The Aesthetics of Deleuze

“Bacon’s bodies, heads, Figures are made of flesh, and what fascinates him are the invisible forces that model flesh or shake it. This is the relationship not of form and matter, but of materials and forces making these forces visible through their effects on the flesh.”

– Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation


The ripple of flesh, the slippery lushness just below the surface plane, the immanent materials and forces, the “violence of a sensation (and not of a representation), a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction and expression” (x), these are demarcations of a philosophy of life rather than death. Against the old religions, the monotheistic tribalism of the sky: the dark powers of hierarchy, of the One who beholds, who sees all, whose gaze orders everything into a system of justice and retribution: under the law that keeps everything bound to its harsh justice and stringent banishments; instead of this dead and deadening judgment that hands down decrees and punishments, enforces the legal inducements of final Heavens of the Immortals or Eternal Judgments in Lakes of Fire (for all who do not follow the dictates of this fierce power).

Against this harsh world Deleuze offers us the immanent law of rebellion, of force, of flows that churn within like so many coagulating sperm infested snakes that want to escape: the spasmodic, the serpentine liquidity, the “revelation of the body beneath the organism, which makes organisms and their elements crack or swell, imposes a spasm on them, and puts them into relation with forces sometimes with an inner force that arouses them, sometimes with external forces that traverse them, sometimes with the eternal force of an unchanging time. sometimes with the variable forces of a flowing time” (160).

Egyptian painted figures float in an abstract space that is neither here nor there. The background is coolly blank. Everything is flattened into the foreground, an eternal present where serenely smiling pharaohs offer incense and spools of flax to the gods or drive their chariot wheels over fallen foes. Women strike tambourines, dance as the forces of the earth rise in their young lithe bodies. Hieroglyphics hang in midair, clusters of sharp pictograms of a rope, reed, bun, viper, owl, human leg, or mystic eye. “Can the Egyptian assemblage be taken as the point of departure for Western painting? It is an assemblage of bas-relief even more than of painting,” says Deleuze (122).  The Bas-relief is the flat plane of the ontic, the place where eye and hand meet on the surface, the terraform that cleaves the haptic, the layers of movement no longer above or below but moving along the surface unhindered by the chains of chance or necessity.

“It is thus a geometry of the plane, of the line, and of essence that inspires Egyptian bas-relief; but it will also incorporate volume by covering the funerary cube with a pyramid; that is, by erecting a Figure that only reveals to us the unitary surface of isosceles triangles on clearly limited sides.  It is not only man and the world that in this way receive their planar or linear essence; it is also the animal and the vegetal, the sphinx and the lotus, which arc raised to their perfect geometrical form, whose very mystery is the mystery of essence” (123).

“How can one make invisible forces visible?”

In line with Lucretius, needing to make visible the forces below the threshold of things, Deleuze touches the heart of art in deformation, the elastic or plastic deformations that are productive of temporal fluctuations harboring the monstrous truth of being: “they are like the forces of the cosmos confronting an intergalactic traveler immobile in his capsule” (58). The transformation of form can be abstract or dynamic. But deformation is always bodily, and it is static, it happens at one place; it subordinates movement to force, but it also subordinates the abstract to the Figure (59). The deformation is obtained in the form at rest; and at the same time, the whole material environment, the structure, begins to stir: “walls twitch and slide, chairs bend or rear up a little, cloths curl like burning paper…. “(60). The aesthetics of forces inhabiting the geometry of flows and fluctuations that move discordantly up through the tongue in the moment of becoming visible, the “visibility of the scream (the open mouth as a shadowy abyss) and invisible forces, which are nothing other than the forces of the future” (61):

“When, like a wrestler, the visible body confronts the powers of the invisible, it gives them no other visibility than its own. It is within this visibility that the body actively struggles, affirming the possibility of triumphing, which was beyond its reach as long as these powers remained invisible, hidden in a spectacle that sapped our strength and diverted us. It is as if combat had now become possible. The struggle with the shadow is the only real struggle” (62).

This is the agon with duende – the force of the sublunar, the chills that spring forward out of the shadows in our moments between, makes one smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. Folk music in general, especially flamenco, tends to embody an authenticity that comes from a people whose culture is enriched by diaspora and hardship; vox populi, the human condition of joys and sorrows. Lorca writes: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”

He suggests, “everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.  … This ‘mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio’s siguiriya.” … “The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.” …”All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present” (Theory and Play of the Duende).

 Or as Deleuze eloquently states it “Life screams at death, but death is no longer this all-too visible thing that makes us faint; it is this invisible force that life detects, flushes out, and makes visible through the scream. Death is judged from the point of view of life, and not the reverse, as we like to believe” (62). … There is the force of ‘banging time, through the allotropic variation of bodies, down to the tenth of a second,” which involves ”’formation; and then there is the force of eternal time, the eternity of time, through the uniting separating that reigns in the triptychs, a pure light. To render time sensible in itself is a task common to the painter, the musician, and sometimes the writer. It is a task beyond all measure or cadence” (64).


