This is one of a suite of eleven images and twelve pages of text from the portfolio entitled Footsteps on Mulberry Tree Tops. The portfolio was produced in an edition of twenty-one plus four artist’s proofs. Tate’s copy is the twentieth in the edition, the first half of which was published in book form, the second as loose leaves in a box. The images were printed from plates made in the artist’s studio in San Raffaele, Turin by the publisher Jacob Samuel in Santa Monica, California. They were all made using the chin collé technique and a combination of softground etching, spitbite, hardground etching, whiteground aquatint and drypoint.
Penone grew up in an Italian farming community and now lives and works in Turin. He
is a leading member of the Arte Povera group. His art is based on the relationship between man and nature. Footsteps on Mulberry Tree Tops depicts subjects that have been central in his oeuvre over a thirty-year period. The portfolio is introduced by lines of text written by the artist in 1999 in which he describes the process of etching as a kind of mirroring. His poetic image invokes a masculine burin which both creates and transforms into a feminine furrow or slit, ultimately relating the art of etching to Plato’s androgyne, ‘a round figure with four hands, two sets of sexual organs, two faces’. The following text pages, which are interleaved with the prints, are sections of writings dating between 1983 and 1999, some taking the form of prose, others verse. They elucidate the visual connections between the growth of plants and trees, with particular reference to the mulberry tree, and the human body. These connections are made in the earlier drawing Bifurcation (Set 1) 1986 (T05840), which emphasises the visual similarities between the bifurcations of branches from trunks and limbs from human bodies. With Footsteps on Mulberry Tree Tops Penone appears to refer, additionally, to the cultivation of mulberry trees, in southern Italy, which in years past sustained the production of silk.
The image on this print comprises tightly clustered uneven concentric rings which suggest the annual growth rings found in the trunk of a tree. The artist’s fingerprint lies at the heart of the rings, evoking a sense of pressure where the touch of the artist has given rise to ripples emanating outwards. The artist developed this image in a series of ten large-scale drawings entitled The Imprint of Drawing 2002-3 (collection the artist), using one of each of his fingers to make a print in the centre of a drawing. In an earlier drawing, Propagation 1995, concentric rings ripple out from the points of contact of the spread fingers of the artist’s right hand on the paper before being enclosed in a wider circle, again relating plant structure and growth to the human body.
The imprint or the trace of natural elements, including his own body, is central to Penone’s art, providing a mediation between nature and culture. In his project Svolgare la propria pelle (Unravelling One’s Own Skin) 1970-72, he installed imprints of the skin all over his body made on photosensitive glass plates in the frame of a window of the Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, for Documenta 5. The following image in the suite, P78572, shows several planks of wood, one of which has been peeled back to reveal the shape of the much younger sapling within the plank. This is a reference to a process Penone has used to make sculptures, in such works as Tree of 12 Metres 1980-2 (Tate T05557), which release the natural shape of a sapling constituting the core inside an older trunk. The imprint of the artist’s finger taking the place of the sapling’s core in this first image, P78571, constitutes a reciprocation between the artist’s touch and the imprint or essence of the tree. This is referred to in the words concluding the page between the first and second image: ‘The exercise of memory, the sightless hand running over/ the bark of the tree, the plasticity of the forest as it grows.’
Catherine de Zegher, Guiseppe Penone: The Imprint of Drawing, exhibition catalogue, Drawing Center, New York and Milton Keynes Gallery, 2004
Giuseppe Penone: Paesaggi del Cervello, exhibition catalogue, Ex Chiesa della Maddalena, Turin 2003