29 Jan 2010

Sinking Spasms [80] Deleuze on Bacon, Painting Series. Figure at a Washbasin, 1976


by Corry Shores
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[I am profoundly grateful to the sources of these images:

[The following is quotation. My commentary is bracketed in red.]


Sinking Spasms
Deleuze on Bacon, Painting Series


Francis Bacon

Figure at a Washbasin, 1976
Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Caracas

Painting 26 of Deleuze's
Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Tome II - Peintures
Painting [80] of the English translation
and Painting [26] of the Seuil 2002 French



it is the body that attempts to escape from itself by means of . . . . in short, a spasm: the body as plexus, and its effort or waiting for a spasm. [...] There is one painting that can guide us, the Figure at a Washbasin of 1976 [80]: clinging to the oval of the washbasin, its hands clutching the faucets, the body-Figure exerts an intense motionless effort upon itself in order to escape down the blackness of the drain. (11c)

c'est le corps qui tente de s'échapper lui-même par... Bref un spasme : le corps comme plexus, et son effort ou son attente d'un spasme. [...] Un tableau peut nous guider, « Figure au lavabo », de 1976 : accroché à l'ovale du lavabo, collé par les mains aux robinets, le corps-figure fait sur soi-même un effort intense immobile, pour s'échapper tout entier par le trou de vidange. (23cd)



The rising-descending, contraction-dilation, and systolic-diastolic oppositions cannot be identified with each other. A discharge, for example, is indeed a descent, as well as a dilation and expansion, but there is also a contraction in the discharge, as in the man at the washbasin [80] and the man on the toilet in the 1973 triptych [73]. (57a)

En effet, on ne peut pas identifier montée-descente et contraction-dilation, systole-diastole : par exemple l'écoulement est bien une descente, et aussi une dilation et expansion, mais il y a de la contraction dans l'écoulement, comme chez l'homme au lavabo et l'homme au bidet du tri triptyque de 1973. (77bc)


[Bacon's paintings cause our eyes to feel pushed-and-pulled in many directions and in many ways, all at once. The different ways can be combined but not reduced to one another. So when we look at the figure at the basin, we notice the circle confining the figure. It gives us the sense that that the space is contracting around him.


So there is a contracting motion that we sense. Yet, this is like squeezing a water balloon. The pressure of the contracting force on the figure causes its insides to try to escape somehow. The dual inward-and-outward forces are like how our hearts contract and release. So Deleuze calls them diastolic-systolic rhythms. But also in this image, Bacon is painting a moment that is no longer than a tenth of a second. And the escape has not happened yet. So the dual wrestling inward-and-outward forces cause the body to shudder-and-shake.


This would be a sort of resonance caused by differences that are forced together, in this case, different motional tendencies. The man's body then spasms in that instant. Notice the vibrations:


It reminds us of the vibration of a string, when we see a short moment of its movement.


The forces want to escape through some hole. In this case it is through his mouth and down the drain. Hence we also sense a downward tendency in the painting.


Note that the motions do not actualize. But we feel them. They are real. But they are virtual, in a sense. They are there as tendencies. But they do not tend outward into extensive space. They instead tend inward into an intensive depth.]




We have seen that the three fundamental elements of Bacon's painting were the armature or structure, the Figure, and the contour. [...] Now, all three of these converge on color, in color. And it is modulation - that is, the relations between colors - which at the same time explains the unity of the whole, the distribution of each element, and the way each of them acts upon the others.

Consider an example analyzed by Marc Le Bot. The 1976 Figure at a Washbasin [80]

is like a piece of wreckage washed downstream by a river of ocher color with circular eddies and a red reef, which prevent the unlimited expansion of color through a double spatial effect that confines the color locally and fixes it, in such a way that it is enhanced and accelerated. Broad flows of color in this way cross the space of Francis Bacon's pictures. If their space is comparable to a homogeneous and fluid mass in its monochromatism, but disrupted by breakwaters, their regime of signs cannot be derived from a geometry of stable measure. It is derived, in this painting, from a dynamic that makes the gaze glide from the bright ocher to the red. This is why a directional arrow can be inscribed on it. [ft1. Marc Le Bot, "Espaces," in L'Arc 73 (special issue on Francis Bacon) [Deleuze p142d] ]

