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.’ 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.
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). 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. Robert Hughes, ‘Horrible!’, The Guardian, August 30, 2008. [accessed 19/11/2019]
2. See, for example, David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1987), p. 43.
3. Rina Arya, ‘The Existential Dimensions of Bacon’s Art’, in Francis Bacon: Critical and Theoretical Perspectives (Oxford: Lang, 2012), p. 89.
4. Ibid., pp. 100 & 92.
5. Sylvester, Brutality of Fact, p. 29.
6. Ibid., p. 58.
7. Ibid., p. 65.
8. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2003), p. x.
9. Ibid, pp. 34ff.
10. Ibid., pp. 44ff.
11. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, p. 54.
13. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (London: Allen Unwin, 1954).