Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947)


Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947)
signed and dated 'Giuseppe Penone 1989' (on the reverse of the thirty-fifth sheet), respectively numbered '1-35' (on the reverse)
385 gesso elements and 35 sheets
each: 27½ x 39 3/8in. (70 x 100cm.)
overall: 137¾ x 227 5/8in. (350 x 700cm.)
Liliane et Michel Durant Dessert Gallery, Paris.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Giuseppe Penone, exh. cat., Turin, Castello di Rivoli, 1991-1992 (illustrated, p. 137).
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Anne Elisabeth Spittler

Lot Essay

'The fingernail which tears away and retains the scraped earth; the earth separates the flesh from the nail. In scraping continuously, one loses one's fingernails. By substituting the flesh of the fingers with the earth of the fields one has a vision of the vapour rising. The fingernail bears the print of the flesh and projects it with its growth into space and dissolves it in air'.
G. Penone, G. Maraniello (ed.), Giuseppe Penone: Writings 1968-2008,, Bologna, 2008, p. 222.

Unghiate was created in 1989 by Giuseppe Penone, an artist who has been celebrated for his ability to combine poetic and conceptual ideas with crisp eloquence. Unghiate is a monumental work, stratching over three metres high in total, comprising thirty-five sheets of paper. Each is torn; to the tears are appended plaster-casts of finger-nails, records of the scratches that were made to puncture the picture surface. Thus, there are few elements in play in Unghiate, and this concision is made all the more emphatic by the sheer size of the work. It is a dwarfing zone of white, the plaster showing as a plaster relief against the punctured paper.
The role of the fingernail had come increasingly to the fore in Penone's recent works when he came to create Unghiate. Indeed, only the previous year, he had made an installation for a joint exhibition held in Strasburg and entitled Satourne en Europe, where he was showing works alongside artists including Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Anselm Kiefer and Jannis Kounellis. In that exhibition, which took place in the Musée de l'Oeuvre de Notre-Dame, Penone had placed stones topped with moulds of fingernails. There, the fingernail doubtless echoed the relics in the various ornamental objects held by the cathedral in its treasury. Just as those objects served as elaborate containers for traces of the existence of long-past saints and martyrs, so too Penone's fingernails are the evidence of more recent interactions. Thus there was a reverberation between the revered objects pertaining to the saints of yore and the more modern counterparts, introducing an existential lyricism. In addition to his Strasburg installation, Penone has explained that he also created an even larger example of Unghiate in Tokyo, in the Toyota Museum, a wall of approximately thirty metres covered in paper with tears and plaster casts of fingernails, as is the case here. A smaller, four-sheet example entitled Unghiate and dating from 1986, a few years earlier, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Discussing the role of the fingernail in his works, Penone explained: 'I thought of the fingernail because, in my work regarding the human body, I have always in particular focussed my research on the elements pertaining to touch. Because to find out if a substance is soft or hard, you tap it with your fingernail; it is really an instrument, a highly important tool in the understanding of matter' (Penone, quoted in C. Grenier, Giuseppe Penone,, 2004, p. 280). Penone's works often explore the zones in which experiences occur and are traced. The fingernail is therefore a natural choice for Penone. He has described them as 'forms of frontier between the interior of the body and the exterior' (Penone, quoted ibid., p. 280). They are the hard edges that often scratch the soil, or in the case of Unghiate, the paper. At the same time, they too can bear the traces of our lives. They are organic, growing elements, and as such all the more fascinating. And like the organic elements that Penone has explored in his works, be it skin, leather or trees, or indeed the stones caught in rivers, the finger nails become records, imprints of the life of their bearer. Each experience leaves its mark upon the pliant yet brittle surface.
For Penone, the idea of the fingernail's interaction with the soil or, in the case of Unghiate, with the paper, is a process of give and take. For the fingernail is worn by its contact with the outer world, be it while scratching the soil or tearing paper. And in being worn, there is a transferral, meaning that a trace of the person is left in the place where that interaction took place. Similarly, a trace of that place is taken away under the fingernails themselves: 'nails are like the negative of the earth or clay, when you take hold of earth, a nail retains some of it - as if it were a vase' (Penone, quoted in Germano Celant, Penone, Milan, 1989, p. 27). For Penone, the fingernail serves as tiny, temporary capsules containing traces of his actions.
In this sense, Penone appears perhaps to have been confronting, or indeed contributing to, the legacy of one of the most prominent post-war artists of Italy, Lucio Fontana. He remains considered the pioneer of puncturing the picture surface, showing its ephemerality and also dismissing the construct by which the viewer reads it as a plane, rather than a three-dimensional object, albeit a thin one. In Unghiate, Penone has added the plaster casts of the fingernails, which both serve to disrupt the surface and to echo the Olii and Barocchi of Fontana. However, that universality and anonymity that appeared to characterise some of Fontana's purer expressions of Spatialism has here been countered by an intensely autobiographical focus on matter, materiality and the human interaction with it. Where with Fontana the focus was upon the space he created, in Unghiate it is upon the substance surrounding each incision.

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