belém; Malmö Konsthall; Serpentine Gallery (Bordeaux and London, 1997), p. 38.
(13) Only two years later Bourgeois created her most monumental spider, the thirty- foot Maman (1999). See Mählmann 2018 (see note 6) for a detailed analysis of the spider in Bourgeois’s oeuvre.
(14) Mieke Bal, ‘Narrative Inside Out: Louise Bourgeois’s “Spider” as Theoretical Object’, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 22, no. 2 (1999), p. 104.
(15) For Bourgeois, these five threads symbolised the fact that she grew up within a family of five and formed her own family of five with her husband Robert Goldwater. My thanks to The Easton Foundation for this insight.
(16) Louise Bourgeois, diary entry, February 1994 (‘February Memos’).