The sculpture is a bronze cast of a life-size mature tree trunk, 9 metres in height. The top is missing so that the emphasis is on its base and the attachment of roots. The trunk has been raised vertically by five supports so that it appears to be suspended in space. Next to each support is a young, newly planted tree. It is evident that this work deals with natural growth as the process of change; in a decade or so it will seem as if the bronze tree has been lifted up by the surrounding trees.

For those not familiar with Giuseppe Penone’s work, Elevazione (elevation) appears to be largely inspired by its specific setting. His sculpture fits effortlessly into the row of trees along Westersingel which, like the sculptures, are illuminated at night. Another similarity between Penone’s sculpture and its immediate environment are the newly planted trees supported by poles. However, Elevazione represents not only the genius loci or ambience of this location, but is typical of Penone’s work. Within the national art collections, this Rotterdam tree is similar to the bronze beech the artist placed in the sculpture park of the Kröller-Müller Museum in 1988; in an avenue of beeches where one was missing. Another point in common with Penone’s other work are the supporting young saplings of Elevazione which recall the Alberi (Trees) series he exhibited in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1980. These consist of beams, half of which have been peeled away lengthways and stripped down to inner growth rings so that the older trees, covered up by the growing process, are now revealed. The inner part refers to the three in an earlier phase, as by a turning back of time. Elevazione has been created from a similar idea; only here change will occur some time in the future when the growing trees will carry the bronze tree in their midst as if in remembrance of an ancestor.

The tree is a recurring theme in Penone’s work. The occurence of this theme dates from December 1968 when, in the village where he grew up as a farmer’s son, every day he intervened in some way with the natural growing process of the trees. Photographs show him gripping the trunk of a sapling and then exchanging his grip for a metal cast of his hand, thereby restricting the trunk from growing any thicker. Other pictures show him weaving three small saplings together so that they then would grow intertwined. Penone was 22-years old at the time. At art school in Turin he met Gilardi, Anselmo and Pistoletto. In 1967, along with the work of Merz, Fabro, Paolini and Kounellis their work was brought together under the term Arte Povera by the Italian art critic Germano Celant. Their art was intended as a response to American Minimal and post-Minimal Art – a conscious harking back to classical and centuries-old symbols embedded within our cultural heritage. In their sculptures they often used ‘worthless’ everyday materials such as straw, wood, coal, metal or fruit, which in various combinations had a symbolic and associative effect.

As an artist Penone is interested in the spiritual quality of the growing process, whereby the tree, which can become extremely old, is the quintessential expression of this. In many cultures the tree is regarded as the axis mundi, the axis of the world, the growing link between heaven and earth. As such the tree personifies the breaking down of the nature-culture contradiction – the chief preoccupation of the Arte Povera artist. This also explains why soil and clay were so popular with Penone: the materials form the basis for all living matter, while clay, especially because of its availability and versatility, has been in use down the centuries as an artistic and practical medium. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has two sculptures by the artist in which he used clay creatively. Soffio I (breath I, 1978) is a lifesize ‘bubble’ of red-fired clay into which Penone imprinted his body and mouth cavity. Here he is alluding to the mythological story of the Creation: humankind was created from clay and God’s breath breathed life into it. With the work Albero di Terra (tree of earth, 1986), Penone compares the cultivating of plants and natural growth processes to sculpture. He does this via a reference to Brancusi’s Endless Column: three piles of flower pots have been placed back-to-back and front-to-front. Out of the highest pot a plant grows that is entwined with a tree that rises from a pile of clay.

By making use of living, natural materials Penone makes it clear that an artist’s creativity is similar to the secret life controlled by nature. The creative force of both nature and the artist come together in his work and their interaction determines the final result. This is also expressed in the work on Westersingel – even the title Elevazione refers to the godlike status of artists with their creative powers. It also recalls an intervention the young Penone made in December 1968 when he clasped a tree with his arms and legs, after which he then outlined the contours of his body in wire and nailed this to the bark. Here he was following the example of Apollo, god of the arts, who forced his unwanted attentions on Daphne, who beseeched the gods not to rob her of her freedom in nature. The gods heard her prayer and changed her into an evergreen laurel tree. During her metamorphosis Apollo clasped her to him and promised to always wear a wreath of laurels in memory of his love for her.

Bert Jansen

Celant, G., Arte Povera, Milan 1969. / Exhib. cat. Giuseppe Penone, Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum) 1980. / Exhib. cat. Giuseppe Penone, Paris (ARC/Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris) 1984. / Exhib. cat. Sonsbeek 86, Arnhem/Utrecht 1986.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015