Björn David Herzig
Critics usually agree that seeing a painting by Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992) is, to a greater or lesser degree, an aesthetically painful experience. While this might be said of many works of art created in the 20th century, in Bacon’s case, this painfulness can surely be understood in a very specific sense. In the course of this essay, I want to focus on one of Bacon’s earlier works, his 1953 painting “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” I will try to analyze in which way the picture achieves its disturbing effect and in how far this effect lies at the very center of the ‘meaning’ of Bacon’s painting.
In order to achieve a deeper understanding of the portrait in question, one has to become aware of Bacon’s complex and somewhat obsessive relationship with the Spanish baroque painter DiegoRodríguezde Silva y Velázquez (1599 - 1660). Bacon’s admiration for Velázquez, especially for his “Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” (1650) had already been eminent in his “Painting 1946” (1946)1 and became ultimately evident in 1951, when his first series of papal images (“Pope I - III”) appeared.2 Altogether, from 1950 to 1965, Bacon produced no less than 25 reworkings of Velázquez’s painting; and even though his interest in the subject decreased after 1953, he nevertheless accomplished a series of six ‘later popes’ in 1961 – a fact which, after all, reflects the intense struggle and artistic argument Bacon had with his predecessor during more than a decade of his lifetime.
Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten
Apart from Bacon’s admiration for Velázquez’s outstanding technical abilities as a painter, he seems to value him above all as the archetypal painter of “the dressed-up human being”.3 This is important in so far, as Bacon, on several occasions, affirmed the prime interest of his own painting to be ‘the human figure as such’4 – a fact which becomes evident if we consider the somehow puzzling continuity of his effort in illustrating bodies, gestures, movements, mimics etc. in order to grasp a certain feeling, mood or mental state of the human condition. This specific motivation had already been apparent in his earlier series of “Heads” (1947 - 49), which in a certain way anticipates the later series of papal images.
Since Francis Bacon’s “Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” might surely be described as a “reinvention”5 of the Velázquez picture, any interpretation is also forced to draw the connection between the two paintings. As I will now try to analyze some of the basic features of Bacon’s “Study”, I will also try to point out in how far the two pictures ‘stimulate’ each other, and in which way a proper interpretation of the Baconian painting can only be derived from a sound understanding of its role model.
Certainly, one of the most striking features of Velázquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” is the way he portrays the pope as a powerful, dominant and important human being. Every aspect of his figure – mimic, gesture, attributes and the overall posture – assures us of his unquestionable authority as well as of his unique and elevated position. As Bacon himself explains, in Velázquez’s painting, the pope appears “as though raised onto a dais on which the grandeur of his image can be displayed to the world.”6 Velázquez’s task, as a court painter, had obviously been to accomplish an ex cathedra image of the pope as a public person.7 – If I to extract a philosophical quintessence from these observations, I would probably say that this painting, as such, achieves an affirmation (and maybe, justification) of the human being in general – that is: in every aspect of his existence. Velázquez’s portrait, as is evident, does not question the religious, political, psychic or social condition of its ‘subject’ (the pope), instead, through its open display of might and authority, it positivelyillustrates the status quo of human existence.
1 For this interpretation see Russell, John: Francis Bacon (London: 1979), p. 41
2 Russell (Bacon , p. 91) describes the images of this earlier series as being rather unambiguous and realistic: “The figure is pushed towards us like the rings and bracelets and necklaces in a jeweller’s window, and it is held by a tubular construction, half single-bed, half unpadded throne.”
3 Russell, Bacon , p. 42
4 See, for example, Sylvester, David: Interviews with Francis Bacon / The Brutality of Fact (London: 1995), p. 63
5 Davies, Hughes: FrancisBacon (New York: 1986), p. 26
6 Sylvester, Interviews , p. 26
7 Cf. Davies, Bacon , p. 23
The large Francis Bacon show currently drawing multitudes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art really speaks for itself. You dont need any theory to love it. The hits are all there -- the wailing Popes, the naked wrestlers, the melted portraits of the British artists colleagues and lovers. All of these are crowd-pleasers, exuding an atmosphere of fertile angst that is immediately accessible. (The first thing you see as you enter, in fact, is Bacons triptych of serpentine, phallic monsters, inspiration for the chest-bursting creature of Alien fame, a curatorial decision that hammers home the populist appeal of Bacon.)
As I passed through the galleries one Tuesday morning with the crowds, however, I recalled that despite the horror-movie vibe of it all, there is a particular reference that gives Bacons work a sheen of intellectual mystique for me: Gilles Deleuzes small book, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, first published in 1981. The much-cited postmodern philosopher, part of the canon in any college theory class, was a Bacon fan. That fact by itself has always made Bacons work seem somehow important in a way it might not otherwise have.
