What Pauses my Gaze? (part 1)

An artist friend has posed an important question:
As a figurative painter I wonder, what is interesting and important in art to my friends and fellows. What images and artists pause your gaze?
I want to give a two-part reply to this question, but will limit this post to the first part. I will consider the paintings of Francis Bacon, who has certainly made me pause my gaze on numerous occasions. In a separate post, I will consider some alternative principles for considering this question that are taking root in a sub-community of artists and designers who concern themselves with the notion of "embodiment."

First of all, let me be clear: I do not particularly like or enjoy Bacon's paintings (I mainly refer to his portraits--he was primarily a portrait artist). I do, however, find them fascinating. They stop me in my tracks. What causes this? Dfynt's description of himself as a "figurative painter" made me think of Bacon and his paintings' affect on me. The great 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote a book analyzing Bacon's paintings called The Logic of Sensation (TLoS).

In that book, Deleuze draws an important contrast between the figurative and the figural. The figurative is the “illustrative, and narrative” character of representation (TLoS 6). For Kant, a representation is something before the mind that we synthesize in order to connect it to the rest of our experiences. This definition of representation fits Deleuze as well: “The figurative (representation) implies the relationship of an image to an object that it is supposed to illustrate" (TLoS). Within the order of representational thinking, or as Deleuze will now call it, figurative thinking, “a story always slips into, or tends to slip into, the space between two figures in order to animate the illustrated whole” (TLoS 6).

Opposed to the figurative is the Figural. The figurative is characterized by intelligible relations, whereas the Figural presents us with ‘matters of fact’. For Deleuze, a fact “acts immediately upon the nervous system, which is of the flesh, whereas abstract form is addressed to the head and acts through the intermediary of the brain” (TLoS 31). The figurative is defined by intelligible relations (of objects or ideas—connectedness), whereas “the relation of the Figure to its isolating place defines a ‘fact’” (TLoS 6-7). Thus, in order to move away from figuration, away from the intelligible-relational order of representation, toward the Figure, Bacon uses the method of isolation in his paintings.

Deleuze thinks that painting has two options for escaping the overly cerebral/cognitive realm of figurative representation: it can move "toward pure form, through abstraction; or toward the purely figural, through extraction or isolation” (TLoS 6). Painters such as Mondrian and Kandinsky use abstraction,

whereas Bacon (along with Cézanne) makes figural attempts to paint pure sensations. Bacon’s method of isolation employs “asignifying traits that are devoid of any illustrative or narrative function” such as involuntary free marks, isolated scrubbing with a rag or brush, and large monochromatic fields (TLoS 8).

Bacon's paintings enact an epic struggle between the figurative and the figural, and this, I feel, grabs my attention. The tension of this struggle emanates from the canvas, particularly localized in the faces of Bacon's subjects. The face is a great cliche in figurative painting, portraiture specifically. The face is an organizing structure. A face tells us something about the person to whom it belongs. This is our typical way of looking at faces. In fact, it is so ingrained that we are accustomed to equating faces with thoughts and emotions. They are a window into private mental life. We see the anger on the face of the other. We see the joy in his smile.

But in the work of Bacon, all of this is shat upon. The tension I mentioned above, created by Bacon's use of isolating and deforming techniques, is best seen in the faces of Bacon's paintings. In these faces, the typically figurative manner of representation is locked in tension with Bacon's attempt to paint figurally rather than figuratively. Rather than painting faces, Bacon paints heads. He attempts to dismantle the face, rendering visible forces that deform the face as the head beneath it attempts to emerge. Bacon’s adamantly insisted on painting “the scream more than the horror” (TLoS 34). He wanted to paint the sensation of the scream devoid of the figurative narration that connects it to a cause, to a reason for its existence. This is the meaning of ‘painting’ for Deleuze, as opposed to mere ‘illustration’.

The key to Bacon’s faces, for Deleuze, is the tension that he maintains between the isolating, deformative, dissipative movements of the figural and the illustrative, narrative, representational movements of the figurative. Bacon’s faces are not symmetrical. They appear as faces, yet geometric forms invade from the materiality that is presented along side them. Noses curve up and out. Eye sockets are split apart, or completely absent. Mouths occur where they should not. Animal traits invade the comfortable regularity of the facial schema. One is uncertain about these faces, but they nevertheless ‘appear facially’.

So as I said, I do not enjoy the work of Francis Bacon; but I am able to recognize its significance, as it makes me pause my gaze in a much more profound way than many of the things I actually do enjoy. To answer the initial question in the most general terms possible: tension causing discomfort is interesting and important; it pauses my gaze. This, however, is only one possible answer to this wonderful question.


  1. The first thing that came to mind as I read your post was Roland Barthes's distinction between the studium and punctum of a photograph, which seems relevant (though obviously not equivalent) to Deleuze's distinction between the figurative and figural. That aside: despite irrevocable shortcomings of his ontology and overall system, Deleuze's writings on art and music never cease to captivate me. One of the essays he co-wrote with Guattari, "1837: Of the Refrain," still stands as my favorite essay on music. Thanks for the post. I look forward to reading the follow-up.

  2. I guess the easiest important question for me is about the difference between the face and head trying to emerge. I don't think you, or Deleuze, is saying that the latter represents an interiority, but I'm not quite sure what he's saying.

  3. @ Robot Boy: when Deleuze says Bacon is a painter of heads rather than a painter of faces, you could say the head is a kind of interiority. Bacon effaces his subjects according to the same principle guiding his motivation to "paint the sensation." Bacon wants to paint the pure scream, without connecting it to the screamer. Painting heads rather than faces is an attempt to paint an interiority that not even the subject is transparently aware of. Its trying to get at something purely immanent.