9 Aug 2017

Bacon’s Triptych, Three Studies of the Human Head, 1953, in Deleuze’s Francis Bacon commentary


by Corry Shores

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[The following is quotation. My commentary is in brackets.]



Francis Bacon


Triptych, Three Studies of the Human Head, 1953


all panels .. art images

left panel .. art images

center panel .. art images

right pane .. art images

(Thanks source: artimage.org.uk)


Painting 60 of Deleuze’s
Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Tome II - Peintures
Painting [13] of the English translation
and Painting [60] of the Seuil 2002 French



From the text:

Et si l’on rêve d’introduire un ordre dans un triptyque, nous croyons que celui de 1953 impose cet ordre qui ne se confond pas avec la succession des panneaux : la bouche qui crie au centre, le sourire hystérique à gauche, et à droite enfin la tête qui s’incline et se dissipe. [60]

(Deleuze 1981a: 24a; 2002: 34b)


And if one dreams of introducing an order into a triptych, I believe that the 1953 triptych [13] imposes the following order, which is not to be confused with the succession of panels: the screaming mouth in the center, the hysterical smile on the left, and finally, the inclined and dissipated head on the right.

(Deleuze 2003a: 26b; 2003b: 28d; 2005: 21b)



[Deleuze notes how generally there are no narrative relations between the Figures in Bacon’s paintings. This means also there would probably be no ordering relations between Figures displayed in separate panels. However, Deleuze says that were there to be some exception, it could be this triptych, because the panels’ successive states can be seen as displaying the stages of the self-escape of the Figure’s body. {1} First it begins its escape through the mouth through the scream. {2} Then it begins it dissipation, evidenced by the disjunction between the hysterical smile and and the tensed body (see the first quotation in painting 11.) {3} The body is now dissipating, with the face losing all form and the body slumping as it dissipates. When we pass from left to right, we might even hear a sort of melodic drop as we go from panel to panel.

all panels .. art images[5]

(Thanks source: artimage.org.uk)

Note: the text says that the screaming mouth is in the center panel and that the hysterical smile is the left panel. In the French painting edition, they are in fact displayed in this order:


(Deleuze 1981b: painting 60)




From the text:

L’hystérique, c’est á la fois celui qui impose sa présence, mais aussi celui pour qui les choses et les êtres sont présents, trop présents, et qui donne á toute chose et communique á tout être cet excès de présence. [...] Bacon peut dire avec humour que le sourire hystérique qu’il peint sur le portrait de 1953, sur la tête humaine de 1953, sur le pape de 1955, vient du « modèle » qui était « très nerveux, presque hystérique ». Mais c’est tout le tableau qui est hystérisé.

(Deleuze 1981a: 36c; 2002: 52c)


The hysteric is at the same time someone who imposes his or her presence, but also someone for whom things and beings are present, too present, and who attributes to every thing and communicates to every being this excessive presence. [...] Bacon explains rather testily that the hysterical smile he painted on the || 1953 portrait [11], on the human head of 1953 [13] , and on the 1955 Pope [19] came from a “model” who was  very neurotic and almost hysterical.” But in fact it is the whole painting that is hystericized.

(Deleuze 2003a: 63b; 2003b: 75d; 2005: 36c)



[When an image represents a situation, we might say that the image provides itself in its presence, and the represented element is given indirectly through the representation. Processing images representationally is something more or less cognitive and cerebral. Bacon’s paintings avoid representation while still providing intense sensations, and thus we are not distracted by the cognitive elements and instead are left with the raw presences of the image and its sensations. And we might also note that when we experience an overwhelming sensory experience, it attests both to the presence of those sensations as well as to the presence of whatever may be causing them, including the “forces” that are at work in imposing themselves upon our sensory apparatus. And given how overwhelming the sensations are, it attests to the excessiveness of this presence that has such a disruptive effect on our body’s workings. The Figures in Bacon’s paintings can be said to both themselves experience and express this excessive presence as well as causing us to have an overwhelming sensory experience, and thus they communicate that excessive presence to us. We might also find that in such experiences of sensory overload, our bodies begin to undergo confusions of many physical sorts, like certain components of the sensation being at odds with others. We may for example want to look away from the image in disgust while at the same time being drawn to it with rapt and eager curiosity. While under this mode of experience, we could perhaps notice certain traits of hysteria, coming especially from the lack of control of all the influences, tensions, sensations, and so on wrestling throughout our body. Deleuze’s point in these passages is that the hysteria of these Figures is something found not just in the smiles but throughout their bodies and in fact throughout the rest of the painting. For, the other elements in the painting are involved in the play of forces that give rise the Figure’s hystericized body and smile.]



