Foucault and Painting: “An event called Manet”

When can we say that a painting or an event breaks with out traditional conceptions of art, questioning our position as viewers, models or witnesses? For Michel Foucault, that “rupture” began with an “event called Manet”. In his analysis of Manet’s paintings presented in a seminar series in Tunis (1971), (compiled in the excellent book “Manet and the Object of Painting” by Michel Foucault, with introduction of Nicholas Borriaud), Foucault reveals this time, not only what a painting means, but most interestingly, what a “painting produces” (Bourriaud, 2009: 13). As we have seen in previous posts, Foucault’s original approach to paintings and art, breaks with the tradition of “art history” and involves his ongoing question on what are the processes by which western culture “creates subjects”. 

We saw that in his understanding of how madness is “created”, painting can play the role of “archive”: in the Ship of the Fools by Hyeronimous Bosch (1494),  an assemblage of characters confined to a particular space is presented: condemned to wandering across rivers and oceans, in the hope of a purifying effect or simply as a exclusion device.  Curiously enough, the characters direct their gaze to each other, except for the “fool” himself that turns his back to the malarkey, thus, asserting his out of this world authority…  For Foucault, this particular painting is part of his “archeology” of the different discourses, views, definitions and tales about “madness” that can account for its creation. Further, he develops his “geneaology” questioning what are the dynamics of power and knowledge that make possible the creation of madness: i.e. as a sickness, illness, condition to be administered (managed) by a particular institution.  Foucault also talks about the “dispositif” as the dynamic field in which discourses, institutions and subjects become entangled, defined and administered, in a particular historical period. (Acevedo, 2007)

Later, in his analysis of Las Meninas by Spanish painter Diego Velazquez (1650), Foucault shows how this painting is a re-presentation of a network of relationships and patronages. The scene of the young princess, attended by the chaperone and amused by the royal dwarfs, is not a “real” scene, but a theater in which these characters play a role: from the buffoons, to the little princess, from the protective gaze of the king and queen, to the daring attitude of the painter (dressed as a knight without knighthood).  Instead of focusing on the “reality” or “truthfulness” of the scene, Foucault chooses to reveal and disentangle the network of gazes, relationships and roles, as represented in this painting. For him, it is not a historical document per se, in the sense of offering a “peek” to the royal household; instead, it is a more complex set of relationships depicted here, and with this painting, Foucault inaugurates his work on The Order of Things, and the different “configurations” created by philosophy, language and history.  

In parallel with the evolution of his work, Foucault approaches Manet, as a way of exploring another type of “rupture”, one in which modern art is possible, but also, a key revelation of the different places and positions of viewer, author/painter, models/subjects. Following his “genealogical method” Foucault tries to disentangle the meanings, ramifications and effects of an event called Manet, as a great milestone in the history of art.  As reminded by Dreyfus and Rabinow (1983) Foucault’s genealogist “is a diagnostician who examines the relations between power, knowledge and the body in modern society.” Foucault is not interested in the artist as a person, neither he approaches the technical aspects of the precursor of modern art. Instead, he focuses on the effects that Manet has brought to fore with his painting. For Foucault:


“Manet’s [illumination] lies in the reinvention of painting starting from its materiality, which has been carefully concealed by the ideological device put in place since the quattrocento, based on monocular perspective and the illusion of the veduta. ” (Bourriaud, 2009: 14)


In other words, during centuries paintings  aimed at showing a reality, like a window into a scene or a situation. In this configuration, there were clear pointers: a particular perspective, a vantage point where the gaze was attracted and the possibility of reality of the scene depicted.  For Foucault, Manet broke with this artifice by three main devices:

