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Figure, sensation, colour: Deleuze’s Francis Bacon

Lecturer: Jon Roffe

Originally Taught: Winter School 2021

In this course, we will examine the lineaments of Gilles Deleuze’s 1981 book Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Deleuze describes it as a book he was afraid to write, dealing with a painter whose work he found overwhelming. The result is a remarkable conceptual construction, providing a point of view on the visual arts that exceeds the scope of its topic, despite being oriented by this singular painter.

Though the course will not proceed in a linear fashion through the book, we will touch on all of its main themes, according to the following structure.

1. Introduction

The aim of this initial session will be, first, to provide a general introduction to Bacon’s life and work. With this in hand, we will turn to the circumstances and general outline of Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. The second hour of this session will be devoted to an overview – following Deleuze’s account – of the formal elements of Bacon’s paintings, and his goal of painting for the nervous system and not the brain.

Readings: ‘1. The Round Area, the Ring’, ‘5. Recapitulative Note’ and ‘8. Painting Forces’

Additional readings: ‘Interview 3’ in The Brutality of Fact; Deleuze, ‘Painting sets writing ablaze’

2. From the figure to rhythm

In the first session, we will have seen the essential formal features of Bacon’s paintings. This second session will focus on the central feature: the figure. We will follow, in effect, Deleuze’s own trajectory here, and consider four questions. First, what is the relationship between the figure and figuration in painting? Second, how can we understand those paintings of Bacon’s that seem to include two figures? And third, and more challenging again, how can we understand Bacon’s famous triptychs as figural works? That is: what is a triptych for Bacon?

With these questions answered, we will repeat the analysis from the perspective of rhythm, drawing on the work of Deleuze’s friend and one time colleague, the phenomenologist Henri Maldiney.

Readings: ‘7. Hysteria’, ‘9. Couples and Triptychs’, ’10. What is a Triptych?’

Additional readings: ‘Interview 2’; Maldiney, extract from Gaze Speech Space

3. From sensation to the diagram

This third session will focus on two questions: how does Bacon compose his works? And, how do Bacon’s paintings function? For Deleuze, the two answers mirror each other. On the one hand, as we will see, Bacon’s method begins with contingency, but is irreducible to it. On the other, the way in which the contingent element, namely the diagram, is played out in the work also allows us to grasp the logic of sensation that figures in the title of Deleuze’s book.

On both fronts, the contrast between Bacon’s method, and that adopted by abstract expressionism and formal abstraction will be a constant reference.

Readings: ‘6. Painting and Sensation’, ’11. The Painting before Painting’, ’12. The Diagram’

Additional readings: ‘Interview 1’; Bogue, ‘Henri Maldiney’

4. From analogy to the haptic

Throughout Francis Bacon, Deleuze is at pains to situate Bacon’s work in the context of art history, though one construed very much on his own terms. This session will begin by compiling the various historical remarks as we find them throughout the book.This historical perspective will provide a basis for us to more fully understand the opposition between the optical and the haptic that colours the second half of the book. The second part of this session will turn to Deleuze’s fascinating account of the role of analogy in painting.

Readings: ’13. Analogy’ and ’14. Every Painter…’

Additional readings: ‘Interview 8’; Ionescu, ‘Wilhelm Worringer’.

5. Colourism. Conclusion

Francis Bacon concludes by turning to the category of colour. There is, in a sense, a complete retelling of the argument of the whole book to be found in the final three chapters, a retelling oriented around the rights of colour, and Bacon’s way of dispensing with the classical functions of painting. The final session will be devoted to an elucidation of this version of the argument.

Readings: ’15. Bacon’s Path’, ’16. Note on Colour’, ’17. The Eye and the Hand’

Additional readings: ‘Interview 9’



The main text will be the Daniel W. Smith translation of the book. Alongside this, we will make frequent reference to David Sylvester’s excellent collection of interviews with Bacon, The Brutality of Fact (both of these will be provided). Each class, other short texts on some of other prominent figures will also be provided, including texts on and by Henri Maldiney and Wilhelm Worringer.