When Tate Modern opened its doors to the public seven years ago, it launched the first of its sublime, large-scale exhibitions in the Turbine Hall by installing Louise Bourgeois' gigantic steel-and-marble spider. The work drew unprecedented crowds and was followed by a succession of colossal sculptures created by some of the world's leading artists for the gallery's Unilever Series.
Maman, which loomed over the central mezzanine of the Bankside gallery in 2000, is now back after being donated by the artist and an anonymous benefactor, the gallery announced yesterday.
The sculpture, which stands more than nine-metres high (30ft) and is one of Bourgeois's most iconic works, was so significant in her career that she went on to make six bronze casts of it, which are on permanent display at some of the world's greatest galleries.
A bronze version of Maman is currently on display outside Tate Modern as part of a major Bourgeois retrospective which runs until 20 January and which has proved to be one of the most popular exhibitions of sculpture at the Tate.
The original work is the largest spider sculpture ever made by Bourgeois and alludes to the strength of the mother with metaphors of spinning, weaving and protection, according to the artist, who has called it "an ode to my mother".
She said: "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 very friendly and eat mosquitoes. We know mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother."
Vicente Todoli, the director of Tate Modern, said: "To acquire Maman, one of Louise Bourgeois's best-known and seminal works, the largest of her spider sculptures, is a historic moment for Tate. This work significantly enhances our holdings of the work of one of the world's greatest living sculptors."
Bourgeois, now 96, was born in 1911 in Paris and moved to New York in 1938. Over the course of seven decades, her work has ranged in scale from small, obsessively worked objects to large installations. Some of her work is celebrated for being autobiographical.
As a housewife raising sons in the 1940s and 50s, Bourgeois made only a few small-scale pieces such as The Blind Leading the Blind, which looked back to the weavers' tools of her childhood, as well as portraits of a woman constrained by time and space. But years later, after acquiring a vast studio in Brooklyn which would be her workplace for 15 years, her sculptures shot up in scale and ambition, notably the Cell pieces – large cages holding relics of her life. Her latest sculptures are of heads and bodies clothed in fabrics from her father's shop, which she acquired after his death in 1951.