Breath 5 1978 is a large clay sculpture by the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone. Over one and a half metres tall, it stands upright and has a vase-like shape that is bulbous at the bottom and narrows towards the top. The work, which has a rough texture all over, consists of three approximately equal sections of brown terracotta clay, the joins between which are clearly visible as horizontal lines running around the sculpture. Interrupting the curved form of the ‘vase’ on one side is a narrow vertical passage that features a rippled imprint and rounded clusters of clay at its edges. This passage expands at the neck of the sculpture, and at the very top of the work a small mouth-like cavity is visible.
This work was made by Penone in the kilns of the Castellamonte pottery near Turin in northern Italy in 1978. The passage running down one side of the work is an imprint of the artist’s clothed body. Penone first made a cast of himself, against which he stacked coils of clay. He then removed the cast, leaving behind an impression of his body, before moulding swirling forms of clay around its edges. A clay cast of the inside of his mouth was added to the top of the sculpture. The overall effect, as evoked by the work’s title, is to suggest that this sculpture is a ‘breath’ taken by the artist as he leans forward with billowing forms of air around him.
Penone began making photographs, drawings and texts exploring the notion of breath in 1977, and this sculpture can be particularly related to two drawings titled Study for ‘Breath of Clay’ 1978 (Tate T06772 and Tate T06773). Breath 5 is one of nine large vase-like works in clay subsequently completed by Penone in 1978, with the others including Breath 1 1978 (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Amsterdam) and Breath 6 1978 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris).
In a 2012 interview with the art historian Benjamin Buchloh, Penone discussed the ideas that underpinned his interest in breath:
When we breathe, there’s a volume of air that goes back into space, which is different from the volume of air around us, and that volume of air is a sculpture – a sculpture that lasts an instant, but is already a sculpture.
(Quoted in Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Interview with Giuseppe Penone’, in Busine 2012, p.16.)
Similarly, in 2015 the critic Thomas Marks discussed how the series of Breath sculptures evoke seemingly contradictory forces: ‘On the one hand, these pieces grant a monumental mass to what is momentary, but on the other they make visible a projection of the body into space that is a fundamental condition of being alive’ (Thomas Marks, ‘Force of Nature’, Apollo, vol.182, no.634, September 2015, p.62).
Born in 1947 in the village of Garessio in north-west Italy, Penone trained for a year at the Accademia di Belle Arte in Turin (1970). His early work was particularly concerned with sight, with the performance Reversing One’s Own Eyes 1970 involving the artist wearing reflective contact lenses as he struggled to orientate himself within natural surroundings. A recurring interest in vegetation and trees is evident in works such as the sculpture Tree of 12 Metres 1980–2 (Tate T05557), while Penone has returned to the notion of breath throughout his career. For instance, Breathing the Shadow, completed between 1999 and 2002, is a series of sculptures and installations that feature lungs and leaves cast in bronze and gold.
Penone’s work has commonly been associated with the development of arte povera, a term coined in 1967 by the critic and curator Germano Celant that relates to the work of Italian artists such as Alighiero e Boetti and Pino Pascali, who often employed everyday materials and conceptual gestures in resisting traditional artistic practices.
Giuseppe Penone, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1980, reproduced pp.18–19.
Germano Celant, Giuseppe Penone, Milan 1989, pp.23, 90–9, reproduced pp.94–5.
Laurent Busine (ed.), Giuseppe Penone, Brussels 2012, pp.46–93, reproduced pp.66–9.
Supported by Christie’s.