From the text:


Dans les triptyques, c’est donc sur l’horizontale qu’on cherchera le rythme- | témoin à valeur constante. Cette horizontale peut présenter plusieurs Figures. D’abord, celle du plat sourire hystérique : non seulement comme nous l’avons vu, pour le triptyque de tête de 1953 (panneau gauche), mais déjà pour le triptyque des monstres de 1944 (panneau central), où la tête aux yeux bandés n’est pas du tout une tête qui s’apprête à mordre, mais une tête abominable qui sourit, suivant une déformation horizontale de la bouche. [60] [80]

(Deleuze 1981a: 51-52; 2002: 74b)


In the triptychs, it is thus on the horizontal that we must seek the attendant-rhythm with a constant value. This horizontal can be presented in several Figures. First, there is the flat hysterical smile, which appears not only, as we have seen, in the 1953 triptych of the head (left panel [13]), but already in the 1944 triptych of monsters (central panel) [1], where the head with the bandaged eyes is not a head preparing to die, but an abominable head that smiles along the horizontal deformation of the mouth.

(Deleuze 2003a: 44b; 2003b: 75; 2005: 54b)



[Deleuze identifies three rhythmic tendencies or “figures” in Bacon’s triptychs. We might think of these rhythmic figures as being tendencies or forces of variation impressing themselves into the viewing experience, with all these figures being what they are individually on account of their relation to the other forces. There is an active rhythm, which acts upon or against a passive rhythm, which is the recipient, patient, or simply the opposite in a ‘losing’ way of the active tendencies. So if the Figure in one panel implies a force or motion that is rising, then the passive rhythm will be found in another Figure implying a downward force or motion. There is always a third rhythmic figure, which is like a baseline against which the other-two are oriented. So if one Figure has a rising motion, and another a falling motion, then the third will have a horizontal motion (or a horizontal stability), since that would be the neutral stance between rising and falling. Often times there is a horizontal smile in Bacon’s Figures which serve this attendant rhythmic function, and we see it here in the center panel.


center panel .. art images

(Thanks source: artimage.org.uk)

Note: as mentioned above, the text says the smile is in the left panel, which is how it is ordered in the Paintings volume.]



From the text:


On comprend du coup que les triptyques aient besoin de cette vivacité lumineuse ou colorée, et se concilient rarement avec un traitement « malerisch » global : le triptyque de tête de 1953 serait une de ces rares exceptions. [60]

(Deleuze 1981a: 55d; 2002: 80c)


We at once realize that the triptychs have need of this luminous or colored vivacity, and are rarely susceptible to a global “malerisch” treatment; the 1953 triptych of the head [13] would be one of the rare exceptions.

(Deleuze 2003a: 44b; 2003b: 84ab; 2005: 59c. Note: in 2003a, there are no quotation marks around malerisch.)



[The malerisch style was described previously in this way: “We see everywhere the reign of the blurry [flou] and the indeterminate, the action of a depth that pulls at the form, a thickness on which shadows play, | a dark nuanced texture, effects of compression and elongation - In short, a malerisch treatment, as Sylvester suggests” (Deleuze 2003a: 26|27; 2003b: 29c; 2005: 21d). In the triptychs, there is a coupling of Figures across panels. Often in the triptychs, this coupling is in part somehow effected by violently projecting the figures onto a uniform color field. (Perhaps the uniformity of the color field prevents there from being too much discernible visual givens standing between the spatially separated Figures, thereby compelling us to couple them, and perhaps the vibrancy of the colors makes the Figures stand out more distinctly, intensifying their coupling.) But there is an exception to this pattern, namely the triptych in question. The Figures here are sort of blurred into an uncolored background.]







Deleuze, Gilles. 1981a. Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Tome I. Paris: Éditions de la différence.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1981b. Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Tome II - Peintures. Paris: Éditions de la différence.



Deleuze, Gilles. 2002. Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Paris: Éditions du seuil.




Deleuze, Gilles. 2003a. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation [with translator’s introduction (Smith’s “Deleuze on Bacon: Three Conceptual Trajectories in The Logic of Sensation”) and author’s introduction to the English edition]. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis.




Deleuze, Gilles. 2003b. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation [with translator’s preface, preface to the fourth edition by Alain Badiou and Barbara Cassin, author’s foreword, and author’s preface to the English edition]. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis.




Deleuze, Gilles. 2005. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation [with translator’s preface, preface to the fourth edition by Alain Badiou and Barbara Cassin, author’s foreword, and author’s preface to the English edition]. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. London/ New York: Continuum.






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