The Ship of the Fools (Foucault and Painting)

follystone-5Beatriz Acevedo Sketchbook/Rotterdam 2002


Now that the exhibition on Frida and Me is on its way, I have time to focus on a pending project for my part time job as academic, but also related to my interest as a researcher in art. I’ve been wanting to write something about the connections between philosophy and painting in the work of French thinker Michel Foucault. Hence, as with my art practice, I will use this blog as a reflective mirror to read, comment and think about my research in arts. I will try to make it easy and understandable, not only for me, but for those who are not necessarily familiar with this topic. The importance of Foucault in understanding how we live, who we are, or why we think in this or other way, is too big to let it confined to the “academic” or “intellectual” world. In fact, his approach to painting is also groundbreaking and this is a good opportunity for putting it together.

Michel Foucault has been one of the most influential philosopher in contemporary times, and his work about madness, medicine, prison,  discipline, sexuality, etc., have been groundbreaking.  Foucault’s contribution is to question where our current ideas of certain “problems” (like madness or crime) come from, who are responsible to shape these ideas, and how we interiorise these notions without questioning them. For example, in my PhD dissertation I used Foucault to understand how the cannabis user / and the cannabis problem is defined, who defines him/her/it, what are the “discourses” or “narratives” used to define him or what are the interests (power) behind each of this definitions… (if you wish to know more about this please contact me I have plenty of material to share!).  In his work Foucault talked about how “madness” began to be defined as a “problem” in a particular historical period… thus questioning why certain people are called “mad”, and why it is only certain institutions allowed to treat them (e.g. the asylum).  And in this quest, he not only used “archives” or “scientific documents” but cultural products like paintings or images, that can tell us more about how the issue of “madness” was considered in certain historical periods or by particular social groups.

Foucault was interested in understanding the origin and definition of problematic situations in Western culture, by focusing on the process of the normalisation of particular aspects of human experience (like in this case smoking cannabis, or becoming mad). His objective “has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects.” (Foucault, M., 1983: 283). Foucault addressed history as a way towards understanding those processes of normalisation, by focusing on the transformation of discourses, identities, and power relationships.

In summary, Foucault is interested in:

a.  How certain problems/subject arise in particular historical periods.

b. Foucault is not interested in proving whether or not they are “true” or “false” but simply how they emerge.

c. He is interested in how certain “experts” or “institutions” or “authorities” define the problem/subject.

d. He identifies disruptive points or moments, how a problem change from one period to other. (I will explain this later).

One of his first works, Madness and Civilization, actually develops the seeds of his “method”.  He goes back to history to understand how “madness” is “created”, and the impact of this perception in contemporary times. In other words, he uses history as a way of diagnosing the present. He is not interested in proving that one or other definition of madness is correct or truth, but he goes there as an “archaeologist” to trace back the evolution of a “problem” or a “subject” and how, who and why these problems/subjects appear in certain historical moment.

For instance, he talks about how in medieval times “madmen” were not considered a problem per se… they were “fools”, “visionaries”, or “picturesque characters” of any town. One or two centuries later, these madmen became “sick” or “dangerous” people that need to be treated. In tracing this change or evolution, he goes back to different representations of “madness”, not only the “medical” definitions but also paintings. The first chapter of his book is called: “Stultifera Navis” or “the Ship of the Fools”. The title refers to the common allegory or image of a Ship of the Fools wandering through the rivers of the Middle Age Europe and represented by several artists like Alberto Durero and the famous work of Flemish painter Hyeronimous Bosch. In the latter’s painting this is a  drunken boat, “that glides along the calm rivers of the Rhineland and the Flemish cannels.”  It is thought that the painting was presumably inspired after Sebastian Brant’s book of satirical poems of the same title, published in 1494.

