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Giuseppe Penone


Giuseppe Penone

Penone's The Hidden Life Within

Giuseppe Penone (born 3 April 1947) is an Italian artist. Penone started working professionally in 1968 in the Garessio forest, near where he was born. He is the younger member of the Italian movement named "Arte Povera", this term has been coined by Germano Celant. Penone's work is concerned with establishing a contact between man and nature. He still actively produces new work.


  • Works 1
    • Earliest works 1.1
    • 1970s 1.2
    • 1980s 1.3
    • 1990s onwards 1.4
    • Penone in Arte Povera 1.5
  • Honours and awards 2
  • Bibliography 3
  • References 4


His sculptures, installations and drawings have always been distinguished by his radical choice of unconventional materials and use of processes that are an integral part of his work. Each work reaches completion through the assimilation of its actions to those of the natural elements and grows out of reflection that adhere closely to the concrete, visual, tactile and olfactory qualities of the materials, explored by the artistic ways that bring out their magical and fantastic groundwork.

The tree, a living organism, in appearance so closely resembling the human figure, is a central element in Penone's work. Many of the procedures he adopts in the creation of his works are based on the act of relating different entities and forces, hence on traces or memories of the contacts between them.

In Penone's work, above all its more recent developments, the opposed concepts of identità ("identity") and identicità ("analogy") are assimilated according to a logic that is not extraneous to the Italian language, as in other European languages in which the two cognate words share the same etymon. The assimilation is shown in the process by which the artist emphasizes similar behaviors that belong to different entities by fossilizing them in a form. As a result, images are created that are capable of making the thoughts and imagination of those who observe them flow from one material to another, from one subject to another, from an animal body to a vegetable or mineral body.

Earliest works

In his first exhibition at the age of 21, a one-man show at the Deposito d'Arte Presente in Turin in 1968, he presented works made out of lead, iron, wax, pitch, wood, plaster and burlap. Two of them involved the natural action of the elements: Scala d'acqua ("Water Ladder"), in which molten pitch was sculpted with a jet of water, and Corda, pioggia, zinco. Corda, pioggia, sole ("Rope, Rain, Sun"), a structure in movement with its form was altered by weathering.

In December 1968 he performed a series of acts in a wood near his home, the region of the Maritime Alps. In this work, titled Alpi Marittime, Penone intervened in the growth processes of a tree, whose form retained the memory of his gesture over time. One of his acts involved the flow of the waters in a stream, the vital sap which gives strength to the tree and on which the artist draws constantly in his work, a vehicle of growth and proliferation. He interlaced the stems of three saplings in Ho intrecciato tre alberi ("I Have Interwoven Three Trees") and uses nails to leave the imprint of his hand on the trunk of a tree and then affixed twenty-two pieces of lead to it, the number of his years, joining them up with zinc and copper wire: Albero/filo di zinco/rame ("Tree/Wire of Zinc/Copper). He enclosed the top of a tree in a net burdened by the weight of plants: Crescendo innalzerà la rete ("Growing It Will Raise The Net). He pressed his body to a tree and marked on the trunk the points of contact with barbed wire: L'albero ricorderà il contatto ("The Tree Will Remember the Contact").

He inserted a steel cast of his hand in a tree trunk: Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto ("It Will Continue to Grow Except at that Point"). He immersed in a stream a tub of cement with the dimensions of his body on which he had left the imprints of his hands, feet and face: La mia altezza, la lunghezza delle mie braccia, il mio spessore in un ruscello ("My Height, the Length of My Arms, My Breadth in a Stream").

His works were published in the Germano Celant's Arte Povera in 1969 in a form of a sort of diary correlated with drawing, photographs and brief notes. Six black-and-white photos, each of which documents a different action, were exhibited at a group exhibition in the gallery of Gian Enzo Sperone in Turin in May of the same year.

