An Analysis of Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation

In this paper I will look at three primary ways Deleuze analyzes the works of Francis Bacon. I will conclude this analysis with my own assessment of Bacon and Deleuze’s thoughts and present two reasons as to why Bacon provides an enthralling understanding of the nature of the painting.

First, it’s important to understand what the task of painting for Francis Bacon is. We can begin this understanding through an examination of how the spectator interacts with the painting. Let us call this spectator “I.” There are two primary ways in which I can experience the viewing of a painting: one is the abstract form, which affects the head and brain; the second is the “Figure,” which Cezanne labels the “sensation.” This sensation is the form which interacts “immediately upon the nervous system, which is of the flesh” (Deleuze 34). Consequently, I can only truly experience this sensation once I have become one with the painting—meaning I have found parity and togetherness among the sensing (the subject, I) and the sensed (the object). Building off of this, Bacon concludes that the task of painting is to “paint the sensation, or…” “to record the fact.” Or, as Deleuze later explains, “the task of painting is defined as the attempt to render visible forces that are not themselves visible.”

But just what does it mean to paint the sensation? Deleuze tells us that Bacon describes sensation as “what passes from one ‘order’ to another.” Yet even this is rather vague. Breaking this down, Deleuze first explains what this does not mean. Passing from one order to another does not mean that there are specific sensations we pass between. That is, it wouldn’t make sense to consider sensation to be derived from the “sensational,” which Bacon considers to be the figuration of some sensation a subject in a painting is feeling. In fact, Bacon wishes to discard this figuration as much as possible. This is why Bacon’s paintings, such as the screaming pope, avoid showing just what the pope is frightened of, but rather show just his fright. Sensation also does not mean possession of different or competing feelings, such as observing love and hatred at once in a painting. Bacon counters this interpretation of sensation, finding it “too logical,” when sensation should instead feel “more immediately real to myself.” This leads us to Deleuze’s final hypothesis concerning Bacon’s synthetic sensation. Here, he argues that we must think of sensation as being closely related to a force. A force in this case is simply some kind of exertion placed on the body. In turn, “synthetic sensation” entails the decomposition of the various sensational forces felt by the object in the painting, followed by a reconstruction of these forces placed upon the subject: thus, the sensation, a “movement in-place,” is felt by the viewer. Deleuze staples an additional component to this explanation, arguing that the various orders of feelings can also be understood as reference to our different sense organs. This phenomenological framing of sensation elucidates how just as our organs (taste, smell, etc.) can interact with each other while remaining independent, so too can the forces of a painting. This, for Bacon, is what the painter must do in order to paint the sensation.

Second, Deleuze tackles a critical question: How does Bacon conceive of the act of painting? We can see this meaning in both a micro and macroscopic way. Under a microscopic lens, Bacon outlines the technical attributes that define the act of painting:

Make random marks (lines-traits); scrub, sweep, or wipe the canvas in order to clear out locales or zones (color-patches); throw the paint, from various angles and at various speeds. Now this act, or these acts, presuppose that there were already figurative givens on the canvas (and in the painter’s head), more or less virtual, more or less actual. It is precisely these givens that will be removed by the act of painting, either by being wiped, brushed, or rubbed, or else covered over. (Deleuze 99-100)

The macroscopic understanding is that this act of painting is constantly morphing between a prior state where “everything is already on the canvas, and in the painter himself, before the act of painting begins,” and the subsequent state where the Figure has become visible for both the painter and the viewer (Deleuze 98). This, Deleuze notes, is the “hysteresis” of Bacon’s work, a lag between Bacon’s givens and the canvas’ physical portrayal of such. Thus, the physical act of painting is what frees Bacon from his struggle between the painter being “in the canvas” and the blank white space that is not yet anything for the viewer.

Bacon’s struggle is something Deleuze suggests most, if not all, artists experience. Deleuze argues that this struggle can be thought of as a “catastrophe” or “chaos” that must be confronted by the painter. To begin, consider the genesis of a painting, which Deleuze identifies as the preparatory work where the painter begins to identify what they want these givens on the canvas to be. These givens are already in the painter’s head and are “more or less virtual, more or less actual” (Deleuze 100). Then, as the act of painting begins, the chaos unfolds. Through various brushstrokes (“wiped, brushed, or rubbed…”), the traits of the object in the painting are no longer representative but instead “[confused] traits of sensation,” consuming the canvas with a new figurative given. Once signifiers of the original object, the “diagram,” as Deleuze puts it, is the newly non-representative manifestation of sensations displayed on Bacon’s painting. No longer is there the ability to see the physical signifiers of the original object; instead, the painter, engulfed in his own forces independent of our will, throws his hand at the canvas in hopes of breaking away from the “sovereign optical organization: one can no longer see anything, as if in a catastrophe, a chaos” (Deleuze 100). Perhaps most importantly, Deleuze remarks that painters must use this process to overcome the cliché, “the facile and the ready-made,” which is the opposite of sensation (Deleuze 34). Due to our “[besiegement of] photographs, newspapers, television-images…” ready-made ideas and memories have become part of the canvas before the painter has even begun. Consequently, the painter in the act of painting must overcome the constant battle between the cliché and the sensation (Deleuze 87). Only then is the painting truly the painter’s.

