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February 15, 2006

The Haptic

In Deleuze’s 1981 study of Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, the artist becomes configured as the modern paradigm of a painter concerned with the expressive materiality of paint and the conveyance of intense modes of sensation which are distanced from the auspices of representation and narration. For Deleuze Bacon’s work circumvents narrative relations between figures and concentrates on “matters of fact” or “the brutality of fact.” Crucially this enables Bacon to begin to present the possibilities of what can be done with the materiality of paint on its own. His understanding of Bacon’s paintings rests on under-standing them as conveying a very special type of violence, a violence not of representation but of sensation. For Deleuze, this is a violence associated with “colour and line, a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction and expression” (LS, x). Bacon’s paintings are to be under-stood as an interlocking series of experimental, rhythmic assemblages in vivid colors of flesh and bone. The broken tones of flesh and bone operate as limits to a complex rhythmic interplay where each pushes the other to its limit; bone expands in and through flesh in spasmodic movements and flesh compresses and descends into bone in order to give birth to a heightened sense of the “brutality of fact.”

In explaining the operative affective function of Bacon’s work Deleuze draws upon the notion of ‘haptic’ seeing, which he opposes to the more dominant ‘optical’ modes of seeing. The notion is crucial to Deleuze’s account of Bacon’s work and is drawn from the early 20th century art theorist Alois Riegl. Riegl’s fundamental concern was with delineating various historical manifestations of what he called the human “will to art”. He concluded that there were three distinct types of aesthetic principles governing three distinct historical manifestations of this will to art – the Egyptian, Greek and Roman. Common to all three was the goal of representing external objects as clear material entities. For Riegl the ancients all attempted to delimit space to varying degrees in order to vitiate certain problems inherent within visual perception that emerge from the eye’s way of perceiving the natural world in two-dimensional coloured-planes – the objects of the external world tend to appear to us in a chaotic mixture. The ancients, Riegl claims, found the optically perceived external objects gained to be confusing and thus were driven to attempt in their art a representation of the individual object that was as clear as possible. They were forced to have to delineate it and emphasise its material impenetrability. Space was simply regarded as absence or as a void; it represented the negation of the kind of material stability required. In their efforts to comprehend and express the individuality of the object ancients were driven to refuse any reference to the actual ordinary experience of a subject or individual in their effort to embody the absolutely “objective”. The simplest and most straightforward means of perceiving an isolated, separate and “objective” object from out of the chaos of visual perception was through touch which revealed the enclosed unity of the surface or exterior of the object as well as reinforcing its material impenetrability. Yet touch alone cannot yield a comprehensive grasping of the complete surface of the object, just discrete elements of it. In order to grasp the entire object one must combine or link the series of multiple touches through an act of subjective consciousness and thought. The eye initially takes in a confused image of coloured planes and only assembles the outlines of defined individual objects through the synthesis of multiple planar perceptions. Riegl claims that touch is superior to vision in providing information regarding the material impenetrability of objects, yet vision surpasses touch by informing us of height and width, since it is able to synthesise multiple perceptions more quickly than touch. A comprehensive knowledge and understanding of stable objects as three-dimensional requires the subjective synthesis of multiple tactile and visual encounters with the object.

Riegl thus generated an opposition between the objective/subjective and tactile/optical in his account of the ancient will to art. This latter opposition between the tactile and the optical is, Riegl claims, subsequently subsumed within vision. Hand and eye come to reinforce one another, since our visual perceptions of objects as impenetrable, three dimensional and stable entities, necessarily comes to incorporate and synthesise knowledge gained from tactile experience. Hence Riegl introduces the notion of “tactile” or “haptic” vision or seeing, in which the contributing role of the hand and touch has become synthesised and emphasised. He eventually opposes the development of this haptic vision in ancient art to the pure optic vision prevalent within the modern era, where the synthesised role of manual touch has become minimised and largely obscured. However, it is a vital notion excavated and mobilised within Deleuze’s work on aesthetics.

With the haptic Deleuze argues that space becomes tactile as if the eye were now a hand caressing one surface after another without any sense of the overall configuration or mutual relation of those surfaces. It is a virtual space whose fragmented components can be assembled in multiple combinations. In this pure haptic Smooth Space of close-vision, all orientation, landmarks and the linkages between things are in continuous variation – i.e. a continuous transmutation which operates “step-by-step” to no pre-arranged or pre-governed schema. There is no stable unified set of referents since orientations are never constant, but constantly change. The interlinkages themselves are constituted according to an emergent realm of dynamic tactile relationships that have more to do with how a Nomad conceives of their territory.