Other works include: Pane alfabeto ("Bread Alphabet"), a large loaf of bread pecked by birds and thereby revealing the metal letters it contains; Scrive/legge/ricorda (Writes/Reads/Remembers), a steel wedge with the alphabet scored on it embedded in the trunk of a tree; Gli anni dell'albero più uno ("The Years of the Tree Plus One"); a bough covered with wax with, imprinted on it, the bark of the tree on one side and on the other the gestures of the artist; Alberi e pietre, I rami dell'albero più uno, Zona d'ombra ("Trees and Stones, The Boughs of the Tree Plus One, Shadow Zone") were all created between 1969 and 1971 in the forest of Garessio, where the artist assimilated his work to the behavior of other living things, for the most part, trees.

In 1969, he produced the work titled Il suo essere nel ventiduesimo anno di età in un'ora fantastica("His Being in the Twenty-Second Year of his Age in a Fantastic Hour"), which he created by uncovering within a wooden beam the tree as it was when it was his own age. The trunk and branches are only partially uncovered and reveal their natural origin while remaining partly incorporated in the geometrical structure of the beam. "Rise trees of the wood, of the forest" wrote the artist in a text of 1979, "rise trees of the orchards, of the avenues, of the gardens, of the parks, rise from the wood that you have formed, take us back to the memory of your lives, tell us about the events, the seasons, the contacts of your existence. Take us back to the woodland, the darkness, the shadow, the scent of the undergrowth, the wonder of the cathedral that is born in the wood land".


During Aktionsraum 1 in Munich, 1970, Penone publicly carved Albero di dodici metri: a 12-meter tree hewn from a beam transported into the exhibition venue with the help of other artists taking part. Another Albero di dodici metri, dating from 1980, is hewn out of a beam to its full height, with the exception of a part at the top of the plant that used to form the base of the sculpture. It was exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of New York in 1982 and at the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Nantes in 1986. Other examples of trees, carved in different ways out of beams, make up the various installations titled Ripetere il bosco ("Repeating the Forest") at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1980 and at the Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea in 1991. In his impressive sculpture Cedro di Versailles ("Cedar of Versailles") of 2004, the profile of the young tree is hewn in the trunk of an ancient cedar uprooted by the storm that wrought havoc in the Forest of Versailles in December 1999.

In Rovesciare i propri occhi ("Turning One's Eyes Inside Out"), an action of 1970, Penone wears mirror-finish contact lenses that interrupt the channel of visual information between the individual and his surroundings, entrusting to photography the possibility of seeing in the future the images that the eye should have collected. "The work of the poet," Penone wrote, "is to reflect like a mirror the visions that his sensibility has given him, to produce the sights, the images necessary to collective imaginings."

During this period, he carried out his work on traces and imprints obtained using various procedures, all based on contact. They range from the technique of the mold or cast to different actions based on exerting pressure. In Svolgere la propria pelle ("Developing One's Own Skin"), a 1970 artwork published the following year in the form of an artist's book, Penone recorded the boundary of his body with hundreds of photos taken by superimposing a sheet of glass on his skin. "The animal image, the imprint is involuntary culture. It has the intelligence of the material, a universal intelligence, an intelligence of the flesh of the material of man. The imprint of the whole epidermis of one's body, a leap into the air, a plunge into water, the body covered with earth. Developing one's skin against the air, water, earth, rock, walls, trees, dogs, handrails, windows, roads, hair, hats, handies, wings, doors, seats, stairs, clothes, books, eyes, sheep, mushrooms, grass, skin ... " wrote the artist, reflecting on the quantity of voluntary and involuntary signs that bodies disseminate and spread on different things: the neon lights in a gallery, the panes of glass in a window at the Kunsthalle in Kassel at "Documenta 5" in 1972, on a stone in Svolgere la propria pelle/pietra ("Developing One's Own Skin/Stone") of 1971, or on the fingers in Svolgere la propria pelle/dita ("Developing One's Own Skin/Finger") of the same year.