Third, Deleuze explores what the nature of the painting itself is. He begins by looking at the Figure. The Figure is the body, the head—that which is made of flesh. And a figurative form of the Figure is the intentionally representative sketch of the Figure. However, the nature of a painting for Francis Bacon is the figural painting—that is, the haptic “figural whole, which constitutes the specifically aesthetic analogy” (Deleuze 157). This refers back to both the aforementioned “rendering visible forces that are not themselves visible,” as well as the sensations painted by Bacon. Another way to understand this is by understanding what it is not. Deleuze examines three painting styles: figurative, abstract, and expressionist. Bacon is certainly not figurative; in fact, he explicitly states that he wishes to avoid the “figurative, illustrative, and narrative character the Figure would necessarily have if it were not isolated” (Deleuze 2). Bacon successfully avoids the figurative by pursuing the figural: isolation of the Figure from whatever cliché or physical trait it may have originally referenced. Next, Bacon is also not working with abstract painting, as he constantly strives to “[elevate] the Figure to such prominence” (Deleuze, xiv). While abstract painting focuses on the pure form to the point where the Figure is no longer necessary, Bacon’s painting focuses on the purely figural, still dependent on the Figure. Expressionist painting must also be ruled out, as Deleuze points out that the diagram must be “[confined to] certain areas of the painting and certain moments of the act of painting” (Deleuze, 109). This is in contrast with artists like Jackson Pollock, who allowed the diagram to consume the entire painting to the point of just lines and color without contour. Bacon, on the other hand, by confining the diagram, allows the Figure to remain a part of the painting.

This very specific balance between the figural and the Figure is what makes Bacon’s painting so unique. Deleuze delves into some of the techniques which allow Bacon to obtain the Figure. One such technique is isolating the Figure within the frame of the painting. Some ways in which Bacon achieved this included “putting the Figure inside a cube, or rather, inside a parallelepiped of glass or ice; sticking it onto a rail or a stretch-out bar, as if on the magnetic arc of an infinite circle; or combining all these means” (Deleuze 1-2). Another technique Bacon uses is the deformation of the physical traits of the object in the painting, which out of this comes the Figure. Consider the head: in Bacon’s paintings, the head is “wiped, scrubbed, or [has] rubbed out zones” which deform the head and are thus “immediately transferred to the Figure” (Deleuze 19). In doing so, the role of the Figure is fulfilled, acting as a mediator between the real image and the sensation Bacon wishes to render visible.

I find Bacon’s views on the nature of painting to be quite fascinating and agreeable. I have two primary reasons why I find so much comfort in Bacon’s approach to art. The first is that there are swaths of technical inspection that can be done upon analysis of Bacon’s painting. While he would likely be the first to admit that his technical choices are rudimentary (Deleuze 2), I posit that the true mastery lies in deciding which rudimentary technique to use. I personally believe that in order to make any sort of meaningful discussion about art, we must be able to construct some general criteria. Additionally, these criteria must at least partially depend on the artist and their work, for how else are we to evaluate something if it is simply up to the whims of the uneducated or uninformed subject? But at the same time, the emotions and experience felt by the viewer need to bear some resemblance to the sensations placed on the canvas, else the artist can similarly make any claim without any valid objections. Therefore, I posit that Bacon’s work gives us a tremendous balance between the technical expertise of the artist and how the figural image creates a force on the viewer. In my view, Bacon’s statements about the task and nature of paintings provide a compelling measuring stick for how we ought to approach a painting, and by extension art.

My second reason is of a similar vein, but focuses on Bacon and Deleuze’s critique of the cliché. Given that clichés already “[invade] modern painting…before the painter even begins to work,” (Deleuze 10-11) we should feel comfortable with the implication that, so long as clichés permeate paintings, much of the “art” is already present prior to the painter interacting with the canvas. If this is the case, it seems problematic as we wouldn’t really be justified in rewarding the painter with creating a work they would like to call their own when it is in fact not completely theirs. Instead, by praising those who can best remove clichés and generate pure figural sensations, we can better make objective claims on what is and what is not good art and whether it can be justifiably attributed to its creator.

In conclusion, I have examined three key components of Deleuze’s book on Francis Bacon: the task of painting, the act of painting, and the nature of painting. I also argued that both Bacon and Deleuze provide a cogent defense and understanding of the nature of painting.


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