He is the artist who produced To Reverse One’s Eyes, the splendid 1970 self-portrait with mirrored pupils that, through the initiation of the introspective gaze, causes us to finally discover at his recent installation in the Versailles Palace the enchantment of its original wonder, without even entering into the hall of mirrors — a temptation that other contemporary artists who have shown here in recent years have not been able to resist.
Giuseppe Penone, in a state of grace, brushes lightly against the building with a perfumed room, where the shadow of the delicate bronzes can be “breathed”, and where walls of tea leaves make us forget the recent appearances of Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons and Joana Vasconcelos. Their contribution is revealed as useless ostentation and effort when a beautiful and difficult exhibition eliminates any false site-specific relationship in such a sublime location. Versailles, it has to be said, is self-sufficient, so charged with specific culture and nature, difficult to preserve let alone domesticate with the dull periodicity of the contemporary.
Penone counters not only the respect for the work of past centuries but also the teams that keep it visible today — chiefly gardeners and conservationists — bringing them into his scheme. The natural option with which he interrogates the narcissistic dreams of the Sun King is a critical key to understand this installation.
The regal gesture is inverted by Penone’s almost monastic humility as a povero artist (or poverista) that, like a counter-move of cosmic and atemporal energy, reveals the artificial form of the aristocratic expropriation of nature. It is also the most beautiful homage to the four-hundred years since the birth of André Le Nôtre, the great artist of gardens who channelled the egoist inspiration of the sovereign into a breathtaking landscape with a centralised perspective, punctuating the mass of vegetation with pools, canals and water-features.
Penone remains faithful to his materials — wood, stone and marble — and to the programme that underlines the fatal limit of the work of man when it begins to become nature. His ability to reinvent opportunities to amaze focuses on the garden — even though he works in a direction that is diametrically opposed to Le Nôtre’s visual grammar —, and it is precisely in this dialogue that wonder is evoked. The main work of the exhibition, Tra Scorza e Scorza (2008), is a piece with which he introduces a page of recent natural history by revisiting it. The two casts of tree bark come from a monumental Lebanon cedar that was damaged by a 1999 storm in Versailles. Penone reinvents the space of its growth and implies the reliving of time.
A sparse monumentality is echoed by another sculpture installed here, Le Foglie delle Radici (2011), in which a young plant is growing from an upturned root.
Penone defies with enchantment the excess of the Versailles. In the context of the palace and its grounds, everything is small, but in the place of representation of an idea of dominion there is a need to find a counter-system of interpretation. Penone takes up Giacometti’s intuition and the central perspective becomes a single base on which to assemble sculptures of different sizes. Stricken tree in gold and bronze Triplice cuts the edges of perspective with a design of balanced stones. Le foglie delle radici (2011) evokes a quick sketch, in the void or, as the artist himself says, in the white of a winter visit to the palace.
Poetry and mimicry: these are two key words with which to find a way back into the magic of this place. Louis XIV loved to walk in his garden, the Manieres des montrer les jardins de Versailles guide describes, and even the modalities of ambulation. This guide also contains recommendations for looking at reliefs and sculptures, providing a precise map. But Penone, instead, is concerned with giving us sculptures that look like nature. In this way, even his 1980s marbles Anatomies or the Sigillo sustain their reinstatement with great naturalness without forcing the eye.
None of the works were created specially for this exhibition, although it is difficult to believe that this is the case, especially when entering the Bosquet de l’Etoile. Funamnulo, In bilico, Idee di pietra and Elevazione all introduce us to a perfect form, a garden that is also a place of meditation. Sculpture immerses itself perfectly in the natural environment. We are a long way from any sculptural design, savouring savour only the nuances of the organic at work. A little like in his very early works, we are nothing but fragments of an extended and vibrant organism, which is merely intent on breathing. Ivo Bonacorsi