The artist's purpose is to produce the work starting from an image as automatic and unconscious as a fingerprint, and to make it conscious and voluntary through the irreplaceable action of drawing, which enlarges it and retraces it in all its art. Other examples are the cycles titled Pressione ("Pressure") begun in 1974 and Palpebre ("Eyelids") in 1975. The procedure adopted by the artist is articulated in different phases: making strips of adhesive tape adhere to his skin sprinkled with black, or pressure imprinting his own body or spreading a fine layer of resin on his eyelids and then photographing the image derived from the contact, projecting it enlarged onto paper or other surfaces, where it is transcribed in charcoal or pencil and with another act of contact, which the artist exerts by drawing. In some cases the work, which is the projection of the skin of an individual onto what is outside his body, takes on the dimension of an interior and the imprints traced on the walls of the space envelop the viewer, as in the installations he made for the exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum of Lucerne (1977), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1981), The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (1983), or the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris (1984).

The connection between the act of contact and the process of memory became more prominent in Vaso ("Vase") of 1975. This consisted of a terracotta vase from an archeological excavation and an expansion, in four bronze sculptures, of the fingerprints left on it by the potter. Here, for the first time, Penone worked in bronze. In his solo exhibition at the Folkwang Museum of Essen in 1978, Penone exhibited the first of his series of works in terracotta titled Soffio ("Breath"). It reproduced the volume of the breath against his body, materialized in clay and in the form of a vase, whose mouth is created by a cast of the inside of his mouth. The choice of clay is significant. In 1979, he also produced Soffio di foglie ("Breath of Leaves"), in which the volume of the breath and the imprint of the body of the artist are impressed in a pile of leaves.

Patate ("Potatoes") of 1977, exhibited for the first time in at his solo show at the Staatliche Kunsthalle of Baden-Baden in 1978. In it he grew some tubers in the ground in contact with the negative forms of a human face.

Again in Zucche ("Pumpkins") of 1978, he made bronzes from casts of pumpkins forced to grow inside casts of the artist's face. This work was shown for the first time at his solo exhibition at the Halle für Internationale Neue Kunst of Zürich in 1980, and is always accompanied by the sculpture Nero d' Africa ("Black of Africa"), a block on marble partially sculpted in the negative and positive form of the artist's own figure.


In Essere Fiume ("Being River"), the work behind the title to his exhibition at the Galerie Konrad Fisher in Düsseldorf in 1981, Penone repeated the form of a stone worn by the water in a stone of the same kind found in a hillside closer to the river's source. He exhibited the two stones side by side. He replicated the work done by natural agents on the stone, bringing out the likeness between the action of the river and the action of the sculptor and identifying himself with the river. He wrote: "Picking up a stone worn by the river, going back up the course of the river to discover the point in the hills from which the stone came and hewing a new block of stone from the mountain and then exactly replicating the stone picked up in the river in the new block of stone: this is to be a river. Producing a stone made of stone is perfect sculpture, a return to nature, it is a cosmic heritage, pure creation, the naturalness of a good sculpture acquires a cosmic value. Being a river is the true stone sculpture."

Some of his works produced between 1979-1980 such as Albero d'acqua ("Tree of Water") and Colonna d'acqua ("Column of Water), all stem from the same logic of superimposing liquid on liquid vertically. "The condition of water is horizontality, the condition of verticality is sculpture, raising the water is a poetic gesture," he wrote in 1976. He sees all elements as fluid and what we would describe as hard or soft depends only on the state in which we find ourselves acting.

In Gesti vegetali ("Vegetation Gestures"), a series of sculptures which he began to work on in 1982, Penone "fossilized" the imprints of his hands on strips of clay stuck to a dummy that served as a frame. He then cast the clay in bronze using the lost-wax technique and completed the work by placing the casts next to each other so as to create the semblance of a human being. Gesti vegetali ("Vegetation Gestures") was first displayed in exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago and the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1984. "Fossilized gestures that have been performed in a space," wrote the artist in 1977, "bring man closer to plants, which are compelled to live eternally under the burden of the gestures of their past." ln his installation in Basel's Merian Park in 1984, he began to engraft vegetation onto his sculptures, as appears in his solo exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York in 1985.

