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Afterimages of the past

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

In 1960, while working at the Institut Français in Hamburg, Michel Foucault completed his Docteur d'État thesis, Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age). His extensive, thorough study, consisting of 943 pages of text was a groundbreaking analysis of the complicated relations of knowledge and power in modern society as seen through the prism of mental institutions. It originally met with mixed reviews, only to gradually gain the status of the one of the most important books in postmodern studies.

Few years later, in 1966, Howard Kanovitz launched the photorealism, a new genre of photo-based painting. Soon other artists followed, both painters and sculptors, and the movement evolved into what is still known as hyperrealism. There are no precise borders of photorealism and hyperrealism. One could argue the most distinctive point would be a strict adherence of photorealist to “photography-like” forms (although that was not exactly so in case of Howard Kanovitz himself…)

Eric Manigaud, Klinikum #5, 2010, Pencil & graphite powder on paper, 177x131cm. Fot. Charlie Smith London

Eric Manigaud, artist based in Saint-Etienne, France, usually labeled a hyperrealist, creates hand-drawn, detailed reproductions of old photographs. His works deal with what he calls “the heritage of suffering”, and are based on photographic archives dated from 1850s until 1920s. In 2010 he presented “Klinikum” or “Portraits Clinique”, series of drawings recreating a group of documentary photographs taken in the Weilmünster Clinic between 1940 and 1945.

Manigaud’s monochromatic drawings, enlarged from the original small formats to 179 x 133 cm (approximately 6 x 4.5 ft) panels, confront the audience with the detailed, almost life-size images of patients, doctors and nurses, representing everyday life of the psychiatric ward in the characteristic style of “documenting curiosities”. When the viewer eventually comes to terms with the worrisome, disturbing topic, the second, much more ominous meaning settles in.

Klinikum Weilmünster, a neurological clinic located near the town of Weilmünster, opened in 1897 as a mental institution, relatively modern for its times - nearing the end of the classical era as researched by Foucault. Few decades later it became the horrific proof, supporting some of Foucault’s more pessimistic observations. In The Birth of the Clinic, (1963) Foucault wrote about the complicated relationship of medical technology and political ideology, using the metaphor of the eye that knows and decides, the eye that governs. During the dark years of Nazi regime, "the eye that govern" designated Klinikum Weilmünster as one of the "Zwischenanstalten" or the “intermediate institutions”, a euphemism meaning place of executions of mentally and physically sick patients, mostly Jewish. Between 1940 and 1945, as a result of the Nazi “eugenics policy”, around 3000 patients have been murdered there, while another 3000 died of malnutrition and the lack of basic care.

Eric Manigaud, Klinikum #11, 2010, Pencil and graphite on paper, 179 x 144cm. Saatchi Gallery, London

The victims now return in the powerful, life-size recreations of photographs, forcing us to remember how the "the great confinement of the poor" from Foucault’s narration was easily transformed into “the great confinement of the enemies of the state.

In creating hyperrealistic impressions, each detail has its own role; it is a rule that applies not only to forms, but also to the medium and to the support. In an interview with Jacquie Barral, Manigaud explained how carefully he chooses paper for his works:

(...)for the support, I finally found a paper which I could not fault: Clairefontaine 200 gr. smooth side. Before I used Vinci paper: a perfect softness, but too much grain. It took me some time to decide and to understand that in fact I was looking for a smooth paper. The image is just that more fleeting and evanescent. You don’t lose the powdery effect as I feared, it is simply less coarse. And then finally, this dreamlike paper is like a skin.

Graphite pencil, which Eric Manigaud has chosen for his project, is a very interesting medium, both from artists and from conservators’ point of view. It is the variety of pure carbon, also called iron carbide. It is found in fibrous forms, sometimes as a dense crystalline mass, and sometimes in sheets. The most renowned lode of graphite was accidentally found in 1560 at Burrowdale in England. Later, the mineral of excellent quality was sold for a price of gold. Today, it is mined primarily in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Slovakia, India, Mexico and US.

Depending on its origin, the color of graphite varies from velvety black to steel gray. The mineral is crystallized in small hexagonal platelets and often contains impurities, principally ferric oxide, aluminum oxide, silica and chalk. The carbon contents generally ranges from 75% to about 92%. Until 18th century, graphite was used in natural state, and then it was mixed with clay to form pencil lead. The proportions of clay and graphite can be varied to produce grades of hardness, categorized as H, F, B to indicate Hard, Firm and Black.

Graphite is susceptible to rubbing and smudging, especially in drawings that are executed in a softer variation, with a gentle application and on a smoother paper support. In some cases the darkening of graphite drawings along creases or folds of the paper support can be noticeable. Since graphite is a crystallized mineral, shifting of graphite particles in the areas of folds and creases can change into different reflective index on the surface. It can withstand some conservation treatment including washing, but sometimes visible lessening of shininess can be observed.


Eric Manigaud lives and work in Saint-Etienne, France. His works were presented in many museums and galleries around the world, including Musée d’Art Moderne and Musée d’Histoire du XXième Siècle in France, Museum of Art in Korea, Museum Dr. Guislain in Belgium, The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and the Saatchi Gallery in UK.

In an interview with Jacquie Barral, for the Paris Sator Gallery exhibition, Manigaud talked about some of his projects – full text available online (under “biography”). For more information about graphite and its conservation see: James, Carlo and others, Old Master Drawings and Prints - a Guide to Preservation and Conservation, translated and edited by Marjorie B. Cohn, Amsterdam University Press, 1997.

There are many books discussing Foucault’s theory. For the purpose of this post I have used an excellent work by Steve Matthewman, Technology and Social Theory, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

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