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 tree, the ends of its branches stretching to the edges of the chin collé paper. A spattering of fine dots covers its branches and twigs, extending from its edges on either side to the ground. The artist has overlaid the image with dark fingerprints, made from the tips of his fingers, which evoke fruits hanging in the tree, their dark colour suggesting the staining juice of mulberries. In the preceding text, originally dating from 1983, Penone wrote:
Everything takes place on the surface ... Traces of man in nature are welcomed ... traces of man in the city are another thing altogether. We recoil at the very thought of a footprint – it’s dirty, unacceptable, it must be removed, erased, to make room for new dirt, new sedimentation, evidence of life that will be removed in its own turn. The memory of material man is erased. Instead, we exalt the form, the material that testifies to man as a thought, preferably with ascetic materials. The possibility of accepted expression lies in this restricted space ... The dimension of a work of art will always be what our senses can measure.
The artist’s fingerprint is a recurring image in Footsteps on Mulberry Tree Tops. In the first print, it is laid onto the centre of a section of annual growth rings in a tree trunk, making a connection between the artist’s tactile relationship to nature and making marks with the memory of the tree. In a later print in the portfolio, P78579, a thumb or fingerprint laid between an impression of the artist’s thumb and forefinger evokes a berry being carefully held by that hand. 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 this image, the fingerprints scattered over the branching tree may be read as standing in for the footsteps referred to in the title of the portfolio. This structure of this image is returned to in the portfolio’s last print, P78581, in which the tree has mutated into something more closely resembling a human body.
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