This distribution can be clearly seen. There is the large, monochrome ocher shore as the background, which provides the armature. There is the contour as an autonomous power (the reef) - it is the crimson of the mattress or cushion on which the Figure is standing, a crimson that is combined with the black of the disk and contrasted with the white of the crumpled newspaper. Finally, there is the Figure, like a flow of broken tones - ochers, reds, and blues. But there are still other elements. First, there is the black blind that seems to cut across the field of ocher; then the washbasin, itself a bluish broken tone; and the long curved pipe, a white marked with manual daubs of ocher, which surrounds the mattress, the Figure, and the washbasin, and which also cuts across the field. We can see the function of these secondary yet indispensable elements. The washbasin is like a second autonomous contour which surrounds the Figure's head, just as the first surrounded its foot. And the pipe is itself a third autonomous contour, whose upper half divides the field of color in half. As for the blind, its role is all the more important insofar as, in keeping with a technique dear to Bacon, it falls between the field and the Figure, in such a way that it occupies the shallow depth that separates them and relates the entire painting to one and the same plane. It is a rich communication of colors. The Figure's broken tones incorporate not only the pure tone of the field but also the pure tone of the red cushion, adding to it bluish tones that resonate with the tone of the washbasin, a broken blue that contrasts with the pure red. (101bc; 101d-102d)

Nous avons vu que les trois éléments fondamentaux de la peinture de Bacon, c'étaient l'armature ou la structure, la Figure, le contour. [...] Or tous les trois convergent vers la couleur, dans la couleur. Et c'est la modulation, c'est-à-dire les rapports de la couleur, qui expliquent à la fois l'unité de l'ensemble, la répartition de chaque élément, et la manière dont chacun agit dans les autres.

Soit un exemple analysé par Marc le Bot : la « Figure au lavabo », de 1976, « est comme une épave charriée par un fleuve de couleur ocre, avec des remous circulaires et un récif rouge, dont le double effet spatial est sans doute de resserrer localement et de nouer un moment l'expansion illimitée de la couleur, de telle sorte qu'elle en soit relancée et accélérée. L'espace des tableaux de Francis Bacon est ainsi traversé par de larges coulées de couleurs. Si l'espace y est comparable à une masse homogène et fluide dans sa monochromie, mais rompue par des brisants, le régime des signes ne peut y relever d'une géométrie de la mesure stable. Il relève, dans ce tableau, d'une dynamique que fait glisser le regard de l'ocre clair au rouge. C'est pourquoi peut s'y inscrire une flèche de direction ». [ft141. Marc Le Bot, Espaces, in L'Arc n 73, Francis Bacon.] On voit bien la réparation : il y a la grande plage ocre monochrome comme fond, et qui donne l'armature. Il y a le contour comme puissance autonome (le récif) : c'est le pourpre du sommier ou coussin sur lequel la Figure se tient, pourpre associé au noir de la pastille et contrasté avec le blanc du journal froissé. Il y a enfin la Figure, comme une coulée de tons rompus, ocres, rouges et bleus. Mais il y a encore d'autres éléments : d'abord la persienne noire que semble couper l'aplat ocre ; et puis le lavabo, lui-même d'un bleuté rompu ; et le long tuyau incurvé, blanc marqué de taches manuelles ocres, qui entoure le sommier, la Figure et le lavabo, et qui recoupe aussi l'aplat. On voit la fonction de ces éléments secondaires et pourtant indispensables. Le lavabo est comme un second contour autonome, qui est pour la tête de la Figure, tout comme le premier était pour le pied. Et le tuyau lui-même est un troisième contour autonome, dont la branche supérieure divise en deux l'aplat. Quant à la persienne, son rôle est d'autant plus important que, suivant le procédé cher à Bacon, elle tombe entre l'aplat et la Figure, de manière à combler la profondeur maigre que les séparait, et à rapporter l'ensemble sur un seul et même plan. C'est une riche communication de couleurs les tons rompus de la Figure reprennent le ton pur de l'aplat, mais aussi le ton pur du coussin rouge, et y ajoutent des bleutés qui résonnent avec celui du lavabo, bleu rompu qui contraste avec le pur rouge. 137b; 137d-138d


