Illustrated companion

The art of Giuseppe Penone is often concerned with the revelation and realisation in the form of sculpture of natural processes which may normally be hidden or invisible. His 'Tree of 12 Metres' [Tate Gallery T05557], for example, was made by scraping away the wood from a complete felled tree which had already been roughly sawn into a beam, to reveal within it the original form of the tree at an earlier stage of its growth. 'Breath 5' represents the imagined shape of the artist's breath spreading out into the air around as he blows down towards the ground. The lumpy effect along the edges of the cleft in the sculpture represents the breath billowing around the artist's body and the cleft itself is the impression in negative of his jean-clad leg, made by him pressing himself against the wet clay with one leg forward. The object at the top of the sculpture is an impression taken in the clay of the interior of the artist's mouth.

For Penone the main significance of this work maybe as an image of the act of creation. related to various myths and to the common phrase 'to breathe life into' something. Commenting on the 'Breath' series of sculptures in 1978 Penone wrote '... 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. With its impression of both the artist's mouth and at least part of his body, the work represents both the act of creation and the man created. The idea for the 'Breath' sculptures came from a series of drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci of how he imagined the currents of air in a single breath. He based his design on patterns he had observed in running water. Penone's association of this work with the act of creation suggests that with its great thick-lipped cleft and bulbous form it may be seen as a gigantic image of female fertility, which the spectator almost seems invited to enter.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.289