John Rapko (2011) ‘Enchantment and Malaise’: Michel Foucault on Manet. Review of Michel Foucault’s Manet and the Object of Painting, Artcritical. The Online magazine of arts and ideas, Sunday 31st July 2011.
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.