Foucault in the Contemporary Archive

Professor of art history, visual art, and theory at the University of British Columbia

Last spring, I was in Paris as a Visiting Researcher at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, with a beautiful office just steps from the “old” Bibliotèque Nationale de France (BnF), newly renovated and now containing virtually the entire national collection of art books and manuscripts. I was given access to this unparalleled repository of materials on European art and culture and the privilege of a desk in the Salle Labrouste, memorable for its newly restored ironwork arches and painted landscape lunettes. It was in this reading room that Walter Benjamin had labored on the citations that he collected in The Arcades Project, writing, “nothing in the world can replace the Bibliothèque Nationale for me.” Foucault might have said the same. This place surely fulfilled the art historian’s desire for inspiration for a new research project.

Just before I left California in mid-March I had completed the copyediting of my new Minnesota book, Foucault on Painting. I thought I was prepared to begin a fresh research project concerned with “expressivity” in art over the long 20th century, a topic in which both Paris and the BnF play central roles. But unexpectedly and as it turned out, fortuitously, Foucault continued to occupy me.

I suppose that after having written a book about Michel Foucault’s views on the history and theories of painting, I should not have been surprised by the “discovery” of more of his autograph thoughts on painting in the form of unpublished documents recently deposited in the BnF. I had spent more than six years reading and researching Foucault’s extensive work on everything related to the visual arts, which included essays as far-ranging as the piece on the poet Raymond Roussel, the books on sexuality and aesthetics, and the late work on subjectivity, all of which deal with painting to some extent. I had spoken to Foucault experts across the world, including Daniel Defert, Foucault’s partner and an expert on the complete corpus of his writing who had remarked on the philosopher’s “dedication” to painting. I had arranged a conference at the Institut d’Études Avancées de Paris on Foucault and the arts and letters, which brought together an international group of scholars from many disciplines (see now C. Soussloff, editor, Foucault on the Arts and Letters: Perspectives for the 21st Century, Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). I had lectured on Foucault and painting at the Collège de France, where the comments by students and other listeners allowed me to realize the profound sympathy the philosopher had had with the in-depth visual analysis common in art history but rarely found in other disciplines. Even as I had continued to read Clare O’Farrell’s frequent posts on Foucault News, Foucault’s writing on painting at the BnF astonished me. This new addition to the archive became a lesson in the nature of scholarly investigation itself.

The BnF arranges its manuscripts in Fonds according to author. Boxes of related manuscripts are found within each fond. Boîte 53 – La peinture in the Manuscrits de Michel Foucault NAF28730 came to the BnF in 2013, three decades after the death of the author of its contents, according to Laurence Le Bras of the Département des Manuscrits. That would be some five decades after Foucault began the research on painting found there. Again, according to Le Bras, the documents “remain in the order in which they were found on the desk or the bookshelves of Michel Foucault.” Not only do these unpublished documents in the archive apparently correspond exactly to the state of a work in progress on painting, which can be further delineated by the folders in which they are found, they also give valuable insight into the ways that Foucault’s research proceeded and the problems he identified as significant. Perhaps these newer topics of interest also indicate a more recent date for the provenance of this research than Foucault’s last published essay on painting, which had been in 1975 for the catalogue of the exhibition of paintings by his contemporary Gérard Fromanger, but this is not yet sure. Whatever the dates of this newly deposited archive on painting, the research in it provides extensive and further insights into the depth of Foucault’s interest in the theory and practice of painting.

In Foucault on Painting, I cover chiaroscuro, the meaning of painting in modernity, the definition of painting when compared to photography, and many other topics. But when I examined Boîte 53 thoroughly other areas emerged as relatively unknown interests. For example, although Foucault had written on the related topic of illumination and darkness in his lecture on Manet, the comprehensive notes on color provide evidence of a thorough examination in exact chronological order of virtually every book on color published in France since the seventeenth century, and included major studies in English and German as well. The history of color is a notoriously difficult field of study for both art historians and cognitive scientists alike. The literature on color that Foucault examined manifests the close proximity of science and art theory in the study of the topic. Indeed, the lack of disciplinary differentiation in the substance of that literature may well have contributed to the philosopher’s fascination with it.

The research on painting found in Manuscrits de Michel Foucault NAF28730 also calls for yet another reassessment of Foucault’s use and understanding of the archive itself. Both Benjamin and Foucault had addressed the nature of the archive in relationship to the history of modernity. For Benjamin’s research on nineteenth century Paris, the archive required replication in the form of direct citation from the sources using a method of montage interspersed with comments and commentary. For Foucault, on the other hand, the archive presented a level of knowledge, whose significance could only be understood critically using an archaeological method reliant on comparison and description within the larger topic of which it is a part. In spite of these differences, both Benjamin and Foucault had attempted to teach us about the infinity of the archive in modernity and its ubiquity in historical representation since then. These points about the archive in modernity gave the French filmmaker Alain Resnais cause to critique the entire project of the BnF in his documentary on the library, Toute la mémoire du monde (1956).

Benjamin’s and Foucault’s respective methods for the archive’s use in their own research were designed as critical tools for dealing with the impossibility of the archive’s finitude. They both provided a critique of how the archive had been used in the production of historical knowledge, while simultaneously recognizing its necessity for the historian in the present. I think that the approaches to the archive taken by Benjamin and Foucault on the material culture of modernity have allowed contemporary curators, artists and art historians to conceptualize other relationships to the archive and by extension, to historical representation in the twenty-first century. Some examples come to mind. In the exhibition Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (2008, International Center of Photography), curator Okwui Enwezor relied on both Foucault and Benjamin to formulate his understanding of the use of the archive that he saw in a number of recent photographic practices. In the photographic series Disco Angola (2012), artist Stan Douglas mined the archive for hundreds of “reference images,” as he calls them, in order to inform the fictional history represented in composited digital images (see Soussloff, “A Proposition for Reenactment: Disco Angola by Stan Douglas,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, Ed. Mark Franko, in press). The artist Walid Raad explicitly references the archive and methodologies derived from the historical work of Foucault and Benjamin in his on-going text and photo-based explorations of existence in Lebanon since 1972.

As an art historian, who somehow had felt that my book on Foucault was “complete” until I found the new research on painting by Foucault in the BnF archive, a question remained. How had I failed to grasp the magnitude of the points about this very archive made by the author himself, by Walter Benjamin, his predecessor in that same repository, and by the contemporary artists whose work I have found so compelling? The reason for my forgetting of the lessons about the archive taught by theorists and artists alike since the middle of the twentieth century must be built into the very nature of the disease of which the “archive fever” can be termed a symptom. Art history references images—whether paintings, photographs or other visual media—in order to understand the past. But the discipline reveals that these references are not enough. The work of art history must be accompanied by research into the archive, which itself serves as the basis of the explanatory function of history writing. One might well argue that the very inadequacy of the visual material to signify completely requires the infinitude of the archive for this explanatory framework. In terms of Foucault on Painting, at least, there is more work to be done at the BnF and further interpretations to be made.


Catherine M. Soussloff is professor of art history, visual art, and theory at the University of British Columbia. She is author of Foucault on Painting (Minnesota, 2017) and The Absolute Artist (Minnesota, 1997), and editor of Foucault on the Arts and Letters.

Leave a Reply