Glass meets artist Giuseppe Penone at Fendi’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome

“NATURE and human acts. We tend to separate them, but it is a superficial division. Looked upon over time, they become the same.” Giuseppe Penone is seated against a window at the monumental Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome, nowadays the headquarter of the Fendi label. The entire ground floor has been given to Penone, one of the greatest living sculptors, for his first exhibition in the eternal city in decades. It is an important moment for the artist, and for Rome.

Outside, from the vast empty stone terrace his fir tree sculpture Abete rises up more than 20 metres tall against the clear sky. A solitary piece of man made nature in itself, it temporarily joins and contradicts the row of cold-faced marble sculptures that surround the palace. Inspired by Giorgio De Chirico’s metaphysical landscapes, shadows of history, time and fate are thrown across the stone floor as the light lowers around them towards the afternoon. Conceived during Mussolini’s fascist reign, the building’s clean cut neo-classical architecture may speak of dark times in the country’s history, yet with the arrival of the artist’s tree, nature has overcome man’s foolishness at last and reinstated its sovereignty once again upon the place.

Abete by Giuseppe Penone in front of Fendi’s headquarter in Rome. Copyright Fendi

“The definition of art is the vitalisation of nature, revealing the vitality of the material”, explains Penone. And this lifelong quest of his to capture and recast nature’s essence into artistic materiality is about to be exemplified in a major new and permanent sculpture in Largo Goldoni, in the historic centre of Rome. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this commission, given that it will be the first contemporary piece of art in 400 years to be installed permanently in the historical city, notorious for the strict safeguarding of its architectural and artistic substance. Although Penone never lived in Rome, he describes the opportunity as an artistic homecoming, the culmination of a everlasting fascination with the city.

Born in 1947 in Garessio, in the region of Piedmont close to Turin, his upbringing has been soaked in the mysterious beauty of nature, with the coastline and the Maritime Alps surrounding and enclosing the area. In the late 1960s he burst onto the art scene in Turin with a series of works using both his body and a range of materials to create interventions in the realm of nature. Immediately seen as one of the younger members of the Arte Povera movement, trees, rivers, rocks and stones ever since have channeled the artist’s stream of imagination and inventiveness, and thus have gained entry together with his works to the most prestigious collections and museums around the world.

The artist Giuseppe Penone with his work 'Matrice'. Copyright Fendi.The artist Giuseppe Penone with his work Matrice. Copyright Fendi

For the exhibition at the Palazzo, Matrice, the two side corridors have been joined together by opening up a back corridor otherwise closed to the public. Here, two drawings in close proximity are forming an interesting bracket around Penone’s work from inception until the present day and simultaneously hint at the incredible consistency in his development as an artist. One of the drawings predates his first solo show and is a raw sketch of stones carefully nested in the branches of young trees, surrounded by stones dotted around.

Did he know in 1968 that he had already laid out his aesthetic vision and programme for the next decades to come? The second drawing is a precise outline of the new sculpture for Rome. Two enormous upright metal tree sculptures, one standing doubly as tall as the other, are carrying between them the weight of a massive block of stone with elegant carvings. With eleven tons the weight has become notably heavier than in any earlier work, a detail possibly reflecting the increasing burden humankind forces upon nature.

'Foglie di Pietra' (Leaves of Stone) by Giuseppe Penone. Copyright Fendi.


Working his entire life with his hands, forging an encounter between the natural world and human culture, he feels his work is intrinsically historic. “The way the people in Rome fascinatingly live with the constant presence of history in their everyday life, the integration between its ruins and architecture being taken over by nature and its modernity at the same time and place, all of this actually applies to the whole of Europe,” Penone explains.

The reality of art in Europe had always been acutely aware of its history, very unlike the one in the United States, where in his experience artists very often did not have any relationship with the past at all. However, nowhere in his work does the omnipresent burden of history take a dark turn. To the contrary, each of the seventeen major works assembled over four large and interconnected areas radiates a friendly, warm and irresistibly positive energy. Massimiliano Gioni, the curator of the exhibition, speaks of the relentlessly good humoured spirit that Giuseppe Penone manages to convey in his work and life alike.

“He’s just a very concrete person who doesn’t get carried away,” he says. For him, working with Penone meant to marvel at a richness of ideas and inventiveness. The ancient wooden materials and the hand crafted finish give the works a mythical capacity, telling a story without using words. Gioni admits it may not be the artist’s favourite interpretation, but he personally just can’t resist thinking of Pinocchio every time he looks at the smooth wooden stems and beams in Ripetere il bosco (Repeating the Forest), a room filling installation of some of Penone’s best known works. A magical romantic presence of antiquity underlies this section, a sad notion of tamed nature too, and most of all a longing for wilderness.

