Over a career that spanned some seven decades, Louise Bourgeois created a rich and ever-changing body of work that intersected with some of the leading avant-garde movements of the 20th century, including Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Post-Minimalism, while remaining steadfast to her own singular creative vision. While Bourgeois's oeuvre includes painting, drawing, printmaking, and performance, she is best known for her sculptures, which range in scale from the intimate to the monumental and employ a diverse array of mediums, including wood, bronze, latex, marble, and fabric. Her work is at once deeply personal—with frequent references to painful childhood memories of an unfaithful father and a loving but complicit mother—and universal, confronting the bittersweet ordeal of being human.
Almost 9 meters tall, Maman is one of the most ambitious of a series of sculptures by Bourgeois that take as their subject the spider, a motif that first appeared in several of the artist's drawings in the 1940s and came to assume a central place in her work during the 1990s. Intended as a tribute to her mother, who was a weaver, Bourgeois's spiders are highly contradictory as emblems of maternity: they suggest both protector and predator—the silk of a spider is used both to construct cocoons and to bind prey—and embody both strength and fragility. Such ambiguities are powerfully figured in the mammoth Maman, which hovers ominously on legs like Gothic arches that act at once as a cage and as a protective lair to a sac full of eggs perilously attached to her undercarriage. The spider provokes awe and fear, yet her massive height, improbably balanced on slender legs, conveys an almost poignant vulnerability.