I know Im not the only one who feels this way. I know because the Met show quotes Deleuze in its wall text about one of the iconic Pope paintings: "Bacons scream is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth." Every single writer in the Met catalogue feels bound to reference Deleuzes book (though Martin Harrison does acknowledge that Deleuze is wrong to ascribe to Bacon a fundamentally anti-narrative agenda; more on this in a sec.) Even Bacons biographer, Michael Peppiatt, whose Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma was recently republished to coincide with this show, tells us that Deleuzes treatise "put discussion of Bacons painting on a new plane of pure, often playful and always inventive intellectual conjecture" -- though he doesnt say that much more about it (Bacon and Deleuze apparently did meet, once, in the early 80s; as Peppiatt puts it, "no friendship evolved").
A few years ago, University of Minnesota Press sent me a copy of a new edition of The Logic of Sensation when it was reissued in a new translation. After seeing the show at the Met, I decided to pick it up and see if its insights still held today.
Ill spare a build up and say that I dont think The Logic of Sensation does hold up to scrutiny (though any book that contains a sentence as crazy as "The head-meat is a becoming-animal of man" cant be all bad either). Before I get into the details of why, however, I will note that Deleuzes sibylline manner, which I think connotes a sense of timeless intellectual mystery for his admirers, today strikes me as a dated, period style. Overcomplex and bombastic, its a bit like the philosophical equivalent of prog rock. The Logic of Sensation was published the same year Rush released Tom Sawyer -- coincidence? (Deleuze himself would probably prefer a comparison to Talking Heads; he quotes Crosseyed and Painless somewhere in this book.)
What, in essence, is Deleuzes argument about Francis Bacon? The Logic of Sensation amounts to 17 tangentially connected essays, each one a different formal/philosophical analysis of one aspect of Bacons practice. Deleuze considers, to pick a few random examples, the fact that Bacon tends to isolate figures in a round area at the center of the frame; the recurrence of animal imagery in his paintings; his recourse to the triptych format; and his use of colors. He postulates a common "logic" that underlies all these various choices. In essence, Deleuze sees in Bacons liquescent brand of Expressionism an illustration of his own philosophical thesis that what is most real about bodies is their virtuality, their irreducibility to any one fixed form or identity. Thus, for Deleuze, the isolation of Bacons figures at the center of the frame is a way of cutting them out of any narrative relation that would ascribe to them a fixed meaning; the animal imagery reflects the blurring of the self and other; the triptych is a way of showing different aspects of a single form without reducing it to a common essence; and Bacons use of color is a way of escaping the hypostatizing effect of linear representation, instead rendering spaces and bodies as flows of mercurial energy ("Each dominant color and each broken tone indicates the immediate exercise of a force on the corresponding zone of the body or head; it immediately renders force visible.")
And whats wrong with all of this? Nothing -- unless you actually take it seriously. Ill proceed through four counts, from the most inconsequential to the most compromised aspect of Deleuzes adoption of Bacon.
First of all, Deleuzes adventure into art is thrilling -- but when he actually tries to talk about art history, he plays so fast and loose with references that it is distorting. One of Deleuzes least helpful contributions to understanding Bacon, for instance, is his pronouncement that "Bacon first of all seems to be an Egyptian." This is fine as a superficial bit of color -- theres nothing outrageous about the observation that Bacons squashed spaces might resemble the absolute space of Egyptian art a little. But this is not a flourish for Deleuze; he repeats it multiple times, and actually seems to think that Bacons Egyptian-ness is a matter of world-historical import. When he asks the reader what accounts for the difference between Bacons painting and Egyptian art, Deleuze actually replies by stating the following: "What is at stake here is no longer just Bacon, but undoubtedly the entire history of Western painting" (Gotta love how art theorists who reject all historical "meta-narratives" can let a statement like that slide). But then it turns out what is important about "Egyptian art" for Deleuze is just one thing -- bas-relief, an art form which (so he says) collapses the opposition between visual and haptic space, a quality that Deleuze also values in Bacons painting. Never mind that bas-relief is not really particular to Egypt, or that there is really a lot more to Egyptian art than bas-relief. . . I suppose if I defined an apple as any sweet round fruit, then an orange would also be an apple.
