In the Butcher’s Shop

Peter de Bolla

  • Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze, translated by Daniel Smith
    Continuum, 209 pp, £9.99, March 2004, ISBN 0 8264 7318 0

In the technical literature on aesthetics a distinction is often made between the empirical inquiry into beauty (what it is, which objects have it and so forth), and the investigation of sensory cognition. The former became subsumed in the 18th century into the theory of taste and has ever since been in the ascendant, while the latter (what Alexander Baumgarten called ‘the science of aesthetics’) has suffered mixed fortunes. While taste has provided the focus for most theoretical speculation on aesthetics, sensory cognition has either been diverted into some of the weaker efforts of psychology, or been ignored altogether. However, this truth about the philosophical project of aesthetics denies another truth, one certainly known to many practising artists, which arises on account of our being sensate beings: that sensation itself has a cognitive component.

Beauty, of course, is found in many things, and our early experiences of its forms and pleasures are unlikely to have been prompted by artworks unless we were surrounded by them in early childhood. My own memories of intense sensation – the painful experience of touching very cold things, say, for me indelibly associated with plunging my hands into buckets of lamb’s liver in my father’s butcher’s shop – are deeply grounded in the local environment of my early years. How could it be otherwise? I cannot recall the first time I designated something beautiful, but I can still recover early childhood senses of taste and smell and their associated pleasure. It might be said that the traces of those sensate pleasures have become part of my ‘hard wiring’. What fascinates me now is what might be known to me, what might appear to me as knowledge or knowing, by dint of sensing the world.

The recent translation of Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation ought to revivify debates about aesthetics, but it’s likely to meet with the same response from English speakers as previous translations of Deleuze’s extraordinary oeuvre: bewilderment. This response would certainly have surprised Deleuze’s friend Michel Foucault, who wrote in 1970: ‘Perhaps one day, this century will be known as Deleuzian.’ Of all the thinkers who emerged in postwar France and are now loosely – and unhelpfully – coralled into the collective named, variously, structuralism, post-structuralism or (stranger yet) ‘French Theory’, Deleuze is the least well known or understood in the English-speaking world. It is easy to ” see why this might be so, at least superficially. Although to some eyes his career and interests might appear to have been traditionally philosophical – he published books on Hume, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz and Nietzsche, and essays on Plato and Heidegger, among others – this impression rapidly fades once one begins to read some of the other books he wrote. The two best known of these, co-written with Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, are not easy to categorise: they range from psychoanalysis and the culture of therapy to linguistics and the concept of ‘territory’, touching on all manner of themes, writers and texts along the way. Deleuze also wrote on film (including a magnificent essay on Beckett’s Film, as well as a two-volume work on cinema), on literature (Lewis Carroll, Zola, Scott Fitzgerald, Artaud, Proust, Melville, Whitman, Kafka, Beckett and T.E. Lawrence, among others), and on painting (including an essay on the French artist Gérard Fromanger which likens painting to cookery). He wrote in the preface to Différence et répétition in 1969 that ‘the time is approaching when it will hardly be possible to write a philosophy book in the way people have for so long written them.’

In another book he co-authored with Guattari, entitled What Is Philosophy?, philosophy is defined as the ‘discipline that involves creating concepts’. Deleuze never stopped inventing concepts that, in Foucault’s words, were intended to make ‘new thought . . . possible’. And this, paradoxically, may also be why he is so little studied or so infrequently involved as a participant in the parliament of ‘theory’. He was too inventive, too various. Far from making new thought possible, it sometimes feels as if Deleuze’s almost manic creation of concepts prevents us from thinking.