‘the reek of human blood smiles out at me’ – Francis Bacon

The famously filthy mess that was Bacon’s  studio at Reece Mews – the piles and sticky avalanches of photos, books, clipped newsprint, booze-stained scribbles on the verge of becoming drawings, squished  paint tubes and every imaginable ingredient of clutter that covered the  horizontal and vertical surfaces, tables and walls, like some illegible compost in which, like molds or somewhat alien life-forms, his future pictures were  brewing and his past ones decaying. This stuff was more than rubbish. It was an archive, admittedly a staggeringly disordered one. An archive of the deformations that arise out of the earth itself to grasp hold of our very thoughts, and scream… the painters visions of that moment of deformation that implodes and gives birth at the same time. Out of disorder order shapes us, moves through us, spasmodically, and with desperate disjunctive sounds of the duende…

“It is not I who attempts to escape from my body, 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” (15).

Francis Bacon

“Time is no longer the chromatism of bodies; it has become a monochromatic eternity. An immense space-time unites all things, but only by introducing between them the distance of a Sahara, the centuries of an aeon: the triptych and its separated panels… There are nothing but triptychs in bacon: even the isolated paintings are, more or less visibly, composed like triptychs” (85).

An inversion of the ancient Christian formalism, Bacon’s triptychs remind us not so much of icons of some transcendent deity, but rather as the immanent movement of those strange forces that surface and withdraw, channel their rapprochement or negotiate between the triple aspects of being that is always and forever the faces of Time past, present, and future: the motion of a pendulum that carves and deforms us even as death awakens within us the flowers of life itself. “Like Lucretius’s simulacrum, …seem to him to cut across ages and temperaments, to come from afar, in order to fill every room or every brain” (91). These triple non-forms are the strokes of a cosmic catastrophe: “It is like the emergence of another world. For these marks, these traits, are irrational, involuntary, accidental, free, random. They are nonrepresentative, nonillustrative, nonnarrative. They are no longer either significant or signifiers: they are asignifying traits” (101).

The monstrous void opens inward revealing nothing less than the face of an abyss that cannot be described nor represented for it is the face of the inhuman other that for so long has been banished, exiled among its own dark thoughts, riven of its place within the fold, the flows of time’s dark prison. But the path to salvation is not easy. No. But are atheists allowed salvation? Is art a form of salvation? Are the paths of artistic expression forms of freedom? And, what of these paths? “Abstraction would be one of these paths, but it is a path that reduces the abyss or chaos (as well as the manual) to a minimum: it offers us an asceticism, a spiritual salvation. Through an intense spiritual effort, it raises itself above the figurative givens, but it also turns chaos into a simple stream we must cross in order to discover the abstract and signifying Forms” (103). The Second Path leads another way:

“A second path, often named abstract expressionism or art informed oilers an entirely different response, at the opposite extreme of abstraction. This time the abyss or chaos is deployed to the maximum. Somewhat like a map that is as large as the country, the diagram merges with the totality of the painting; the entire painting is diagrammatic” … In the unity of the catastrophe and the diagram, man discovers rhythm as matter and material. (104 – 107).

These diagrams offer recompense, only if we can differentiate between the triptych diagrams. But we can also date the diagram of a painter, because there is always a moment when the painter confronts it most directly. “The diagram is indeed a chaos, a catastrophe, but it is also a germ of order or 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” (102). As Bacon says, it “unlocks areas of sensation.” The diagram ends the preparatory work and begins the act of painting. There is no painter who has not had this experience of the chaos-germ, where he or she no longer sees anything and risks foundering: the collapse of visual coordinates. Ultimately this is a tale of facts, of the power of non-representational painting, the ardour of emergence and flow, the moment of facticity:

“…the forms may be figurative, and there may still be narrative relations between the characters – but all these connections disappear in favor of a ‘matter of fact’ or a properly pictorial (or sculptural) ligature, which no longer tells a story and no longer represents anything but its own movement, and which makes these apparently arbitrary elements coagulate in a single continuous flow” (160).

Gilles Deleuze. Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation. Continuum 2003

4 thoughts on “The Aesthetics of Deleuze

  1. Great post. I have an article on Deleuze and aesthetics that you may be interested in, that should be out in just a few months (page proofs were submitted and its just a matter of appearing in press). There are quite a few themes appearing in the article which also appear in your post. If you have time, more posts on Deleuze and processual philosophy would be great (!) – especially with how that sits with respect to neo-materialism and speculative idealism; I am thinking Grant here but also Brassier’s new stuff hints in this direction as well. Cheers.


    • Nice, like to see your new article when it becomes available. And, yes, I should spend more time rendering of my involvement with D & G. Read much of their work from the 80’s on, but need to spend more time integrating their conceptual practices with and against much of the new materialist framework. Yes, both Grant and Brassier have been on my mind of late, too.


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