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 relates the process of etching to 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 the impression of a feather. The artist has used the structure of the feather, inverted on the page, to describe the spine and back of an armless sitting figure that ambiguously evokes both human and bird. A round cap to the feather’s quill describes a head; a few spare lines indicate the bones of bent legs. The image reinforces the sense of connection between human, animal or bird and plant, already explored in the portfolio. It resembles an earlier work on paper, Schiena di Piuma (Feather Back) 1993, which depicts a similar figure, standing. Exceptionally, print P78580 is preceded by two text pages, both dated 1995. The first is titled ‘A Spinal Column’ and links a tree to an inverted human body:
Why is the black of the trunk which supports the green
of the leaves astonishing ...
I support myself against the vault with the nape of the neck and the back
to find a space which projects into
this dark room the landscape
of the surface where feet adhere
to the sky and the hair sinks to the ground.
The text on the following page returns to imagery evoked in earlier pages linking trees, bodies and eyes and related to Penone’s sculptural project The Vertebrae Tree (L’Albero delle Vertebre) 1996:
Eye, the armpit of the leaf.
Tree, an eye of the earth, a light trap, a leafy gaze ...
Crystal, the light of the earth which transports thoughts.
Marble, bones of the earth.
Calcium, a thought in stone.
Flute of vertebrae.
Back of glass.
The tree of vertebrae.
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