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Dr Ben Ware on the Works of Francis Bacon (Part Two)

Posted on 24 Jan 2020

Read the first half of Dr Ben Ware's essay on how we can interpret Bacon’s art philosophically.

© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2019.

Dr Ben Ware (Editor of Painting, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis) is the Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and the Visual Arts at King’s College London, as well as the Philosopher in Residence at the Serpentine Galleries, London. This is the second half of Ware’s essay on how we can interpret Bacon’s art philosophically.

After the existentialist reading of Bacon (outlined in part one of this essay), the second dominant philosophical approach to the artist’s work is the one put forward by Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze‘s central thesis, outlined in his 1981 study Francis Bacon: Logique de la Sensation [Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation] is, in some respects, a simple one. Its basic outline is given on the first page of the Preface to the English edition:

Francis Bacon’s painting is of a very special violence. Bacon, to be sure, often traffics in the violence of a depicted scene: spectacles of horror, crucifixions, prosthesis and mutilations, monsters. But these are overly facile detours, detours that the artist himself judges severely and condemns in his work. What directly interests him is a violence that is involved only with colour and line: the violence of a sensation (and not of a representation), a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction of expression.[1]

Deleuze here thus distinguishes between sensational violence (the spectacle of mutilations, monsters and screams) and the violence of a sensation (associated with colour and line), which, for him, is the real concern of Bacon’s art. The paintings, he argues, reprising Bacon’s own claims, bypass representation and act directly and violently upon the spectator’s ‘nervous system’ (a phrase which he repeats no less than ten times during the book).[2]

Deleuze’s Logic of Sensation seems to do two things at the same time: it applies the author’s own ready-made philosophical system (consisting of concepts such as ‘invisible forces’ and ‘body without organs’)[3] to Bacon’s painting at the same time as it rehearses Bacon’s own claims about his art and aesthetic outlook. The effect can, at times, be disorienting. Who, exactly, is speaking at any given moment? Is it Bacon or is it Deleuze? Is philosophy leading art or is art leading philosophy? Perhaps most problematic is Deleuze’s suggestion that all of Bacon’s paintings operate according to the same logic of sensation. By focusing exclusively on what we might call the affective dimension of Bacon’s works, Deleuze fails to give an account of just what it is that actually compels our interest in them: why do they continue to mean something to us as paintings, not just as things that might (or might not) provoke a certain neuroaesthetic response?


© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2019.

Without wishing to completely downplay the philosophical and aesthetic significance of Deleuze’s reading (a reading that did much to cement Bacon’s reputation as an intellectually serious painter), it would appear that the time is now right to open up a new theoretical dossier on Bacon’s complex and fascinating work. There are numerous directions of travel that we might take here; but one of these is certainly suggested by psychoanalysis. In his interviews with Sylvester, Bacon explains that when he makes an image ‘chance and accident take over […] and if anything ever does work, it works from the moment when consciously I don’t know what I’m doing.’[4] Painting thus involves, for Bacon, ‘thinking of nothing’ and merely making ‘marks’ upon the canvas – marks about which he ‘doesn’t know’ how they will behave.[5]

Bacon refers to this process as one of ‘unlocking’; and here we can draw a direct connection between his creative practice and the technique of psychoanalysis. At the core of psychoanalysis is the activity of free-association, whereby the analysand (patient) says immediately what comes into the mind without attempting to consciously control thought. Freud famously described it as like a passenger in a train carriage who describes to someone else inside the carriage the changing views which he sees outside the window. By using free-association to overcome the constraints imposed upon ordinary speech, it is possible, according to Freud, to expose the workings of the unconscious: ‘when conscious purposive ideas are abandoned, concealed purposive ideas assume control’ (Freud).[6] Interestingly, then, one might see Bacon’s entire creative process as an example of psychoanalysis played out in the realm of art. The patient is not cured by free-associating, she is cured when she can free-associate; and this is what Bacon does so adeptly, so uniquely, in his own aesthetic register. By relinquishing conventional narrative control and allowing new associations to form, he opens up a radically new image-space – not one of pure randomness, but one in which fragments assume a new and hitherto unimagined order.

It is certainly no coincidence that Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews in London’s South Kensington famously resembled a rubbish-dump; for a rubbish-dump (of all our impressions) is precisely what the unconscious is: a strewn landscape from which the artist is able to unearth so many secret and concealed things.


1. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2003), p. x.
2. Ibid, pp. 34ff.
3. Ibid., pp. 44ff.
4. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, p. 54.
5. Ibid.
6. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (London: Allen Unwin, 1954).

Bacon and the Mind (Francis Bacon Studies)

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