Hieronymus Bosch

The Ship of the Fools (circa 1494)

Louvre Museum, Paris

As described by Thaddeus Radell, in the painting, a cast of characters depart around a small boat (a slender tree taking the place of a mast): in the center a nun and a monk are trying to eat a “crepe” without using their hands, as they are observed by the two oarsman; in the meanwhile the rest of the crew play havoc: a woman strikes a lying drinker, a man is trying to catch a roasted goose, a swimmer reaches a plate for more food, a man vomits.

“The antics of this recklessly bemused human cargo propel a straightforward allusion to the vain pursuit of excessive eating and drinking as a means to either evade life’s more refined cultural offerings or, more probably, to forget the punishing ordeal of daily life itself.”

But in this malarkey, the only one who remains calm is the Fool himself.  Turning his back to the madness, the fool actually wonders about his own plate, his own fate, in individual solitude.

However, although the Ship of the Fools have been used as an allegory of a great vessel containing fools and foolish thoughts, still:

“The Narrenschiff (ship of fools) had real existence, these boats that conveyed their insane cargo from town to town. Madmen then led an easy wandering existence. The towns drove them outside their limits; they were allowed to wander in the open countryside, when not entrusted to a group of merchants and pilgrims. The custom was especially frequent in Germany, although during the Renaissance it was also common in other European cities.” (p.6)

He discovered that before madness, the biggest ‘threat’ in medieval times was leprosy, but when leprosy disappeared, the structures of “separating or excluding people” remained (p.5).  His question is, when the madmen became a “dirt” that needs to be ‘purified’ through the water and the wandering in these Ship of Fools.

“Why, from the old union of water and madness, was this ship born one day, and on just that day?

Because it symbolized a great disquiet, suddenly dawning on the horizon of European culture at the end of the Middle Ages. Madness and the madman become major figures, in their ambiguity: menace and mockery, the dizzying unreason of the world and the feeble ridicule of men…First a whole literature of tales and moral fables, in origin, doubtless, quite remote. But by the end of the Middle Ages, it bulks large: a long series of ‘follies’ which, stigmatizing vices and faults as in the past, no longer attribute them all to pride, to lack of charity, to neglect of Christian values, but to a sort of great unreason for which nothing, in fact, is exactly responsible, but which involves everyone in a kind of secret complicity. The denunciation of madness (la folie) becomes the general form of criticism.

 On the other hand, throughout the Middle Age, farces and plays the Madman, the Fool, or the Simpleton assumes more and more importance. He is no longer a ridiculous and familiar silhouette in the wings: he stands center stage as the guardian of truth –playing here a role which is the complement and converse of that taken by madness in the tales and the satires. If folly leads each man into a blindness where he is lost, the madman, on the contrary reminds each man of his truth.”

follystone-3Beatriz Acevedo Sketchbook/Rotterdam 2002

So, at some point, the madman, albeit harmless, becomes undesirable, and these Ships of the Fools became the way of exporting the problem: from town to town, wandering through the purifying power of waters. Notwithstanding, it is not only madmen who are “expelled” but other undesirable people:

“One might then speculate that among them only foreigners were driven away, each city agreeing to care for those mad mean among it own citizens. …. These madmen were housed and provided for in the city budget, and yet they were not given treatment; they were simply thrown into prison. …Interest in cure and in exclusion coincides: madmen were confined in the holy locus of a miracle. “(p.7)

The interesting thing here is that painting is acting as a form of “historical document”, a revealing fact that may not be totally expressed in “documents” or “archives” or “scientific knowledge”, but it is as meaningful as any of them. In fact, even more, since it reveals without so much filtering or rhetoric, what was the perception of madness and how madmen were “treated”. Here also the symbolic aspects of “water” and “cleaning” are present: madmen need to be “cleaned” or “washed”,  but actually they are driven away. They are not confined, or imprisoned: “their departure and embarkation do not assume their entire significance on the plane of social utility or security… But water adds to this the dark mass of its own values; it carries off, but it does more: it purifies. Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us is in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last.”

