Catalogue entry

T03420 Breath 5 1978

Terracotta 61 × 32 3/4 × 33 (1540 × 830 × 840)
Not inscribed
Purchased from Galerie Durand-Dessert, Paris (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: Galerie Durand-Dessert, Paris, June–August 1979 (no catalogue); Giuseppe Penone, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, February–March 1980 (15, as ‘Soffio 5’, repr. in col.); Giuseppe Penone, Gewad, Ghent, 1980 (no catalogue); Identité Italienne, l'Art en Italie depuis 1959, Museé National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, June–September 1981 (repr. p.618); Biennale de la Critique, Palais des Beaux Arts, Charleroi, December 1981–January 1982 and International Cultureel Centrum, Antwerp, January–February 1982 (catalogue not numbered); New Art at the Tate Gallery, Tate Gallery, September–October 1983 (repr. p.18); Falls the Shadow: Recent British and European Art, Hayward Gallery, April–June 1986 (not listed)
Lit: Germano Celant, ‘Die archetypischen Verbindungen bei Giuseppe Penone’, Giuseppe Penone, exhibition catalogue, Museum Folkwang, Essen, 1978, pp.29–62; Identité Italienne, l'Art en Italie depuis 1959, exhibition catalogue, Museé National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1981, pp.582, 585 and 591; Marlies Gruterich, ‘Italienische Identität oder reiche arme Kunst’, Kunst-Bulletin des Schweizerischen Kunstvereins, February 1982, pp.2–9, repr. p.8; Giuseppe Penone, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum, Lucerne, 1977, p.47; Jessica Bradley, ‘The Poetics of Representation’, Giuseppe Penone, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1983, pp.10–15, repr. in col. on cover; Jessica Bradley, ‘La Vision poétique de Giuseppe Penone’, Giuseppe Penone, exhibition catalogue, ARC, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 1984, pp.9–14, repr. p.43
Also repr: Art 11, '80, Die internationale Kunstmesse Basel, June 1980, p.66; An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art,New York, 1984, p.247

‘Breath 5’ is one of six similar terracottas of 1978, the first three made in the artist's studio in Turin, and the others at the pottery at Castellamonte, where they were all fired.

These sculptures, titled in Italian ‘Soffio’, are now in these collections:

1. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

2. FER Collection, West Germany

3. Private collection, Italy

4. Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, Cologne

5. Tate Gallery

6. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Their first publication was the reproduction of two of them in the catalogue of the artist's exhibition at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, of September–October 1978. This catalogue is also illustrated with Penone's studies of breath in two types of drawing, one in the style of Leonardo da Vinci showing currents of air blown from the mouth like waves, and another showing studies of human lips, pursed as if to blow. These give a key to the subject of this sculpture.

The clay is modelled as if it were the imagined shape of a breath of air, shortly after being exhaled from the artist's mouth, when the first part of it has just reached the ground. The frontispiece of the Essen catalogue is a drawing by Penone of a man blowing into a funnel, with the pattern of air breaking over the surface in front of him like waves. The top of the Tate Gallery's sculpture represents the cavity of the funnel into which he is blowing, and in the centre of this uppermost section is the shape of the interior of his mouth, squeezed into the clay, and so making positive the shape of the air coming from his throat. Photographs in the catalogue show Penone taking a bronze cast of such a shape out of his mouth, to demonstrate what it represents. The impression along the side of the clay is of the artist's clothed body, as he leans forward to blow down to the ground. The Tate Gallery's version has the impression only of one leg, wearing jeans, as if he leaned forward on that one with the other stretched behind. The lumps at the edge of this impression represent billows of air rebounding from his body.

An explanation by the artist in the Essen catalogue enlarged the association of his clay breath with that of a god in the act of creation:

according to a myth the creator of man was the god Khnum, who is represented as a potter shaping man on his wheel. In another myth, Athena breathes life into men whom Prometheus had made from clay and water (translated from the French in Identité Italienne, l'Art en Italie depuis 1959, 1981, p.585).


Penone has often made works concerned with the direct impression of the human onto nature. Before making the ‘Breaths’ he was interested in an ancient terracotta vase, comparable to them both in the material used and in that he was fascinated by the fingerprints of the potter, apparently noticeable on the surface, which he enlarged as a relief. The clay of the ‘Breaths’ similarly receives the touch of the artist. The marks of the potter Penone compared also to the creation of man by God, since the creator's touch must leave his imprints on the surface of what he creates:

The hand that modelled man has left upon him the prints filled by water and air as our movements vary. Indeed, air in filling the prints re-creates the maker's skin; the skin of whoever touches the man tends to acquire at that point the shape of the maker's skin. With the negative of his skin impression one can make an infinite number of positives, just as many positives as there will be contacts with the surface of the future. (Giuseppe Penone, Kunstmuseum, Lucerne, 1977, p.78).


The breath of the artist was exhibited more directly in 1979, in the form of leaves on the gallery floor which he had blown into various shapes (Giuseppe Penone, ARC, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, July–September 1983, repr. 17, ‘Souffle de feuilles’).


Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986