First, the fact that Manet stressed that the materiality of the painting, in the sense of a two dimensional object that has vertical and horizontal axis.  As analysed by Foucault, some of the classical paintings by Manet, such as the Balcony, are built according to the horizontal and vertical lines.  Second, Manet’s approach to lighting makes impossible to determine where the painter or the viewer should be. In Olympia, for example, the light is evenly distributed in the body of the woman who gaze at the viewer from every perspective. Thirdly, and this may be the most interesting and ground-breaking audacity of Manet, is to displace and question the viewer position in relation to the painting. Foucault takes the quizzical painting: A Bar at the Foiles-Bergere (1881-1882) as the example in which the “places” and “positions” of the viewer, author and model are completely distorted.  Let’s have a look at the painting:

A Bar at the Foiles Bergere.  Courtauld Institute. London


This is a rather mysterious painting: it shows a barmaid in front of a mirror, but it is not very clear whether or not this is a real mirror. For instance, one may try -and fail- to count the bottles that are in the front and their reflection. Also, the position of the woman is not really clear, is she really in front of us, if this is the case, where is the position of the painter? if he were in front we would not be able to see her reflection in the right side of the mirror… neither we would be able to see the frontal lighting of her face, as it would be obscured by the presence of a customer (in the right side corner).  As explained by Foucault:

“You don’t need to have lots of optical ideas to realise this – one senses it in the unease one feels in looking at this picture – that in order to see the reflection of a woman who would be placed here, to see it there [on the right], the viewer and the painter must find themselves, if you like, slightly over here where I place my stick, that is to say, very much sideways. And at this moment, the woman placed here could really have her reflection, finally one would see her reflection here, toward the extreme right.  For the woman’s reflection to be shifted toward the right, the viewer or the painter themselves must also shift toward the right. Do you agree?…

The painter therefore occupies – and the viewer is therefore invited to occupy after him – successively or rather simultaneously two incompatible places: one here and the other there. ” (Foucault, 2009: 75)

This dislocation of painter and viewer is particularly meaningful for Foucault’s understanding of “heterotopias”, defined as different places, or anti-places. “Heterotopia, which represents, a constant among all human groups, can be defined as an ‘anti-location’, It consists of an ensemble of places outside of all places, even though they are at the same time effectively loacalizable.” In Bourriaud, 2009: p. 17. These anti-locations are also places of confinement: the asylum, the ship of the fools, the hospital… places where those “others” are separated. Indeed, Foucault draws upon another great commentator of Manet’s work: George Bataille. Bataille proposed the term “heterology”, defined as “the science of the radically other, of waste, of scrap material or the immaterial, of the shapeless” (Bourriaud, 2009: p. 18). For both Foucault and Bataille, the link with Manet is the “mirror” a “place without place’ which questions the different roles of the viewer, the artist and the model, as presented before in the Bar at the Folies-Bergeres. This dislocation will become the defining feature of the post-modern man/woman. Almost anticipating the effects of our global village, the estrangement of migration, identity and virtuality, this non-place, this wandering across different identities, is rendered visible very early in Manet’s painting. And this is precisely what Foucault is trying to make us see… the challenge, the estrangement, the lack of structures or ‘realities’ (as created by classical painting or meta narratives

Indeed, Foucault’s appreciation of Manet acknowledges the evolution of art, from the representational painting into newer form of art. Manet not only makes possible impressionism, but the whole of modern art. Because as remarked by Foucault:

“[Manet] was therefore inventing, if you like, ‘the picture-object’, the ‘painting-object’, and this no doubt was the fundamental condition so that finally one day we can get rid of representation itself and allow space to play with its pure and simple properties, its material properties.” (Foucault, 2009: 79)

It is from there that works like the “Black canvas” by Malevich, or the revolution in volume and paint orchestrated by Cezanne in his depiction of Mount St Victoria, and then all modern art is all possible!



Foucault, M. (2009). Manet and the Object of Painting.  Tate Publishers. London. Introduction by Nicolas Bourriaud.

Dreyfys & Rabinow (1983) Michel Foucault:  Beyond hermeneutics and structuralism. University of Chicago.

Acevedo, B. (2007)  A post structuralist analysis of cannabis reclassification in the UK. Doctoral Thesis. University of Hull.




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