'Ripetere il bosco' (Repeating the forest) by Giuseppe Penone. Copyright Fendi.Ripetere il bosco (Repeating the Forest) by Giuseppe Penone. Copyright Fendi

There is none of the existential angst here that has beset part of Penone’s artistic contemporaries. But there are environmental concerns present, about where we are heading, says Gioni. A fragility of nature, humans and their interconnectedness surfaces in the first room with works such as Soffio di foglie (Breath of Leaves) from 1979. An impression of the artist’s body is recognisable in a pile of loosely arranged myrtle leaves. Preciously piled and forlorn at the same time the leaves gently sway with any movement in the room, any draught of air.

Much more aggressive the entire adjacent wall is covered by thousands of thorns, delineating on blank canvas the hardly visible image of a human face. If hiding behind, or being buried by nature fighting back, if a mythical creature from a fairy tale, or traces from an indigenous ritual, this is to be decided by the viewer. And Penone makes it clear that he wants his works to be open to multiple readings and interpretations. “Notions and concepts are very static”, he explains, “they really are just limitations”.

Processes though, he elaborates, are undefined, they are open to various outcomes. Each action is different and one results from the other. This unpredictability allows for a different, richer kind of imagination, which can only result from the direct knowledge of the material used. The artist’s loving admiration of the material gathered and treated for this works is certainly what impressed Fendi to enter into this extraordinary collaboration. Since Pietro Beccari took over the baton as chairman and CEO a few years ago, the label has been on a steady course to rediscover its distinctively Roman roots. A change of logo, now once again including the name of the city where Adele and Edoardo Fendi first set up shop in 1925, is one of the steps Beccari has introduced to realign the prestigious label with its core values of elegance, craftsmanship, innovation and style.

A more understated manner has been observed recently, accompanied by a thoughtful reduction to the essence of each piece. For Beccari, Penone’s capacity of telling stories has been inspirational, together with the love for the natural, crafting and mixing materials in surprising ways. He points towards a nearby tree sculpture from marble and bronze and remarks that the constant struggle in the artist’s work between the manufactured and the natural had important parallels in the daily discussion about the processes of making at Fendi.

Bringing the various offices and departments of the vast company back together under one roof at the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana has had a profound effect on the consistency of its creations. “Things are going back towards the essence of nature in the way leather is being treated,” he explains. Although there is no Fendi art collection as such, he smiles proudly, the new permanent work at Largo Goldoni, in front of the company’s flagship store, will certainly be the best point of start, should there ever be one.

Penone's Spine d'Acacia: Thousands of thorns delineating the image of a human face. Copyright Fendi.

Penone’s Spine d’Acacia: Thousands of thorns delineating the image of a human face. Copyright Fendi

Hence recreating the path of nature, the artist aims for a “cosmic communion” with the river, a playful engagement with the wondrous forces of nature. Something, that has been an important foundation of his work to date. “When you work with any material, for that matter, the material is leading”, explains Penone. “It is the artist’s mission or role take out the vitality and show it to the people.”

It is for that reason that he decided not to work with images, not to represent anything. His work is the process of making, the presence itself. “I want to make you understand what creation is, the chain of thoughts and actions. It’s all about the relationship between the human body and things,” he elaborates. “It’s not just all in the mind and about concepts. It’s an eroticism, a sensuality that needs to find its way into the work.”

Giuseppe Penone's 'Matrice' in the final room of his eponymous exhibition in Rome. Copyright FendiGiuseppe Penone’s Matrice in the final room of his eponymous exhibition in Rome. Copyright Fendi

One of the artist’s largest works concludes the exhibition. The eponymous work consists in a 30-metre long sculpture made from a carved out trunk of a fir tree. The carvings have been applied along its growth rings, working backwards in time through the process of age and transformation. A strong sense of vibrancy fills the room, amplified by the eerie discrepancy between the Martin Creed-style neon light pattern on the ceiling and the warm and earthy wooden sculpture on the ground.

In the middle of the open organism a bronze mold has been cast in the wood, as if momentarily halting the flow of nature’s energy. The same joyous radiancy that has surrounded Giuseppe Penone’s art from the very first day is at work here. ”You have to savour life moment by moment”, he says, with an inviting gesture towards the elegant trees towering over the city of Rome.

by Oliver Krug

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