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 has been created from an impression of the artist’s right thumb and forefinger bent together as though balancing a small object between the tips of both digits. The impression extends to the base of the thumb bone where it joins, near the wrist, to the rest of the hand. In the space between the thumb and forefinger, an additional finger or thumb print describes an imaginary small object held between finger and thumb. In the context of mulberry trees, its form suggests a berry. The imprints of the finger and thumb, nearly parallel, also evoke a bird’s beak, holding a berry or seed. The use of fingerprints in this image recalls the artist’s finger or thumb print laid at the centre of a section of annual tree rings on the first print in the portfolio, P78571. Similarly in the fourth print, P78574, fruit-like forms made from fingerprints are scattered over the foliage of a tree.
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. His sculpture Breath 5 1978 (Tate T03420) presents the imprint of the artist’s entire body, from his open mouth down to his feet, in the form of a large terracotta vessel. The text introducing print P78579 develops the theme of touch, which is central to the portfolio:
Fingerprint, sign, imposition, order, thaumaturgical gestures, projection of a thought, touch of a revelatory god.
A light, minimal movement, the gesture indicating a precise point in space.
An absolute, essential gesture that unites body and spirit, the physical space of touching with the metaphysical space of seeing, the finiteness of contact with the infinity of sight.
A gesture that implies power over men, over the spirit, over things, over implements.
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