Giuseppe Penone: gold in the veins

The sculptor Giuseppe Penone expresses a strong sensitivity, and a wonder, towards Nature, but also towards the bond that Man - Artist maintains with it. If he likes to play with natural materials, he also likes to use materials "out of time", such as gold ...


Giuseppe Penone, son of farmers from Liguria (village of Garessio), is a contemporary Italian sculptor artist (born in 1947), related to the Arte Povera movement. The latter, born at the end of the 1960s, is an anti-establishment attitude that reacts against “rich” and conceptual art, characteristic of modern consumer society: “The decision to work with natural elements is the logical consequence of a thought which rejected the consumer society and which sought relations of affinity with the material ”.


Giuseppe Penone expresses, in his art, a strong sensitivity and a wonder, towards Nature, but also towards the empathic bond that Man has with her. This link is evident, in particular through the body, and more precisely through that of the artist engaged bodily and working on, and with, his material. Human traces are recurrent: hands, fingerprints (Disegno d'Azqua, 2003-2007), whole body (Souffle de feuilles, 1976), eyelids, nails (Unghie, 1987-1994), lips (Acacia spine - contatto , maggio, 2005), skin (Pelle di grafite, 2004) ... just like those of the very act of sculpting.


In addition, the very conditions of exhibitions of his works, when they take place outdoors, add another dimension to his art: this was the case on numerous occasions in Versailles (2013), in Florence in the Boboli Gardens (2014 ), and at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire (2020).


Polysemous, these works are immediately affordable, because they speak to us "easily", sensually ... but, at the same time, they invite a deep metaphysical and philosophical reflection on the couple nature / culture, on whom, and what. does "work". Penone often explains that in sculpting he copies the action of nature and time, thereby challenging the conventions of beauty, author, identity and artist. Respect for the elements that surround man, and which are as important as him, brings about a relativization of the artistic gesture (he sculpts like the river sculpts in Essere fiume (2000), or like the wind sculpts grains of sand in Essere vento (2018).


If he likes to play with natural materials (tree trunks, thorns, leaves ...), he also likes to use materials "out of time", traditional in sculpture, stable, and whose very processes of implementation. join his concerns (fluidity, fusion, transformation, gravity, light).

Thus, it favors:

  • stone (Idee di Pietra, 2008)

  • crystal (Trappole di luce, 1995)

  • Carrara marble (Sigillo, 2012, Anatomia, 1994)

  • terracotta (Terra su Terra, 2015, Soffio, 1978, Avvolgere la terra, 2014)

  • the omnipresent bronze in the tree trunks which he imitates to perfection, the hands, etc.

  • and gold, a non-sculptable material, which recurs on several occasions in his works. It is therefore this specific aspect that I wish to point out here.

For this artist, the interior / exterior, touch / gaze relationships are fundamental: what is hidden is revealed (the interior of trunks, the interior of bodies, the sounds of trees), just like the surface-envelopes (bark, leaves, human skin) which keep the memory of movements, whether internal (growth, germinations) or external (erosion of wind and water, fossilization).

Thus, gold materializes (by its color, its light, its texture ... and its symbolism) this "invisible" energy, and the dynamic cycles which are in everything natural in the broad sense. For Giuseppe Penone, gold certainly embodies preciousness, but also immortality (it permanently freezes passing time, movement, while highlighting it), light, and the fact that it is compatible with human body.

As with bronze (which melts, circulates, flows ...), gold, a classic material in art, is also the incarnation of the part of culture on nature: the latter then becomes "sculpture".


Gold, in some of Penone's works, accentuates a lethal modification and can make an absence present. This is the case with Albero folgorato (2012): a tree struck by lightning (reproduced in bronze) sees the place of the electrical impact, and its breaking, covered with gold. The memory of the flash of light and energy of this event is then captured and materialized, thereby linking heaven and earth ...

In Tra (2008), it is the breaks of a trunk, and the sap drips, which are highlighted / immortalized by gold. Placed horizontally, face to face, they almost make one think of animal clashes.


In several other installations, the artist has lined the interior of bronze tree trunks with a layer of gold. The gold is then a symbolization of the light necessary for the vital growth of trees, and perhaps also of the feminine (because the gendered metaphors are delicately present). This invisible life, and as if imprisoned, under the bark, thus bursts into broad daylight, and from different angles. This is the case of :

  • Spazio di luce (2008): a hollowed-out trunk, regularly sectioned, and placed horizontally on its branches (imitating a procession of insects), offers us a golden vision over its entire length, which allows us to see through the interior, like a long view in time and space (unless an eye is hiding in the back and looking at us ...)

  • Matrice di bronzo (2008): the trunk is cut in half, hollowed out, placed on branches like a reservoir, or a trough of gold and sap (in resin)

  • Scrigno (2007): a horizontal levitating trunk opens in two, and offers itself to us like a wonderful secret box, where a river of sap flows in a golden setting

  • Luce zenitale (2012): an imposing trunk, firmly anchored vertically in the ground, from which radiates, through the hole in branches (or made by birds?), Inviting to look as through keyholes, a light golden zenith.

In Luce et ombra (2011) “the tree soars skyward and the foliage widens into a broad, spherical shape in order to collect as much light as possible. This is the reason why its leaves are golden. Bronze on the other hand is an element subjected to the force of gravity which directs us towards the depths of the earth, towards the darkness. " he explains. This time gold represents the fixed capture of light and heat, through the other intermediary of the trees that are the fragile leaves.


These golden leaves are also found in Respirare l'ombra (2000), a metal totem sculpture made of tree leaves, inside which is placed a human respiratory system made in reproduction of laurel leaves in gilded bronze. ... "with gold leaf"! These lungs, depending on the viewer's point of view, sometimes look like insect eyes, breasts or even the thyroid gland, sometimes like a beak that seems to advance towards us in a dark mantle of autumn leaves ... The themes dear to Penone are concentrated there: the human body, plant / animal nature, light, the seasons therefore temporality and cycles, the breath, the invisible, the history of art, the full empty, the relationship to the symbolism of the very material of the sculpture ...


In Spoglia d'oro su acacia spine (2002), Penone makes a huge replica of her mouth. It is made with acacia thorns (a prickly antithesis to what a mouth suggests ...) and the center of the lips is occupied by gold leaf, in which his handprints at work are forever engraved. This gold leaf, receptacle (remains) of human footprints, is also at the heart of Spoglia d'oro (2001) and Spoglia d'oro su pelle di cedro (2005). Kinds of moults ... which also recall gold funeral masks.


Finally, we can sometimes see that without going so far as to use gold, it approaches it by playing on the ocher / yellow color (that of earth and wood). This is the case in Spazio della cultura where flesh-colored leather lines a bronze plinth. Ditto in the installation Pelle del monte (2012) where landscapes-skins in marble have the yellowed border.


Gold therefore makes it possible to reveal and make visible processes which are neither visible to the naked eye nor palpable (growth, circulation of fluids, metamorphoses, exchanges ...), to play with language , on the symbols specific to Art, with textures (shiny, colorful) and brings a spiritual aura, by raising shade to light ...


[Photos of Giuseppe Penone's golden works are also on Pinterest].