Penone has made bronze trees which have been erected in various public spaces. One example is the Pozzo di Münster ("Well of Münster") created for the 1987 edition Skulpture Projects; on its trunk was the imprint of a hand which gushed water. Others were the Faggio di Otterloo ("Beech of Otterloo") conceived for the outdoor sculptures park, the Rijksmuseum Kroller-Müller in 1988, the Albero delle vocali ("Vowel Tree"), a sculpture thirty meters long placed horizontally in the Tuileries in Paris, where it has been installed since 2000, or Elevazione ("Elevation") 01 2000-2001, a large tree raised off the ground in Rotterdam.

Many of the works produced in the second hall of the 1980s are closely bound up with the idea of contact as a generator of memory and change. The series of works titled Verde del bosco ("Green of the Woods"), created between 1983 and 1987, are frottages on canvas of the trunks of forest trees, made using the leaves of the trees themselves. Sometimes the canvases are united in a single work with the trunks that produced them, or with Gesti vegetali ("Vegetation Gestures"), as in his installations in 1986 at the Museum of Grenoble in France and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Charleroi.

Like hair, nails are an extension of the body, the part used to investigate or attack matter, but they also the part where the materials from contact tends to sediment. Starting in 1987, Penone created large glass sculpture in the lorm of nails and places them in contact with different materials, piles of leaves, forest trees, logs and blocks of marble. They were the theme of the 1998 exhibition at the Musée Rodin in Paris.

ln the cycle of works titled Terre("Lands") created starting from 1988, the earth sedimented in layers, as in its natural state, is enclosed in a transparent glass parallelepiped through which can be seen the imprint left by.a gesture of the artist, the upheaval in the soil which preserves the image of the hand that caused it.

1990s onwards

ln the personal exhibition presented at the Église Courmelois at Val-De-Vesle in 1991, Penone displayed the large sculpture titled Suture ("Sutures"), which he worked on between 1987 and 1991. ln it the enlarged negative of the image of a human brain is rendered by four jagged lines of steel that reproduce the points of contact between the four lobes, marking their boundaries and lines of contact with each other. A Y-shaped transparent glass tube containing soil constitutes the central element of the sculpture and raises the subject of the relationship between man and nature.

ln the large drawings titled Foglie ("Leaves"), the traces that a soft matter like the brain leaves on the skull are transposed to the images of leaves. ln the Anatomie ("Anatomies"), shown for the first time at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Nîmes in 1993, the artist hewed into the surface of Carrara marble (much favored for statuary) to bring out the veining, which so closely resembles the vessels through which blood flows in living creatures.

ln the 1994 cycle of works titled Propagazione ("Propagation"), the concentric lines derived from the imprint of a finger expand into a system of waves. ln Sorgente di cristallo ("Crystal Spring") of 1996, the glass cast in which the water seems to be crystallized, is taken from a casting of a trunk. Again in Albero delle vertebre ("Tree of Vertebrae"), presented for the first time in a traveling show at the museums of Nîmes, Tilburg and Trento between 1997 and 1998, the form of a tree trunk lives in the transparent material of crystal and it rises from forms in plaster created by enlarging the casts of a human skull.

Respirare l'ombra ("Breathing the Shadow") is a dimly lit room lined with laurelleaves, where visual and tactile impressions combine with olfactory sensations. ln another installation, shown for the first time at the Galego Contemporary Art Center at Santiago de Compostela and then at the Palais des Papes in Avignon in 2000, in the centre of one of the walls there appears a gilt bronze lung, whose lobes are also modeled using laurel leaves.

ln the bronze sculptures titled Pelle di foglie ("Skin of Leaves"), 2000, the leaves seem the endings of a system of nerves or veins evoked by the densely interlacing stems. ln spoglia d'oro su spine d'acacia ("Golden Skin on Acacia Thorns") 01 2002, the imprint 01 lips is picked out in myriads of acacia thorns, so transforming the human trace into a naturallandscape. At the same time it evokes the nerve endings of a mouth while, by contrast, stressing its sensitivity. The work forms part of a series made from acacia thorns applied to silk and sometimes associated with slabs of marble, whose veiningin relief is shown to match traces marked by the vegetation. An axample is the work titled Pelle di marmo su spine d'acacia ("Marble Skin on Acacia Thorns"), exhibited in 2001 at the Musée d'Orsay of Paris and the Fujikawa Gallery in Osaka.

