by Catherine M. Soussloff. University of Minnesota Press, November 2017. 162 p. ill. ISBN 978-1-5179-0242-1 (pbk), $25.00. ISBN 978-1-5179-0241-4 (h/c), $100.00.
Reviewed May 2018
In Foucault on Painting, University of British Columbia professor of art history, visual art, and theory, Catherine M. Soussloff explores Michel Foucault’s foray into European art. Analysing the innovation of Diego Velázquez, Edouard Manet, René Magritte, Paul Rebeyrolle, and Gérard Fromanger was tangential to, but encompassing of, the French philosopher’s interest in ethics, for which he is renowned. These figurative painters defied expectations. For example, Magritte painted a pipe with the accompanying text, “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe), thereby challenging the medium’s tradition of accurate representation. While such subversion could invite mistrust, reportedly, this destabilization is positive. Foucault contended that sustained interaction with paintings allows for personal growth, whether for the artist or the viewer—or as Soussloff suggests, the viewing philosopher. Foucault found that close looking revealed if a painting were actually about painting itself and not surface level subject matter. This recognition of a painting turning inward prompted self-contemplation and facilitated the potential to become more ethical (with Foucauldian ethics being “the rapport that the individual has toward himself when he acts”). A more thorough explanation from Soussloff of this “circuitry of transformation” from visual knowledge to self-knowledge would be welcome.
Soussloff contributes effectively to an enhanced appreciation of Foucault’s rightful place among art historians, many of whom overlooked him because he was unconventional. An example of his uniqueness is his chapter about Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), in which he refrained from naming the artist at the beginning of the text, resisting the trope of artist-as-genius. In Soussloff’s historiographical approach mirroring the chronology of Foucault’s studies from the seventeenth to twentieth century, she traces his delayed influence on Anglo-American art historians. Interestingly, the time lost to translation into English was compounded by the nuances of his wordplay lost in translation.
Soussloff predicts that Foucault’s writing will continue to resonate in our increasingly digital visual environment, reinforcing his belief that painting pertains to the painter’s own time and anachronistically, to future time periods. This forecast is emphasized on the publisher’s website, but ultimately, it does not feel salient without, say, explicit mention of the Internet. Thus, the book feels geared to art historians rather than media studies specialists.
Foucault on Painting is likely to appeal to scholars. For emerging scholars, a caveat should be made for advanced undergraduates at minimum. Foucault’s quoted passages vacillate between eloquent and ambiguous but poetic, and Soussloff’s academic writing style adds to the density of the book. Therefore, readers who are unaccustomed to critical theory should expect to read with deliberation. Those who are unfamiliar with Foucault ought to consider conducting preparatory reading before taking on Soussloff’s book, with the slim translation of his lecture on Manet serving as a solid entry point—even though Soussloff indicates otherwise.