Foucault and Painting: “This is not a pipe”

In 1968 Foucault published an early version of his reflection on Magritte’s iconic painting “The Treachery of Images” (1928) (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), settling the basis for his questioning of the “sacred” link between word and image, a basic tenet of our perception of images and paintings. Challenging this “primordial” link in a time in which discussions about the structure of language were at their highest, brought a storm of criticism and opposition to the ideas discussed here. So, what was so radical in a painting that was produced in the early part of the century and reviewed later on by Foucault?

As we have seen in the previous blogs, Foucault approached paintings as “fountains” from which his thought and work could be developed. Understanding madness and attitudes to madness, or exposing the re-presentations of power and relationships, towards the disquieting realisation that the viewer (of a painting) not only can complete his/her own meaning, but that his/her place in relation to the painting can be deceptive, subversive and transient.  Indeed, in his exploration of Manet’s A bar at Folies-Bergere, Foucault develops the notion of heterotopias, as those non-places, or multiple co-existing or simultaneous places.  These non-places or un-places also question the taken for granted assumptions of language and meanings, in the structuralist sense that words are separated from things themselves. In other words, that a word is not necessarily and indivisibly married to a thing, but that their meaning can change according to certain linguistic structures (this is roughly one of the main points of the structuralism, as proposed by Saussure, and “ism” from which Foucault tried to distance from).  This, apparently obvious, statement, is however a huge challenge of the ways we understand reality.

“From antiquity to the present, persistent strains of Western thought have conceived the bond between language and reality as fundamentally mystical, a mutual sharing of essences.”(Translator introduction, This is not a Pipe, p.6).

As explained by James Harkness in the Introduction to This is not a Pipe, a sacred bond between word and reality has been inherited from religious attachment to the “Book” (the Bible, The Torah or the Coran), giving a preponderant quality to the “Word”: “precedence over both reason and the evidence of the senses as final index of the Real. (p.7).  This view managed to survive the Enlightenment (which starts questioning the artificial link between words and things) and it is re signified with the Romanticism’s intense aesthetics, conferring “the Word a mystical substantiality affording the writer new status as heir to the religious visionary and the epic hero. In our own day, finally , a complex mathematicized, but still recognizable variation of the theme lies in the work of the Cartesian linguist Noam Chomsky. ” (p. 7)

Likewise previous considerations of paintings, Foucault starts simply examining the gaps and contours of the painting, diving into it naked, as without any framework from art history, technical knowledge or even biographical information about the author.

The Treachery of Images. Magritte. 1928-1929. Los Angeles County Museum of Art


“The first version, that of 1926 I believe: a carefully drawn pipe, and underneath it (handwritten in a steady, painstaking, artificial script, a script from the convent, like that found heading the notebooks of schooboys, or on a blackboard after an object lesson), this note: “This is not a pipe.”” (Foucault, 1983: p.16)…

“Magritte’s drawing is as simple as a page borrowed from a botanical manual: a figure and the text that names it. Nothing is easier to recognize than a pipe, drawn thus, nothing is easier to say -our language knows it well in our place – than the “name of a pipe.” Now, what lends the figure ists strangeness is not the “contradiction between the image and the text. For a good reason: Contradiction could exist only between two statements, or within one and the same statement. Here there is clearly but one, and it cannot be contradictory because the subject of the proposition is a simply demonstrative. False, then, because its referent -obviously a pipe- does not verify it? But who would seriously contend that the collection of interesecting lines above the text is a pipe? Must we say: My God, how simpleminded!” (p. 19)

And although it sounds reasonable, that the drawing is not the pipe, actually this painting represents a rupture between the images and things. One can say, that this rupture resembles the fracture of the sacred link between words and things, in classical western thinking.  Indeed, Classical painting, even throughout the Rennaissance, has tried to identify scenes or images with the ‘models’ or ‘landscapes’ that inspire them, sometimes using optical trickery such as the use of perspective and the trompe-l’oeil. The effect of this is our “belief” that what is represented is real, when in truth “the painted image is that thing”: not a pipe, but a drawing of a pipe…

For Foucault, the innovative contribution of Magritte consists in using the very language of classical painting in its literalism to undermine painting.  In doing so, Magritte introduced an ancient device, the “calligram” this relationship between the text and the image. Foucault explains:

“In its millenial tradition, the calligram has a triple role: to augment the alphabet, to repeat something without the aid of rhetoric, to trap things in a double cipher. First it brings a text and a shape as closely together as possible. It is composed of lines delimiting the form of an object while also arranging the sequence of letters. It lodges statements in the space of shape, and makes the text say what the drawing represents.” (p.21)


And here there lies the contradiction: the calligram, as the connection of two statements: visual and textual, actually reveal and question the “teacher’s voice: as this is a pipe”… well, it is not, it is a drawing of a pipe. Words are not images, words are not neutral, innocent pointers of reality, but charged with meanings, power, desires…

“From painting to image, form image to text, form text to voice, a sort of imaginary pointer indicates, shows, fixes, locates, imposes a systems of references, tries to stabilize a unique space. […] Negations multiply themselves, the voice is confused and choked.” p.30

When this voice falters, when the automatic/sacred link disappears then “the common place -banal work of art or everyday lesson- has disappeared.” The rupture reveals the heterotopias, the non-places exposed by the gaps previously covered by the automatic linkage of words, images, reality. Because even the operation of naming (innocent, banal, neutral) is charged with intentionality, the discourses are not spontaneous, they obey and follow certain determinations and configurations.

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe, exemplifies the penetration of discourse into the form of things; it reveals discourses ambiguous power to deny and to redouble.” p.38

This dislocation can be something really disturbing. Where else can we go, once this direct/automatic route is exposed and questioned? Which other options do  we have when it seems that nothing is certain, not even the simple (apparent) meaning of a painting or image?

Well… for me this is precisely the great contribution of Foucault to the post-modern era! Here Foucault may be saying to us: do not try to find the truth, because, it does not exist… rather try and find your own truth, your own narrative, knowing that it is not necessarily yours, but belong to a configuration of knowledge/power/discourses, it does not really matter! Because, images as well as any other texts/institutions/definitions need to be questioned, criticised, revealed. This does not mean, however, to fall into nihilism or powerlessness; instead, it is an opportunity to create, to imagine new meanings, novel interpretations, daring narratives. Indeed, one can always come back to the threaded path of assigned meanings and “automatic” links, while knowing all the time, that this also can be transient and changed.

“Moreover, listen to Magritte: “Between words and objects one can create new relations and specify characteristics of language and objects generally ignored in every day life”. Or again: “Sometimes the name of an object takes the place of an image. A word can take the place of an object in reality. An image can take the place of a word in a proposition.” (p. 38)

As an artist, this rupture between what we see and what we think we see is a key starting point for any creative endeavour. In drawing, artists are required to see, while avoiding thinking. This is because thinking imposes certain fixed view of reality, obstructing the flux between the essence of the object/model and the representation. And indeed, it is a representation, not a replication, because the artist develops her own personal perspective, her soul translated into colours, shapes and forms.  And somehow, this can be applicable to other aspects of our lives, in which pre-conceptions or taken for granted ideas do not contribute to originality, joy or communion with what surround us. And this is for me, what Foucault diving into paintings is giving us… hence his place in living in our post-modern world!


Foucault, M. (1983) This is not a Pipe. Translated and edited by James Harkness. University of California Press.


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