Francis Bacon can, at least, be categorised: it is an essay in aesthetics in Baumgarten’s sense of the word, in that it asks us to inquire what might be known to us in and through sensation. In order to get at this difficult question, Deleuze sets about creating concepts that help me, at least, to see or experience Bacon’s art in new ways. The book begins with the notion of the ‘Figure’, as Deleuze points to a recurring structure in Bacon’s painting: the positioning of a human form in some kind of pictorial surrounding, usually consisting of very large expanses of unvaried colour, sometimes two or three contrasting colours, into which a geometric form – a bed, table, chair, roughly sketched cube – is dropped, and within or over which the human form appears. But as Deleuze also points out, this ‘Figure’ had been invented by Bacon in order to ‘avoid the figurative, illustrative and narrative character the Figure would necessarily have if it were not isolated’. There is, in other words, an opposition of the ‘figural’ to the ‘figurative’ in Bacon’s art.

By beginning in this way, Deleuze would seem to be following Bacon’s lead: many of the paintings have titles such as Study of a Figure in a Landscape (1952) or Two Figures in the Grass (1954). And the evidence of our eyes corroborates this: who hasn’t been caught by the visceral impact of many of Bacon’s paintings, which, at least on first inspection, seem to depict a high-toned affective encounter with . . . what? Surely not others or, indeed, the Other, since many are of single figures, and not of the world: the surroundings in which they appear are often flat, underpopulated and empty of matter. In fact, what seems to generate these visceral feelings is the pictorial space in which the figures appear. Deleuze calls this the ‘round area’.

It’s clear that Deleuze doesn’t mean to use his concept of the Figure as a way of identifying or analysing anything that might be understood to have been depicted. His ‘Figure’ is a way of coming at abstraction, or at least at non-figuration; what he wants to do with it is to think ‘sensation’ differently. Sensation ‘has no faces at all’, and as a spectator, he writes, ‘I experience the sensation only by entering the painting, by reaching the unity of the sensing and the sensed.’ Once again, Deleuze is following Bacon, who himself spoke of ‘orders of sensation’ or ‘areas of sensation’ in his paintings.

In the context of Deleuze’s writing as a whole, the focus on sensation can be understood in relation to the ‘transcendental empiricism’ he claimed to be seeking. The Western philosophical doctrine of empiricism is, according to Deleuze, based on a metaphysical belief that all empirical activity is grounded in life or experience. He wanted to cut that ground away and let observations, contemplations and so forth stand alone, without a base in the human. There would be ‘sensation’, then, but without the agent we commonly assume to ‘have’ the sensation. This would be a sensation cut loose from the senses, free from a body or machine equipped with the mechanism of sense. Following this line of speculation, Deleuze saw himself as proposing an ‘inhuman’ philosophy.

Both ‘sensation’ and the ‘Figure’ have wider resonances in Deleuze’s work, and in the history of Western philosophy. But it is the similarity of the concept ‘art’ with that of ‘sensation’ which helps build the bridge to Bacon’s images. As Deleuze and Guattari claim in What Is Philosophy?, ‘all painting . . . is sensation, nothing but sensation,’ and this prompts them to remark a similar interest in sensation in painters as diverse as Pissarro, Monet, Klee and Cézanne. At its largest remove, the concept of sensation informs all art: ‘The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself.’ As for the ‘Figure’, that plays a role, for example, in Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, where the status of geometry poses problems for Deleuze in his attempt to find a contrast in Spinoza between the ‘abstract’ and the ‘fictitious’. The Figure clearly belongs to the order of abstraction, to ‘beings of reason’, yet ‘geometric notions’ are ‘fictions capable of conjuring away the abstract’. But in Francis Bacon it is clearly intended specifically to inform Bacon’s painting.

