Château de Versailles, Place d'Armes, 78000 Versailles, France

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Giuseppe Penone: Penone Versailles
Château de Versailles, France
11 June - 31 October 2013
Review by Marie d’Elbée

Upon arrival, one notices the omnipresent shimmering of gold. Floods of tourists disembark from double-decker buses in what seems to be a never-ending loop. The imposing paved entrance court is entirely covered by dizzying queues organised in a snaky shape, with secondary snail-like ones curled up inside so as to maximise every inch of space.

Giuseppe Penone’s exhibition seems to have caused less of a scandal with the Versailles mon Amour conservative collective than the preceding ones. The recent introduction of contemporary art into the Roi-Soleil’s abode has often been perceived as a lèse-majesté crime in this place still reminiscent of powdered wigs, frilly curls and curtseys.

The château de Versailles - seen by some as the ultimate in refinement and by others as the archetype of bling - drips with gold leaf and embellishment. One can imagine the challenge for an artist to respond to such a heavily loaded context. Penone’s work, a far cry from Versailles’ orgiastic display of richness, stems from the arte povera movement which confers a large place to process and idea, and prides itself on using poor products and natural elements. If the previous exhibited artists mirrored the plenitude of the site in their work, Penone on the contrary distinguishes himself by his formal simplicity.

The monumental perspective of the château’s gardens was conceived by renowned gardener and landscape architect André Le Notre to reflect King Louis XIV’s grandeur. ‘Le Notre’, says Penone, ‘is a man who enters the forest and geometrifies its spirit’. In this manner, the French royal gardens proudly display poodle-shaped bushes and fountains decorated with mythological statues in mesmerising perspective. The scale of the measures taken to achieve human domination over nature is colossal. It highlights the importance and constant preoccupation of this idea for mankind, and by doing so underlines human fragility.

The artist breathes life patterns into inert matter, carving delicate veins into heavy white marble blocks. He seems to organise life passages between matter and shape, creating a circulation between marble and wood, veins and bark, and bronze and trees.

‘The tree is a sculpture that memorises its living in its shape’, explains the sculptor. ‘Every single branch is necessary for its survival. This is what makes it so beautiful and moving’. Far from Le Notre’s controlling approach, Penone seizes nature as it flows, fossilizing the form of its living. The tree is for him a sculpture of perfect structure that changes constantly. It is not solid but fluid, and this fluidity measures the time that the bronze fixes.

The artist chooses to make bronze sculptures because he deems their fabrication process analogous to one found in nature. The fusion technique that removes the air is made with canalisations that irrigate like branches every part of the sculpture. ‘It is like an extraordinary compression of nature’.

As one turns from the main walkway into the narrow wooded paths leading to the last sculptures in the bosque, the the château and the tourists vanish all at once. The beech leaves shiver in the cool smell of their shade, while sculptures of trees bowing under the weight of stones stand in a small clearing. The contrast with the glorious perspective of the main view is vivid. If the latter’s monumental scale renders the human figure comparatively small and detached, this last clearing reunites man with himself and integrates sculptures in an almost introspective space.

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