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.
This print depicts an ambiguous form, stylistically related to the tree pictured on the fourth print in the portfolio, P78574, and also the preceding image, P78580, uniting human, animal or bird and tree bodies. A strong contoured line, evoking a trunk or a spinal column, traverses the page vertically, tapering horizontally to support the raised structure above. At the top, to the left, clustered black dots form lungs which branch off from the main trunk or spine. Counterbalancing this, on the other side lower down, a large leaf extends outwards under a shower of splattered grey and black which, covering the print in a diagonal trajectory from top left to bottom right, recalls the dots surrounding the branches and on the ground below the tree depicted in print P78574. The leaf is invisibly joined to the trunk or spine by the veil of spattering; its position suggests a body part.
This image and the text introducing the print recall a sculpture, Respirare L’Ombra (Breathe the Shadow) 1997-9, in which an imprint of the artist’s body in a volume of leaves and the form of his lungs, also in leaves, are cast in bronze. In an earlier sculpture, Breath 5 1978 (Tate T03420), Penone made concrete his breath in the form of a large terracotta vessel containing the imprint of his entire body, from his open mouth down to his feet. The words preceding P78581 again evoke the interconnectedness of the outside environment with the inside of the body:
Breathe the shadow,
one’s own shadow;
the shadow of one’s own body extends inside,
to the viscera themselves ...
To breathe, to eat one’s own body, to unite the shadow
that is in our mouth with the shadow that falls slowly
over one’s eyes, to unite the shadow that we consume with the shadow
projected in space, that joins the other shadows
of the universe, shadows pierced by the stars.
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