In equivocating between philosophy and art, the concept of the Figure would seem to bear out what Deleuze and Guattari say about the intervention of abstraction in the visual arts. While noting of both abstract and conceptual art that they might simply be ‘two recent examples to bring art and philosophy together’, the difference between them remains absolute. As the authors insist, neither abstract nor conceptual art ‘substitutes the concept for the sensation’. The ‘logic of sensation’ is peculiar to art; it is one of the ways in which art makes its difference from philosophy felt. The philosopher sets out to create or invent concepts; the painter aims to ‘paint the sensation’, in Cézanne’s words, or – in Bacon’s – to ‘record the fact’. This doesn’t mean that there can be no philosophical interest in painting. Far from it: since art’s logic of sensation is an example of transcendental empiricism, it enables me to distance myself from my own senses or my sensation of sensing the world, thereby forcing me to invent a different way of conceiving of myself as the subject in and of experience. The concept of the Figure gives me pause to consider the ways in which I am both implicated and at the same time excluded from my own experience, here in the quiddities of my body and, curiously, simultaneously removed from the place or site of experience.

If Deleuze’s book is on the work of Francis Bacon it is certainly not so in the same way that, say, David Sylvester’s Looking Back at Francis Bacon is. Yet it does contain moments of looking that prompt me to see Bacon’s art in new ways. I was most struck by the fourth chapter, entitled ‘Body, Meat and Spirit, Becoming-Animal’, where Deleuze writes: ‘The painter is certainly a butcher, but he goes to the butcher’s shop as if it were a church, with the meat as the crucified victim . . . Bacon is a religious painter only in butchers’ shops.’ I was brought up short by this unusual statement, itself prompted by Bacon’s own bizarre and disturbing revelation in an interview with Sylvester: ‘I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion . . . Of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.’

In this light, Bacon’s human forms appear as misshapen lumps of protein. They very rarely have the beauty of, say, a hindquarter of beef, and are presented as if the eye might engorge itself on their juicy musculature; as if the work of seeing his pictures necessarily involves the butchery of these forms. For some viewers butchery may be too hard to look at, but for me it has both a telos and a quiet, elegant logic of its own.

Now that I see Bacon’s art this way, certain features of his paintings take on rather different values. The flatness of the picture plane, for example, which Deleuze thinks has the function of giving the Figure life by positioning it in pictorial space (most commonly through the use of overt geometries), now looks to me like the butcher’s slab, the sloping piece of marble on which pristine cuts of meat were traditionally presented. Deleuze notes that both the Figure and these large fields of colour, what he terms aplats, are grasped ‘haptically’, as if the eye touches the forms. Here, for me, the sensation of looking is certainly akin to touching, but I feel not only the surface – flatness – but also temperature (the cold of the slab), moisture (the wetness of the meat as it expels water) and solidity (the hard surface of the slab, the malleability or plasticity of the meat). And since all these sensations are, for me, intimately connected to memories of associated sensations, I cannot remove the sense of smell I get while looking at Bacon’s art.

Not all raw meat smells the same – beef has a slightly acidic aroma which is enhanced as the meat ages, lamb smells slightly rancid even when very fresh. And now I think I can see how Bacon’s paintings also smell of different things. The Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion painted in 1944 and currently hanging in Tate Britain smells citrusy to me, as if its taste in the mouth would be tangy, slightly sour with an underlying sweetness. I can’t smell the Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1953 as anything but acrid or taste it as anything but sharp and bitter. Perhaps this is on account of a deeply rooted mimetic affect – seeing the disposition of the mouth I immediately translate this into a bodily response to both taste and smell.

The final pages of Deleuze’s book strike me as even more disturbing than Bacon’s making an altar of the butcher’s slab. Michelangelo is claimed as Bacon’s precursor by the drawing of a visual analogy between Bacon’s bacon, as it were, and Michelangelo’s muscle: ‘A piece of meat, a large back of a man: it is Michelangelo who inspires this in Bacon . . . It was with Michelangelo, with Mannerism, that the Figure or the pictorial fact was born in its pure state, and which would no longer need any other justification than "an acrid and strident polychromy, striated with flashes, like a metal plate".’ Deleuze is quoting Michel Leiris, whose nose it is that sends me back to the entire history of Western painting in order to sense it anew. I’m left wondering if we are yet ready for Deleuze or, indeed, for Bacon, the butcher of the eye.