Francis Bacon and the Diagram

Deleuze & Guattari’s aspiration for philosophy is for philosophy to ‘become worthy of the event’, an aim that requires that we turn toward the pre-individual field of the virtual. It is precisely such a move that Deleuze and Guattari identify as occuring within the work of art. For them the aim or task for art is to elaborate a composed capture of chaos as sensation, to construct a 'monument' which exists, in itself, as a composition independent of the viewer or the creator – ‘a compound of percepts and affects’ that is a ‘bloc of sensations’ that has a reality in the absence of human perception and affection. This move signifies a demand to give up the habits of thought and of perception that mark human experience and to go beyond that turn. The notion that art exists as a distinct alternative reality demands that the concern of a theory of painting turn to the problem of painting’s own material specificity and the reconfiguration of pictorial space that that entails. Thus, there is a concern with what the material of painting can do, rather than with what it means or represents. In the exploration of the power of paint the great painters of modern abstraction, like Klee, Mondrian and Pollock, move away from the figurative to abstraction in order to work with the pure elements of painting – colour and line. They produce catastrophes in colour; paintings which disturb and disrupt the order and form of representation and force us to see, if we are looking, new hallucinatory spaces and new morphological images. What follows is a profound disruption of phenomenological perception. For Deleuze this is a revolution that takes painting from a logic of representation toward a pure logic of sensation – to the line that takes a walk, and the Figure that emerges from the chaosgerm of the ‘Diagram’, or what Bacon refers to in the interviews with David Sylvester as the ‘Graph’:

‘Very often the involuntary marks are much more deeply suggestive than others, and those are the moments when you feel that anything can happen…The marks are made, and you survey the thing like you would a sort of graph. And you see within this graph the possibilities of all types of fact being planted. This is a difficult thing…Isn’t it that one wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive or deeply unlocking of areas of sensation other than simple illustration of the object that you set out to do? Isn’t that what all art is about?’ (The Brutality of Fact, p. 56)

For Deleuze the ‘Diagram’ (or ‘Graph’) is that which allows the emergence of another possible world in a work of art. The marks associated with the elaboration of a ‘Diagram’ are irrational, involuntary, accidental, free, random. Deleuze claims that it is as if the artist’s hand assumes an independence and began to be guided by other forces, making marks that no longer depend upon either the artist’s will or sight. Such almost blind manual marks attest to the intrusion of another world into the visual world of figuration. Bacon claims:

‘Half my painting activity is disrupting what I can do with ease.’ (The Brutality of Fact, p. 91)

The ‘Diagram’, whilst a chaos, a catastrophe, is also a germ of order or of rhythm. It is a violent chaos in relation to the figurative givens, but it is a germ of rhythm in relation to the new order of the painting. As Bacon says, it ‘unlocks areas of sensation’:

‘In the way I work I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do. Is that an accident? Perhaps one could say it’s not an accident, because it becomes a selective process which part of this accident one chooses to preserve. One is attempting, of course, to keep the vitality of the accident and yet preserve a continuity…What has never yet been analysed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently…There is a possibility that you get through this accidental thing something much more profound than what you really wanted.’ (The Brutality of Fact, p. 17)


February 01, 2006

The Diagrammatic – A Witches' Flight

In chapter 3 of What is Philosophy? Deleuze & Guattari talk of the three necessary elements of philosophy, a kind of trinity consisting of:

‘…the prephilosophical plane it must lay out (immanence), the persona or personae it must invent and bring to life (insistence), and the philosophical concepts it must create (consistency). Laying out, inventing, and creating constitute the philosophical trinity – diagrammatic, personalistic,and intensive features.’ (What is Philosophy?, pp. 76–7)