ln Pelle di cedro ("Cedar Skin") of 2002 exhibited for the first time in the anthological exhibition of Penone's work by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2004, an imprint of the bark of a tree is impressed on the cowhides tanned using traditional methods. The roughness of the bark transferred to the hides and displayed in negative resembles a pattern of veins, as in the Anatomie.

Bark also underlies the casts that appear in Lo spazio della scultura ("The Space of Sculpture") an installation presented at the recent exposition at the Studio per l'Arte Contemporanea Tucci Russo at Torre Pellice and the Museum Kurhaus Kleve between 2006 and 2007.

"The structure of fluids is the same whatherver the element. A watercourse, a growing tree and a pathway have similar forms" writes Penone of the work titled Albero giardino ("Tree Garden"), produced for a former railroad site in Turin in 2002. ln this outdoor work, the human action, hence culture, is compared to the force of natural elements and expressed in the design of a path traced by the vegetation, whose outline represents the growth of a tree.

Currently, Penone has an installation in Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario in its "Galleria Italia," which includes Repeating the Forest (2007–2008), in which Penone has carefully removed rings of growth from a fir tree to reveal its former young shape hidden beneath decades of growth, and Versailles Cedar, 2000-2003. "Penone arrives at these forms by carving the tree trunk leaving the knots in place until they emerge as limbs, revealing the sapling within." [1] Regarding this collection, he said "My artwork shows, with the language of sculpture, the essence of matter and tries to reveal with the work, the hidden life within." [2]

Nearing completion is the artist's project in the park of the seventeenth-century Palazzo di Venaria in Piedmont. This is an ambitious work that entails the creation of a sort of ideal pathaway leading past a number of his works set in the patterned natural setting of the garden.

Penone in Arte Povera

Since 1969 Giuseppe Penone has been one of the leading representatives of Arte Povera, the critical theory elaborated by Germano Celant starting from 1967 and based on the work of a number of Italian artists, principally Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Gilberto Zorio. These artists have numerous points in common, above all the rejection of traditional artistic languages, the empirical and non-speculative character of their works, and the value they place on the anthropological dimension. The appearance of Penone in this group of artists coincided with the emergence in the critical elaborations of the "magical and wonder-arousing value of the natural elements".[3] This was at a time when dialogue and debate with the coeval international avantgardes was becoming most intense, conducted through a series of group surveys in which Penone took part. These events included Konzeption-Conception at the Schloss Morsbroich in Leverkusen in 1969, conceptual art arte povera land art at the Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna in Turin and Information at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1970.

Giuseppe Penone has been invited to Art Biennale of Venice in 2007 for the new opening of the Padiglione Italiano. His installation had a lot of success.

Honours and awards


  • Giuseppe Penone (exh. cat., ed. J.-C. Ammann; Lucerne, Kstmus., 1977)
  • Giuseppe Penone (exh. cat. by G. Celant and Z. Felix, Essen, Mus. Flkwang, 1978)
  • Giuseppe Penone (exh. cat., ed. J. Bradley; Ottawa, N.G., 1984)


  1. ^ ArtMattersBlog Meet the artist Giuseppe Penone [3], which features a photo of Penone working on Versailles Cedar
  2. ^ Giuseppe Penone: The Hidden Life Within [4] at Retrieved July 25, 2011
  3. ^ G. Celant, Arte Povera, Mazzotta, Milan 1969
  • "Giuseppe Penone artist and art.". Retrieved 2011-12-07. 
  • G. Celant, Arte Povera, Mazzotta, Milan 1969
  • Catalog of Giuseppe Penone "Sculture du Linfa" - Biennale di Venezia, 2007
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