Exhibition: Giuseppe Penone. Retrospective
Barcelona, 30 September 2004
Can potatoes be anthropomorphic? Can steam turn itself into puffs of air, concentric water circles into digital prints and trees into vegetable spines? The work of Giuseppe Penone (Garessio, Italy, 1947) is poetic, intimate and sensual, but also disturbing, paradoxical and monstrous. Incisions, pressure and deformations subvert and alter nature, imposing human order on nature’s chaos. His work is based on a meticulous observation of nature, inviting us to reflect on man and the cosmos and his creative ability that is linked to the thought of Leonardo da Vinci. Associated with the Arte Povera movement at the beginning of his career, dubbed “he who lives in the forest” and also the creator of a new mythology, Penone is without a doubt one of the most original and innovative artists in the second half of the 20th century. It is not surprising that his work can be seen in the world’s major museums: New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, London’s Tate Modern, Basel’s Kunstalle and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Under the title Giuseppe Penone: Retrospective, CaixaForum presents for the first time in Spain a “tactile look” at his vast body of work, in an exhibition conceived and organised by Paris’ national modern art museum, the Pompidou Centre, and produced by the Fundación ”la Caixa”. The exhibition gathers together the widest selection of his work to ever have been collected throughout his artistic career, from his early pieces in the 1960s to his latest creations in 2004. It begins with his first experiments using the ground of forests, in search of a symbiosis between nature and the human body, and ends with a series of works made from cedar bark and acacia spines. Between these two moments, Penone’s personal world unfolds before the viewer in a passionate search for fate, memory, the passing of time and cultural representations.
The exhibition Giuseppe Penone. Retrospective, curated by Catherine Grenier, can be visited at the CaixaForum (Av. del Marquès de Comillas, 6-8, Barcelona) from 1 October 2004 to 16 January 2005.
Giuseppe Penone was born in 1947 in Garessio, a small town in Piemonte where he passed his childhood amongst cultivated fields and large forests. The son of farmers, his first memories comprise “mountains of chestnuts and rooms full of mushrooms brought in on the backs of mules in enormous sacks.” After studying accounting, he enrolled in a fine arts school. His first sculptures were figurative, but one day he decided to draw all the rocks in a river. “I had school friends who had a little more training than me and they made sculptures in the style of Giacometti. But something did not seem right. How could you sculpt like Giacometti if you hadn’t suffered through a war? If you had grown up in a totally different context?” Penone now recalls.
In search of a personal identity, the artist decided to return to his birthplace and, at just over 20 years of age, he began to work with materials he was more familiar with: tree trunks and bark, forests and stones, lakes and streams. Over the years, and without having lost its apparent simplicity, Penone’s work has been enriched by new registers and nuances, as well as new materials and formats. Ranging from documented actions in texts and photographs to sculpture, lithography and drawings, the world of this Italian artist unfolds before the viewer in a highly coherent manner.
The exhibition Giuseppe Penone. Retrospective in the CaixaForum gathers together approximately 80 pieces (some in the format of large installation pieces) by one of the most outstanding artists in the modern international scene. From his first interventions in his birthplace woods (documented by photographs and texts) to his familiar “bark strippings” and “vegetable gestures”, the exhibition presents the diverse moments of an original as well as innovative artistic career.
Trees, stones, potatoes and nails
His work on the growth of trees culminates in the installation Ripetere il bosco (Repeat the Forest), which recreates a forest in the CaixaForum. This series of works was begun at the end of the 1960s and is based on the idea that a tree is a flexible material that can be modelled. In this way, Penone intervened in the process of young trees, thereby influencing their growth. As can be seen in Ho intrecciato tre alberi (I Have Woven Together Three Trees), in which three trees are merged into one unique shape through the mediation of the artist, or L’albero ricorderà il contatto (The Tree Will Remember Contact), in which the artist surrounded a tree trunk with a metal netting that drew the outline of his own body, thereby marking and deforming it. These works are testimony to an intrusion into the flow of things, of a hypothetical command of time. Whether he is interweaving or marking, the artist in this way imposes human order onto nature’s chaos.
The exhibition also presents some of his castings, such as Patate (Potato), a work that dates back to 1977. Penone made approximately 80 small casts reproducing different parts of his face. Then he dug the dirt around some potato plants and arranged the casts he had made in such a way that the small tubers were trapped inside. He placed the casts underground in spring and in September, after digging them up, he discovered that some of the potatoes had acquired anthropomorphic forms, such as a nose, mouth and ear, etc. “Making a cast is a banal act, but creating an object when it is physically impossible to intervene in its creation provides it with a very different meaning,” says Penone. Patate shows the importance of describing the creative process of the artist’s different work. In this way, viewers are able to reach new levels of understanding.
Similarly, some of his most radical actions are also on display, such as 1981’s Essere fiume (To Be a River), in which the artist, by identifying himself with a river, reproduces to perfection the natural erosion of stone, as well as the series Unghie (Nails), 1987-94, comprising a series of glass pieces obtained by the process of thermoformation at Marseille’s International Research Centre for Glass and Visual Arts (CIRVA), which culminated in an installation made up of a tapestry of nails set into plaster. His work using marble blocks is present in the work Anatomie (Anatomies), 1993-2000, whose seams have been carved in such a way that they begin to resemble the veins in a human body.
Respirare l’ombra (Breathing Shadows), 2000, reproduces a space in the form of a natural crypt covered in bay leaves, where smell plays a very special role. This work is the result of Faggio di Otterlo (Otterlo Beech Tree), the first tree with which Penone started smelting leaves. “It was the end of summer so I put the leaves in the freezer so I could use them in winter. On defrosting them in order to smelt them in bronze, they emitted an incredible fragrance, which inspired me to start to work with bay leaves.” The exhibition culminates with his most recent work, made with cedar bark and acacia spines.
Through the mediation of the art critic Germano Celant and as a result of a chance event, Giuseppe Penone became a member of the Arte Povera movement. In 1969, the artist showed some of his photographs that documented some of his first forest interventions to the gallery owner Sperone, who decided to hang them near the entrance to his gallery in Turin. On seeing them, Celant decided to include them in a book he was working on about Arte Povera. “That is how I became a Povera artist,” recalls Penone, who soon distanced himself from the critical postulations and theories of colleagues like Giovanni Anselmo, Mario Merz and Luciano Fabro.
The work of Penone is based on the systematic and encyclopaedic observation of nature as a starting point for reflections about the cosmos, linked together by the thoughts of Lucretius and Virgil, as well as the paintings of Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci. His work aims to create a new mythology that defines a new relationship between human beings and their natural surroundings, beyond that of appearances. “Outside, a piece of work, disconnected from any historical context, begins to compete with extraordinary forms; the stones in a river or a tree are at times more interesting than a sculpture. That is why, when I am working outside, I try to place the work in symbiosis with its environment,” concludes Penone, who sees himself more as a revealer than a creator.
Giuseppe Penone. Retrospective
1 October 2004 to 16 January 2005
Opening: Thursday 30 September 2004
Tuesday to Sunday and public holidays from 10 am to 8 pm
Closed Monday, except public holidays
Av. Marquès de Comillas, 6-8
Each session: 2
Youth and +25 Cards: 1
Tel. (+34) 902 22 30 40