Sometimes again, the field is interrupted only by a thin white bar that crosses it completely, as in the three faces of the beautiful rose-colored Triptych of 1970 [62]; and this is also the case, partially, in the Figure at a Washbasin [80], where the field is crossed by a white bar, subordinating it to the contour. (103c)

Tantôt encore, l'aplat est seulement interrompu par une mince barre blanche, qui le traverse tout entier, comme sur les trois vaces du très beau triptyque rose de 1970 ; et c'est aussi le cas, partiellement, de l'Homme au lavabo dont l'aplat ocre est traversé par une barre blance comme dépendance du contour. (139c).



Lastly, there remains the contour. We are familiar with its ability to multiply itself, since it can include a large contour (for example, a rug) surrounding a midzied contour (a chair), which itself surrounds a small contour (a round area). Or the three contours of the Figure at a Washbasin[80]. (106a)
Reste le contour. Nous savons son pouvoir de se multiplier, puisqu'il peut y avoir un grand contour (par exemple un tapis) qui cerne un moyen contour (une chaise) qui cerne lui-même un petit contour (un rond). Ou bien les trois contours de l'« Homme au lavabo ». (142b)

[Bazin desribes the flowing motions in the painting, and the "dynamic that makes the gaze glide from the bright ocher to the red". Painters can use colors and their relations to cause our eyes to want to move from one place to another. Take for example this diagram from Paul Klee's notebooks, where he draws arrows for the movements (in his case our eyes move from red to yellow, unlike in this Bacon piece where they move from ochre to red).


Notice now how our eyes jump around the squares in Klee's Farbtafel Qu 1:


So we will look now at these motions which result from the colors and the structures they create. Our eyes begin in a sense with the ochre field. This is like a screen where the images are pinned flat to it. Deleuze says the field serves a structural role similar to an armature in sculpture.


(Lauri R. Panopoulos' Tyrone Sculpture. Thanks www.lauridolls.com)


The armature supports the structure. In Bacon's paintings, the fields are something like a two-dimensional plane, and the figures are then pinned-down upon it. Look again at the ochre 'armature' field.


Bazin says it is like the shore, held firm against the ocean waves. This field is interrupted by shapes that serve to enclose figures inside. Note that what brings-out this contour is the contrast of color.


So this white ring is one of three enclosing contours.


Another contour is the red rug which closes in on his lower body.


Note again how it is the color of the red rug that gives it this role distinct from the field. The red, Deleuze says, combines with the black circle, and is contrasted with the white of the crumpled newspaper.


And a third contour is the washbasin, which encloses the man's head.


Now we will examine the colors of the man's body. They are not monochromatic like the ochre field and the red rug. Instead, we see reds, blues, and ochers broken-up and flowing into each other.


The color is modulated in a very different way in the Figure's body. (This this entry for more on modulation). Deleuze then points-out how the colors designate the other elements of the painting. On the washbasin we see different broken blue tones, which contrast with the carpet's red. The Figure has both bluish and redish colors, as well as some of the pure tone of the field.


Look now at the black blinds.


Recall in the first place how the figure is pinned to the ochre field. There is not much spatial depth between them. Deleuze says that Bacon uses a technique to both link the figure and background onto the same plane, all while establishing their difference. In this case, the black blinds perform that function. They stand between the figure and field, all while doing so without creating a sense of spatial depth.]

Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Transl. Daniel W. Smith. London/New York: Continuum, 2003.

Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Paris: Seuil, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Tome II - Peintures. Paris: Editions de la différence [Littératures], 1981.



Images obtained gratefully from:

Cropped images taken gratefully from:

Vibrating string image:

Armature image

Tyrone Sculpture

Paul Klee, Unendliche Naturgeschickte, (Basel : Schwabe, 1970), p.146.


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