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.
The image on this print and those on the surrounding three (Tate P78575-6 and P78578) were made using the unusual technique of white ground aquatint, composed of linseed oil, titanium pigment and soap powder, mixed into a paste with water. This process allows subtle gradations of tone with only one dip in acid, as the paste is applied in a varying consistency to allow some areas to bite more quickly than others. The suite of four images draws parallels between the structure of a mulberry leaf and that of a human brain using a strongly contrasting texture of dark patches traversed by watery rivulets contained within outlines that refer to the two organic forms. The image on the first print in this group, P78575, shows the form of a brain trailing downwards into the suggestion of a spinal column. That on the last print, P78578, is unambiguously a mulberry leaf. The forms depicted on this print, and on the preceding print P78576, are based on drawings Penone made of a skull fragment and recall the structure of an earlier work, Paesaggio del Cervello (Brain Landscape) 1990, which makes visible similarities between the texture of brain tissue and marble. The dark texture on P78576 and P78577 is more strongly fissured than that in P78575 and P78578 and is thus more suggestive of a landscape.
The text introducing this print is a poetic description of channels of ideas within the brain. Dating from 1988, it evokes a sculptural project The Vertebrae Tree (L’Albero delle Vertebre) 1996, in which Penone inverted a skull and expanded it in layers recalling the annual rings of a tree. A narrow tree trunk in the position of a spinal column, descends into the base of the skull.
We lower ourselves into the brain via the vertical pothole
which takes us to various depths ...
The richer the brain is in sediments of memory,
the more tunnels there are,
the more halts,
the more active quarries.
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