During the same period, the painter also represented another way of treating madness. It was thought that through trepanation, a “stone” of folly could be extracted. In his representation, the characters around the alleged “madmen” are even more crazy than the “patient” himself.



The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (circa 1490-1500)

Museo El Prado Madrid


According to Wikiart:

“Bosch’s play on the imagery in the painting is beyond literal. The person performing the procedure is wearing a funnel hat, which at the time meant he was a charlatan, and the woman wears a book on her head, which also suggests folly. Combined, the images are a satire on madness and folly, as they depict a ridiculous scene, filled with symbolism of the nonsensical.”


Other contemporaries of Bosch also represented this technique in the treatment of madness, also pointing the “madness” of both treatment and patients. I made some drawings from the fantastic and unique exhibition of Hyeronimous Bosch in the Rotterdam Museum in 2002:

Beatriz Acevedo Sketchbook/Rotterdam 2002


What come after this way of treating madness is a bit more drastic. In the Seventeenth Century occurs the Great Confinement”. It is well known that hundred of “houses of confinement” were created in Paris, but what is really shocking is that more than one of every hundred habitants of the city were confined there. Why were they there? criminals? or any undesirable people? who decides who goes there… It is until 1656 that a decree founded the Hopital General giving some sort of ‘name’ to the houses of confinement.  Indeed, as Foucault argued:

From the very start, one thing is clear: the Hopital General is not a medical establishment. It is rather a sort of semi judicial structure, and administrative entity which, along with the already constituted powers, and outside of the courts, decides, judges and executes. In its functioning, or in its purpose, the Hopital General had nothing to do with any medical concept. It was an instance of order, of the monarchical and bourgeois order being organised in France during this period. It was directly linked with the royal power which places it under the authority of the civil government alone. (p.37)

The book is really interesting and it presents some of the seeds that Foucault will develop in his work. Issues about power and knowledge, and how through knowledge (for instance, in the diagnosis of madness), there is an exercise of power. Also, he refers to the different “discourses” that articulate a notion (of madness) that are not only scientific documents, but from culture (poems, books, paintings). In this work, he also presents the tools of his archaeological method: i.e. going to history to excavate facts, discourses, texts, archives on how certain situation is described and treated, who defines them, and which institutions are created for that treatment.

Finally, and for the purpose of this paper, it is important to note that Foucault uses painting as a device that goes beyond words and texts, and this is a  key aspect to consider in the analysis:

“Between word and image, between what is depicted by language and what is uttered by plastic form, the unity begins to dissolve; a single and identical meaning is not immediately common to them. And if it is true that the image still has the function of speaking, of transmitting something consubstantial with language, we must recognise that it already no longer says the same thing.” (p.15)

So… for this paper, I would like to point out the following:

1. Subject/Problem: Madness/Madman/The ship

2.  Archaeology: Foucault uses painting as another (valid) discourse or historical archive. He is not interested in the “artist” but in the painting itself, how the painting address/define a particular situation.  As part of his archaeological method, paintings are linked to certain historical periods and there are similar artifacts depicting similar issues.

3.  Genealogy:  Different representations of the Ship of the Fool, from Durer to Bosch. What do they say? Painting is not necessarily representational (as similitude) but it creates reality, in the sense of giving a new different meaning to certain words, notions or appreciations. Focus on the painting rather than the painter.

4. Disruption: How the madman is represented: The ship of the fools vs the Hopital General. From visionary to patient…

5. Implications for OA:  Discourse analysis, to explore how images construct specific views of the social world (Visual research methodologies, Gillian Rose p. 146). How a particular discourse works to persuade. How does it produce its effects of truth? (Rose, p. 161).






Foucault, Michel. 2003. Madness and Civilization. Routledge, London.

Acevedo, Beatriz. 2007. A post-structural analysis of cannabis policy in the UK. Doctoral Thesis. University of Hull.

Rose, G. 2007. Visual Methodologies. An introduction to the interpretation of Visual materials. Sage.


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