Michel Foucault’s Manet and the Object of Painting
In 1967 Michel Foucault obtained a contract for a book on Manet, tentatively titled La Noir et la Surface. There’s no evidence to suggest that Foucault got far in the writing of the book, but something of its most general intended features is suggested by the contract and some remarks from Foucault’s writings in the 1960s. Analogously to the treatment of ‘regimes’ of knowledge in his previous book Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things in English), Foucault would have treated European painting as a series of discrete regimes, where a regime is characterized by certain dominant rules: of the depiction of space; of light; of meaning; and of significance. Masaccio founded the ‘classical’ regime, which held sway until Manet. In his work on Magritte, Foucault was to write that the classical regime was governed by two principles: the unbridgeable distance between linguistic and pictorial representation; and the treatment of visual resemblance between items, say, between a visual work and a thing, as a representation, wherein the resembling mark represented, or failed to represent, the resembled thing. Contemporaneously, in a much quoted passage, Foucault claimed that Manet had done for painting what Flaubert had done for literature: where Flaubert’s work depended for its meaningfulness and semantic density upon libraries, Manet’s depended upon museums. It was not Manet’s particular references to Giorgione, Velásquez, and Goya as much as the sheer coexistence of their work in a single building that created the possibility of modern meanings.
One remnant of this project is now in English. The thin volume Manet and the Object of Painting is a translation of a lecture on Manet Foucault gave in Tunis in 1971. In it he argued that Manet made possible the painting of the twentieth century with the invention of the ‘picture-object’ (p. 31), or ‘painting-object’ (p. 79). Conceived and practiced as a painting-object, a painting is made and viewed “as materiality,” “as something coloured which clarifies an external light and in front of which, or about which, the viewer revolves.” (p. 31)
The conception of the painting-object has three major dimensions: the treatments of space, and of light, and the place of the viewer. Manet’s treatment of these, while opening new possibilities of painting, also rejects the different classical treatments. Whereas, with the use of linear perspective, Masaccio forged a well-ordered pictorial space, illuminated by a single, intelligible source of light, and depicted as if from a single viewing point, Manet blocked spatial recession and emphasized verticals and horizontals echoing the actual shape of the canvas, introduced multiple sources of light (including the actual light illuminating the painting itself ) and created multiple viewpoints. Manet’s picture-object thus has a kind of internal heterogeneity unavailable to classical European painting. It also induces in the viewer a new kind of mobility and responsiveness: “The picture appears like a space in front of which and by rapport with which one can move around.” (p. 78)
Foucault offers brief analyses of thirteen works of Manet in explication of this claim. The works treated under ‘Space’ highlight a newly shallow depth traversed by horizontals and verticals: the larger lines of trees and stiff figures internally echo the edge of the support; the smaller axes, such as the filigree of distant crossing ships’ masts, are magnifications of the weave of the canvas. This yields brutally truncated accounts of the “Music in the Tuileries” and “The Execution of Maximilian.” Even briefer but more intriguing are Foucault’s remarks about the “Saint-Lazare Station”; after noting the “same tricks” of the horizontals and verticals, he suggests that the gaze of the girl into the painting and the governess outward are a play with the recto and verso of the canvas. The viewer can neither meet their gazes nor share in the objects of their looks. Foucault calls this a “game of invisibility” that Manet is playing, and here and throughout the lecture, in a strange irruption of language reminiscent of Georges Bataille, Foucault characterizes this game as “vicious, malicious, and cruel” (p. 55; see also pp. 49, 68, 79). ‘Light’ gives brief accounts of three works, with Foucault stressing Manet’s use of multiple sources of light, in particular one seemingly coming from the place of the viewing, depriving Victorine Meurent’s body of modeling in “Luncheon on the Grass” and “Olympia.” And finally in the “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” Foucault notes that these subversions of the Classical and characteristics of the painting-object result in a work that excludes “every stable and defined place where we locate the viewer.” This explains “the enchantment and malaise that one feels in looking at it.” Only here does Foucault integrate the different aspects of the modern regime. An analysis of “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” would likely have been the virtuoso culminating explication of the book, as it was to be a decade later for T. J. Clark in The Painter of Modern Life.
So Foucault presents Manet as the founder of the modern system of painting, a system that remained inchoate through the nineteenth century but regulates twentieth-century painting. Manet inaugurates, then the next century practices the conception of an artistic picture as a ‘painting-object’. It is surprising that neither Foucault’s thoughts about Manet and museums, nor the claim about the two founding principles of classical painting, are mentioned in the lecture. The conception of the painting-object bears some similarity with Richard Wollheim’s nearly contemporaneous lecture “The Work of Art as Object,” in which Wollheim claimed that the dominant conception of a modern artwork is as a material object. But whereas Wollheim thought that this conception allowed a new kind of modern psychology to be expressed in visual art, Foucault ruthlessly treats the modern work as lacking any psychology. The painting-object conception, according to Foucault, later develops into abstraction, which he seems to understand wholly implausibly as a kind of non-representational play with materiality. But there’s a hint in the lecture of a different trajectory for this conception; when Manet is described as “amus(ing) himself” (p. 54) by playing with conventions, the foreshadowing of Duchamp is unmistakable.
An inevitable question for a contemporary reader is whether Foucault adds some perspective and associated insight to recent accounts of Manet. Michael Fried’s account is so involved and idiosyncratic as to disallow quick comparisons, but Foucault roughly agrees with Clark in finding a major source of the enduring fascination with Manet’s major works in their calculated incoherence. For Clark this incoherence is in the service of presenting and reflecting on modern life as unintelligible. For Foucault this unintelligibility is, so to speak, a structural feature, generated out of the need to negate individually the convergent treatments of space, light, and the viewer in classical painting. Foucault of course rejected the idea that there was some ‘purpose’ structuring a regime; though founded by events named ‘Masaccio’ or ‘Manet’, an artistic regime is not some consciousness writ large, but rather an anonymous set of models and constraints governing what can show up in public space and be taken seriously. Nonetheless, in an unfortunate analogy with the end of The Order of Things’ prediction of the coming end of ‘man’, Foucault here ends with the fantasy that the painting-object will be “the fundamental condition” (p. 79) of the end of representation itself. The insight into the structural heterogeneity of twentieth-century painting disappears into a failed prophecy. And given his concern to in a single lecture to analyze Manet’s work as founding a new regime, there’s very little detail or subtle observation to savor.
Later Foucault developed his genealogical method, which subordinated the earlier so-called archeological method to the orientation to more piecemeal changes in practices and towards the end of his life he became interested in the question of how people might shape their own lives as if they were, or could be, works of art. As part of this last concern Foucault returned to Baudelaire’s account of modern life, which Clark among others was to make central to the understanding of Manet. The turns in Foucault’s thought were always surprising, but it would have been no great surprise if he had returned in late life to Manet, and offered a very different account.
Michel Foucault, Nicolas Bourriaud (Introduction), Matthew Barr (Translator), Manet and the Object of Painting. (London: Tate Publishing, 2010. First published, 2005. ISBN1854378457. 80pp. $29.95)print