Second, while the power of The Logic of Sensation is due largely to what translator Daniel W. Smith calls Deleuzes "extraordinarily specific and detailed analyses of individual paintings," in fact the account has a yawning blind spot when it comes to the actual work of Francis Bacon. If you had to describe the characteristic tone of Bacons imagery, youd probably think of claustrophobia, of dread, of a sense of visceral repulsion. And yet, Gilles Deleuzes entire argument is based on bracketing this aspect of the work out as insignificant. From Deleuzes own introduction to his book: "Bacon, to be sure, often traffics in the violence of a depicted scene: spectacles of horror, Crucifixions, prostheses and mutilations, monsters. But these are overtly facile detours. . . What directly interests him is a violence that is involved only with color and line: the violence of a sensation (and not of a representation)." Later, he tells us that "Bacons deformations are rarely constrained or forced, they are not tortures, despite appearances," and still later, he asserts that Bacon "is not a painter who believes in death. His is indeed a figurative misérabilisme, but one that serves an increasingly powerful Figure of life."
But no, wrong -- Bacons paintings are inescapably about crucifixions, monsters, torture, death, albeit of a surreal variety. That is part of their "logic." A work like Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (1961), on view at the Met, is pregnant with all sorts of meanings -- but it does invoke the image of a disabled child, and owes some of its impact to the fact that this referent is explicit (we can be certain, because it is citing a frame from an Eadweard Muybridge serial photo). Deleuze, admittedly, is interested in championing the concept of the "diagram," a manner of representing bodies that, he tells us, doesnt try to replicate an original referent, but instead strives toward "a creation of original relations that are substituted for the form." Apparently, such an operation renders subject matter indifferent; or, better said, it seems that technique is the only real subject matter for Deleuze. In effect, what Deleuze is doing is saying that Bacon is not "really" interested in what he is clearly most interested in, then rhapsodizing over how well his own edited version of the work fits his own thesis!
Now, of course, one can argue that some secret life-affirming force is at work underneath Bacons imagery of horror and loneliness -- but in that case, you still have to account for how the explicit and buried contents interact. If Bacons painting is fundamentally about unleashing powerful flows of desire, why do these primarily manifest themselves through horrific imagery? It is not as if sometimes he paints blood and ghouls, and sometimes he paints rainbows and frolicking puppies; hes not indifferent to content. Similarly, it is no good to state that what is most fundamental about Bacon is a bracketing out of all narrative suggestion, when this is clearly not the case -- at the Met, a work like Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI (1957), a depiction of the shadowy Dutchman slouching across a yellow field weighed down by painting instruments, as if in a funk, proves that Bacon is interested in plugging his paintings into recognizable figures and stories, however fragmentary. (As a matter of fact, you can even say he had a taste for stories -- Peppiatt notes that the van Gogh series was inspired by the Kirk Douglas film Lust for Life!)
Deleuze fans will say that the philosopher is not interested in "interpreting" paintings, but in generating new ideas about them. However, if such a method is not going to operate just as a license to make shit up, it must be based on a reading of the actual material at hand. In his famous readings of philosophers, Deleuze prided himself on a method of overreading, using their own words to create something new and "monstrous" by pushing their internal logic to its limit -- "the author had to say, in effect, everything I made him say." This is not the method he follows in the much more openly "monstrous" case of Bacons art. Here he is simply superimposing his own affirmative philosophy onto his object.
Both of these problems with Deleuzes reading of Bacon -- his haphazard use of history, his tone-deafness when it comes to the paintings themselves -- are symptoms of a more fundamental issue of approach. For, despite his attentiveness to specific artworks, it is not really art that interests Deleuze. He is only interested in art as it relates to a specific problem in philosophy, which is the representation of being. Thus, the history of art and the quirks of Bacons particular oeuvre both get reduced to responses to the dilemmas of representation -- the space of "classical" painting, for Deleuze, is reducible to a manner of establishing an "objective" space which separates out the subject from the object, while he defines the achievement of Bacon as having to do with the way his work undoes this separation, collapsing visual space and returning the subject to its vital co-dependence with its environment.
There is some truth to this reading (though I will take David Harveys account of the Renaissance production of "objective" perspectival space as a function of a nascent mercantile capitalisms needs for objective cartography and scientific knowledge over Deleuzes placeless, causeless account any day). The real problem lies in the way that The Logic of Sensation reads artworks as nothing more than responses to intellectual problems, turning philosophical pertinence into a device for evaluating artistic quality. Despite the protestations of both his translator and Tom Conley, who writes an afterward for the most recent edition of the book, The Logic of Sensation does in fact amount to a philosophical esthetics. It is full of casual generalizations about the ontology of art that are used as evaluative tools. Take the following: "[T]here is a special relation between painting and hysteria. . . Painting directly attempts to release the presences beneath representation, beyond representation." Deleuze then goes on to judge the success of various styles of painting against this definition of paintings essence.