The initial ‘diagrammatic’ function within philosophy (the elaboration of a prephilosophical plane of immanence) necessary for the subsequent creation of concepts has clear resonance with Deleuze’s understanding of Francis Bacon’s creative practice in The Logic of Sensation, and offers a clear example of the type of creative pedagogy provided by art to our understanding of the practice of philosophy. Both involve taking what Deleuze & Guatarri term ‘a witches’ flight’. Deleuze asks in what does the initial pre-figurative act of painting consist for Bacon? For Bacon the initial act of painting is defined by the making of random marks; cleaning, sweeping, brushing or wiping the canvas which serve to clear out locales or zones on the canvas; and the throwing of paint from various angles and at various speeds. Such acts presuppose the existence of figurative givens on the canvas (clichés), and it is precisely such givens that are to be removed, by being cleaned, brushed, swept or wiped, or else covered over, by the act of painting. In the interviews with David Sylvester this is what Bacon called a ‘graph’ or a ‘diagram’. The ‘diagram’ is to be understood as the pre-figural preparation of the canvas (the initial acts of painting) – the series of shades, colours, scratches and layers of material set down prior to the actual delineation of the Figure. In Bacon this process consists of a series of haphazard lines, coloured spots and pitched paint. Such a physical rather than a visual act of painting lays out a ground that is in contradiction with the pre-planned figure. This is an automatic or random ground that threatens to engulf the act of figuration it prepares for. Deleuze claims that the ‘diagram’ is a kind of physical catastrophe that underlies the subsequent production of figuration in painting:

‘It is as if, in the midst of the figurative and probabilistic givens, a catastrophe overcame the canvas.’ (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, p. 80)

According to Deleuze the ‘diagram’ in painting allows the emergence of another possible world. The marks associated with the ‘diagram’ are irrational, involuntary, accidental, free, random. They are non-representative, non-illustrative, non-narrative. They are no longer either significant or signifiers, they are, Deleuze claims, ‘a-signifying traits’. Such (almost blind) manual marks attest to the intrusion of another world into the visual world of figuration. To a degree, they remove the painting from the optical organisation that reigns over it, rendering it always already figurative. The painter’s hand intervenes in order to disrupt its own dependence and deconstruct the sovereign optical organisation. Here one can no longer see anything, as if one was in a catastrophe or chaos. The ‘diagram’ serves to disrupt a certain pre-existing ‘sense’ and allow for the emergence of an entirely new ‘sense’. The operation or function of the ‘diagram’ is, according to Bacon, to be ‘suggestive’ of a new ‘sense’. Because such marks are destined to provide the Figure it is essential that they break with the conventional codes of figuration as such. Thus, such marks are not sufficient in themselves to break with figuration, but must provide a function of utility. They mark out certain ‘possibilities of fact’, but do not of themselves yet constitute a ‘fact’ (the pictorial ‘fact’). In order to be configured into a ‘fact’, i.e. in order to evolve into a Figure, they must be re-injected into the visual whole, but it is precisely through the action of these marks that the visual whole ceases to be a purely optical organisation:

‘It will give the eye another power, as well as an object that will no longer be figurative.’ (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, p. 81)

The ‘diagram’ evinced within Bacon’s work is indeed a type of chaos, a catastrophe, but it is also a germ of order of rhythm. It is thus a violent chaos in relation to the figurative givens, but it is also germ of rhythm in relation to the new order of the painting, a new and emergent sense. As Bacon says, it ‘unlocks areas of sensation’. Deleuze argues that the entire significance of Bacon’s ‘diagrammatic path’ is the recognition that the ‘diagram’ must not eat away at the entire painting, it must remain limited in space and time, it must remain operative, functional and controlled. The violent methods associated with the ‘diagrammatic’ must not be given free reign, and the necessary catastrophe must not submerge the whole. The ‘diagram’ is a possibility of ‘fact’ – it is not the ‘Fact’ itself. Thus not all the figurative givens have to disappear; a new figuration, that of the Figure, should emerge from the ‘diagram’ and render the bloc of sensation clear and precise. The ‘diagrammatic’ thus begins the act of painting, it lays out the prepictorial plane of immanence, and it is precisely this creative practice bound up with diagrammatic elaboration which is to be understood to form one of the three fundamental elements of philosophy, albeit a non-philosophical one:

‘Precisely because the plane of immanence is prephilosophical and does not immediately take effect with concepts, it implies a sort of groping experimentation and its layout resorts to measures that are not very respectable , rational, or reasonable. These measures belong to the order of dreams, of pathological processes , esosteric experiences, drunkenness, and excess…To think is always to follow the witch’s flight.’ (What is Philosophy?, p. 41)


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