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 shows a young tree growing from the earth. On closer viewing the contours of the landscape reveal themselves to be the curves of a human face seen in profile: the sapling is growing from the eye of a giant body, its roots corresponding to the fine blood vessels of an eyeball. The trunk and foliage of the tree are the same colour and flat texture as the human flesh below. Its branches and roots are black lines connected by a line running up the tree trunk. This image is based on an earlier watercolour entitled Trappole di Luce (Traps of Light) 1993, which is part of a group of works of the same name. The project includes an installation in which a section of crystal derived from a branch stands on a photograph of the artist’s eye surrounded by sections of real branches. In an image belonging to a related group of works, Suagardo Vegetale (Vegetable Look) 1991, photographs of the upper part of the artist’s face hang on a trees, suspended by narrow braches which pierce his eyes.
In the text preceding this image, Penone wrote:
The stretching of a branch through space in search of light
has the same structure as a glance.
The tree is an enormous eye made up of many smaller eyes.
Each of its leaves is an eye made up of many smaller eyes.
Each of its leaves is an eye that catches as much light as possible ...
In every eye, there is an overturned tree
that presses its leaves against the retina.
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