The paradoxical result, given this thinkers reputation as a champion of difference, is that various artworks are conceived of as offering right or wrong answers, thereby strictly limiting the modes of appreciating art: "There are two ways in which the [modern] painting can fail," Deleuze pronounces confidently, "once visually" -- that would be abstraction of the Mondrian/Kandinsky variety, deemed to be too wrapped up in a quest for ideal Forms -- "and once manually." The latter case is that of Pollock-style abstraction, which Deleuze finds not merely distasteful, but demonstrably false. "By liberating a space that is (wrongly) claimed to be purely optical, the abstract expressionists in fact did nothing other than to make visible an exclusively manual space." Marcel Duchamp, likewise, comes under fire for being too random, and therefore still implicitly posing a difference between human agency and impersonal chance. In the end, it seems Deleuzes theory is only flexible enough to accommodate Cézanne, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Bacon.
Which brings me to my final point, which is about the self-undermining nature of Deleuzian "logic" in general. Even philosophical rivals like Alain Badiou will admit that Deleuze constructed a system that is formidably suggestive. However, it must be admitted that any attempt to actually do anything with his thought has mainly added up to nothing, or worse. The most successful attempt to put Deleuzes insights into political form, for instance, is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negris tome Empire, a work that essentially amounts to proposing not having a plan as a strategy for the anti-globalization movement (This is not a surprise, really -- Deleuzes frequent role-model was French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose reflections on the "élan vital" famously became reactionary when taken up as a political philosophy; the Bergsonian tendency to leave politics to "the irrational, to chance" is a subject of critique in Gramscis Prison Notebooks).
Who was Gilles Deleuze? He was a French leftist philosopher who wrote all his major works in the 60s and 70s, most of them in the wake of the uprising of May 1968. As such, his work partakes of the sense of radical intellectual experimentation of that period, but also of the New Lefts disillusionment with material and historical explanations for reality (somewhat understandable, given the Stalinized nature of the French Communist Partys politics, and the major role it played in French intellectual life). The philosophy Deleuze offers, in his book on Francis Bacon and elsewhere, gets much of its appeal because it still resounds with liberatory rhetoric. We live in a world that brutally instrumentalizes bodies, tries to sell people unrealistic Platonic ideals of what they can be -- so Deleuzes anti-Platonist philosophy that bodies cannot be confined to any one definition, that they are indisociably part of a constantly surging flux of self-differentiating energy, has a potent social content. (Its always worth remembering that Deleuze, like his colleague Michel Foucault, had a famous -- if equivocal -- association with the gay liberation movement.)
Nevertheless, the problem with Deleuzes attempt to write difference into ontology is that in reality what is "different" is determined in relation to actual, historical events, not in some abstract, free-flowing psychic space. Without anchoring concepts in relation to a real context, there is no way to stop ones prescriptions from becoming ahistorical formulae, no matter how many times you state that they cant be. In some contradictory way, I think that it is precisely this formalistic character which explains the continued appeal of Deleuze in art circles today: He allows his followers to insist that they are committed to liberating desire from all pre-established structures, while in fact confining themselves to a pretty narrow, predictable structure (Badiou rightly declares Deleuzes oeuvre to be conceptually "monotonous" underneath its superficial complexity). In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and collaborator Felix Guattari tell us that philosophy is not about establishing fixed axioms and rules, but about creating new concepts, new trajectories of thought. It should therefore be deeply embarrassing that 99 percent of all writing on Deleuze is simply slavish blow-by-blow recapitulation, and that the Met show pays homage to him as a kind of aphorism-spouting sage.
In the final analysis, Francis Bacons oeuvre itself provides a tremendous example of the necessity of a historical approach. Read Jerry Saltzs recent biographical sketch of Bacons career [see "Sacred Monster," May 27, 2009]. Whereas in The Logic of Sensation, it often seems that Bacons career trajectory is nothing but a circling ever closer to Deleuzes own position, Saltz shows how Bacons style, at one point an expression of a potent and unique worldview, eventually became a gimmick, a defense mechanism. The very same formal tics that had been an expression of an original thought became a way of resisting confronting further original thought. "Whats especially poignant about Bacon is that he knew hed built his own prison. As early as 1963, he referred to my rigidness. He talked about the drawback of his style and how he used painterly tics as a device."
My sense is that these days the gleam is off the postmodern apple. But intellectual life moves slowly, weighed down by the structures of tenure, inherited prestige, institutional inertia and so on. There will always be room for difficult-to-understand figures, simply so that curators and scholars who need to establish some kind of objective authority in the profoundly subjective field of art can invoke something that goes over the head of the average person. But it seems to me that these days the recourse to Deleuzes flawed Bacon book is its own kind of rigid "reflex," its own kind of inert intellectual "device." In invoking its authority, its worth wondering whether we arent building a prison around Bacon, rather than seeing him well.
BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine. He can be reached at