View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
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.
This print depicts a pile of planks of wood, the texture of their annual rings forming striations and knots carefully delineated. On the top is a plank from which layers have been stripped back to reveal the form of the young sapling that grew into a mature tree before being cut down and planed into planks. The image is based on a much earlier drawing, The Trees from Planks (Gli Alberi dei Travi) 1970, which shows the same scene viewed from a lower perspective. Both images refer to a process Penone has used repeatedly to make such sculptures as Tree of 12 Metres 1980-2 (Tate T05557), in which he releases the natural shape of a sapling constituting the core inside an older trunk. For the artist, this relates to the memory of the tree. On the page preceding the print Penone describes the reciprocal memory of man and tree in a section of text dating from 1984:
How does the forest remember
the strong odor of the presence of the man
on the damp moss, the slow flow
of blood in his feet, in his outstretched arm
swathed in grass torn from the soil?
I once again traverse the forest’s memory, part of the forest’s real memory
The exercise of memory, the sightless hand running over
the bark of the tree, the plasticity of the forest as it grows.
The artist’s tactile connection with the tree and its memory or origins hinted at in these words is described visually in the first image of Penone’s suite, P78751, in which he placed his fingerprint on the heart of a section of annual growth rings of a trunk. In the following page of text and the subsequent image, P78752, Penone relates vegetable growth to human sight.
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