GIUSEPPE PENONE – POET OF THE UNCANNY Lorenzo Marsili Giuseppe Penone, originally included by the art critic Germano

Celant in the movement of “Arte Povera”, is most celebrated for his investigation of the relation between nature and man. His art is often classified as Land Art or Process Art. Villa Medici, home of the Académie de France à Rome, is hosting a magnificent journey through the evocative production of this timeless artist. We enter from the decayed renaissance meanders of 16th century Villa Medici, careful not to slip over a Roman column lying flat on the tight corridor leading to the first room of the exhibition. Staring at this dead ancient marble it seems to reveal itself as the surreal end of a pipe, perhaps a beak utilising a hollowed Roman column once bringing water from the nearby house reservoir. Or maybe, and this thought suddenly crosses our mind, we have already entered the exhibition, where the works are arranged by the artist himself for these spectacular spaces, and this is the first to cross our path. This ambiguity, which must not be untied, is the key to the whole journey, and indeed to the art of Giuseppe Penone, this artist who respects the craft of traditional sculpture and believes in the poetry of nature. And it is in fact towards simple reality, sheer immanence, that the works of this exhibition force our attention. Life in its unfolding, its growth and its mutation; life that itself become, in this arte povera where wood and natural forms predominate, the material of artistic creation, returning us to a basic condition of affinity with the world. Accessing the first room a wide rectangle composed of several blocs of tree bark cast in bronze lies on the floor; Lo Spazio della Scultura. One section is raised from the ground by about half a meter and sustained by several curved branches and covered in animal skin, distinguishable from the bronze-cast bark by its soft curves and opaque response to the light of the room. Seen from the distance it is an uncanny presence, somewhat recalling, in form, Salvador Dali’s surreal elephants with their long thin legs. But this juxtaposition, the panels lying on the floor and the suspended, emerging pioneer in their centre, serves to make the structure come alive, assuming not only a strong dynamic element, a forceful three-dimensionality, but also the suggestion of life and breathing. This feeling is further reinforced by the contrast offered by the naked, cold, and sickly yellow stone of the section of the pavement left visible, like an open wound, under the raised panel. Proceeding through our labyrinth we reach a raised and wide corridor, where branches and leaves of all sizes parade in a line of anthropomorphic statues like soldiers under review; it is the series Pelle di Foglie, once again cast in bronze, a material which, according to Penone, “resembles the natural”, not only because if left in the open it reacts to the weather oxidising and changing in colour, but because the process of fusion dates to an ancient past of animistic believes. An assemblage of leaves reminds us of a human face, another of a heart; branches as waving hands, saplings as marching feet; the proportions those of a body. Despite the simplicity and familiarity of the materials the artist magically draws out the forceful uncanny of the natural, in a wizardry giving life to the inert, conferring it the status of creature. And indeed, there is a strange foreignness of company to these statues, not too unlike the sudden emotion, a mixture of fear, surprise, and curiosity, of abruptly running into a mysterious person on a desolated mountain path. This near becoming-man of a tree is at basis of another of Penone’s works, the celebrated Alpi Marittime, where a series of interventions of the artists are directly inscribed in the process of growth of the tree; he has inserted the cast of his hand in the trunk, which will continue to grow with the exception of this point; or he hugs a tree marking his profile on the bark, so that his action will be conserved with its growth.

The exhibition continues in the marvellous gardens of the villa, where the lavishly decorated internal façade of the palace finally becomes fully visible. Scattered over the grass, broken fragments of Roman columns, like in a pit of sacred capitols, a quarry of Ionic marble. Suddenly staring at us is Idee di Pietra, like a delayed contrapposto to the flat installation of the first room; a solemn tree, cast in bronze, rises from this low garden weighted by large river stones laid on its branches. The tree appears pulled back towards the ground, constrained, immobilised. Paradoxically, precisely this attempt to halt and immortalise the tree seems to make it appear even more alive, mobile, symphonic. The very necessity of having to anchor the tree with heavy rocks cannot, in a Heraclitean game of the opposites, but remind us that this tree is ultimately something alive, making us believe, in a sudden moment of ecstasy, that without those grey anchors it would fly off, or grow at magical speed and break the windows of the surrounding palace. But perhaps the strange union of wood and stone appears to betray a complicit understanding, the forging of a unity not absurd but harmonious; “after having tried to avoid the obstacles present in the surrounding environment”, write Penone, “the tree absorbs them”. This process of absorption, stressing the lifeprocess of the natural, here again turning our attention to the very aliveness of the breathing of the cosmos around us that so much characterises this art, is offered as a metaphor for the human process of growth itself; Penone, in a beautiful text in the exhibition catalogue, writes: “what’s an idea that appears suddenly or after a long a reflection? An idea that has been formed by adding up the myriad of preceding thoughts, polished by the passage of time, compacted by the weight of memories, damaged by doubts and incertitude…? It is the stone of a river appearing between the branches of a tree…” The very last room of the exhibition, an isolated, minute closed space at the far end of the gardens, features the evocative Pietra di Foglie. It is a simple composition, a large rock, seemingly from the banks of a river, surrounded by a myriad of fallen laurel leaves. The crisp but soothing scent of laurel (but which could equally well be musk, cedar, or again eucalyptus, to each his childhood) contributes to making the scene appear perfectly simple and real. And indeed, if visual art has traditionally favoured what Hegel called the “theoretical sense”, of sight, the art of Penone returns us to the material truth of touch, and smell. The invocation that comes from this room, as from the rest of the exhibition, is to open our senses on our next stroll out, halting, still in body but voyaging in mind, in front of a pine tree shaken by the wind. The enchantment of Penone, and the deepest meaning of the adjective “povera” to describe this art, is to open up a whole realm of possibility from the very everydayness of our lives, returning our gaze modified to the world around us. The final empty corridor which we pass leaving the exhibition offers a good example of the propaedeutic function of this art. The walls of the room are on one side built of ochre bricks, on the other painted of milky white. On this second side, breaking the parade of plaster, is a mysterious protuberance of stone, like the amputated limb of an old arch, or the last survivor of an architrave that once sustained a lower ceiling. The profound disruption offered to the perceptual act by this piece of stone, unwanted and unreasonable, without function or aesthetic, is an awareness that must be cultivated through a particular attention to the breathing of the space that surrounds us, an inclination to its absorption and investigation. Almost a subversive stance in an age marked by fast consumption and instantaneous gratification. Giuseppe Penone 30th January – 25th March Académie de France à Rome, Villa Medici