Deleuze and Painting: Music and the Figure

Much of Gilles Deleuze’s work reflects his interest in pure semiology and power structures. However, particular examples in his sole-authored work explore the abstractions of his theoretical oeuvre through close and vivid analysis of artworks themselves, most notably in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Deleuze’s reading of the paintings draws in part on the painter’s interviews with David Sylvester, a perspective expressed in language that could not be less un-Deleuzian, and yet captures some of the essential motifs that go to the core of Deleuze/ Guattari’s characterization of ‘Schizophrenia’: the ‘body without organs’, sensation as an alternative to representation, and conformity to prevailing hierarchies such as those manifest in capitalist systems. Deleuze develops numerous concepts through his reading of Bacon’s figurative paintings, especially that of the ‘figure’, an entity distinct from the figurative, or that which represents. The concept of ‘figure’ is a complex one, but relates only in part to the fact that Bacon mainly painted (human) figures. Deleuze himself suggests that those few paintings that do not depict a human or animal figure — such as the series of paintings from the mid/late 1980s that includes the two versions of Jet of Water (1988), or Blood on the Floor (1986)— are nonetheless figural in the sense he intends. This opens up the possibility that other art forms, such as music, can also incorporate the figural according to Deleuze and Bacon’s particular understanding of sensation. Moreover, Deleuze’s writings on music (and in particular his concept of the refrain) are arguably less persuasive, and certainly less focused on actual artefacts (as opposed to abstract theory) than his discourse on Bacon. This paper explores how Deleuze’s critique of Bacon’s works can usefully enable discussion of the related concepts of figure, sensation, and force in music, with reference to the music of Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943) and other contemporary composers who have either expressed specific interest in Bacon or Deleuze’s work or whose artistic outputs suggest that this conceptual framework might offer useful interpretative insights.

Bacon and the Cartoonist: The Emergence of the Figure Through Two Opposing Diagrams

In The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze describes Francis Bacon’s practice as a constant struggle to avoid or surpass figuration, illustration, and narrative, all of which are central elements of the art practice most commonly known as “cartooning”—the drawing of comic strips, books, and graphic novels. This paper will focus on Deleuze’s use of the concept of the “diagram” and the “figural” in The Logic of Sensation to argue that comics create sensual experience through discursively articulated depictions.

Deleuze opens the chapter on the diagram by saying “We do not listen closely enough to what painters have to say. They say that the painter is already in the canvas, where he or she encounters all the figurative and probabilistic givens that occupy and preoccupy the canvas.” The probabilistic givens are the established figurative practices that surround the painter, a bombardment of imagery and methods of representation that threaten to pull the painter into illustrative cliché. So how can they be avoided? Bacon says, “make random marks (lines-traits); scrub, sweep, or wipe the canvas in order to clear out locales or zones (color-patches); throw the paint, from various angles and at various speeds.” Through this act of exorcism, the figurative givens, the clichés, are removed, expelled from the canvas. This process creates the diagram, which is not a painting, or an image, but a set of possibilities.

For comics scholar Thierry Groensteen, the cartoonist’s diagram is created through a process of “gridding.” Like Bacon’s givens, this process can pre-exist the making of any marks on the drawing surface. It is “a stage of reflection that is not always incarnated,” and operates as “a primary repartition of the narrative material.” Rather than avoid figuration, cliché, cartoonists must create their own set of clichés—a set of marks that allow serial recognition, potentialities that allow them to give form to the narrative material: this is the diagram of a cartoonist. And it is through this seriality, this repetition, that the figural—in the sense described earlier of a presence that is dependent on depiction but not contained within it—is created in comics. It is also through seriality that the figural, which Deleuze describes as a sense of presence and awareness of identity created by a work that, while dependent on depiction, cannot be located solely in that depiction.

If you take individual depictions of a character in a comic to be serial appearances of the same character pulling different expressions, then you have in mind a figure that is not contained within any of these individual figurations; this, I want to suggest, is comics’ equivalent to Deleuze-Bacon’s figural. Deleuze characterises Bacon’s creation of “the improbable visual figure” as a constant negotiation between free manual actions and the presence of a pre-existing visual whole. My comic Starts Out Vague magnifies the opposition of these pictorial and prepictorial acts in attempting to analyse the figurative regime operative in the act of drawing known as cartooning. It is built from sequences of figurative images produced using the following process: perform movements, copy these movements by manipulating a digital three-dimensional model. This process begins with movements that are transcribed in a medium that has no edges or surface, and ends with reinjection into the overdetermined surface of the comic’s page, where not only specific places but also a specific order of movement through those places are privileged by the constraints of gridding. Finally, the reading protocols that guide the navigation of a comic are fundamentally discursive: in comics, the figurative is placed into discourse, and through this interaction emerges the figural.

Deleuze and the Paintings

When the so-called performative turn in the arts appeared in the 1960s, it seemed that painting, and in particular figurative painting, has been carried finally to its grave—an end that has often been announced since the emergence of photography and, later, the emergence of abstraction.

Therefore, it comes as a surprise that Gilles Deleuze chooses Francis Bacon, a so-called figurative painter, to describe the power of painting. In Portrait of Lucien Freud on Orange Couch (1965) we see two large areas of colour, and a sitting figure in the middle; this figure is not just anyone, but another figurative painter: Lucien Freud. His face and hands are blurred, deformed, unrecognisable.

For Deleuze the performativity or the power of painting does not exist in the rush from figurative to abstract painting, but in the transfer from visual dogma—whereby paintings have merely existed to be seen—into a haptic sensation (Deleuze 2003, 155). “Haptic” doesn’t mean the tactile sense only but, in reference to the ancient Greek háptein, a general fleshly being-touched (Deleuze 2003, 122–23; Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 492–99).

The process of paintings becoming haptic is accompanied, as I want to show in my lecture, by two crucial aspects. First, there is a shift in the classic distinction of form and content to form as force. There exists no empty canvas because everyone’s canvases are always already covered by clichés, representational images, and well-established relationships; namely, by an inherited image of thought that shapes us. To overcome it and create something new it’s necessary for the painter “to erase, to clean, to flatten, even to shred, so as to let in a breath of air from the chaos” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 204). In the act of painting, forms and clichés have to be attacked to provoke forces. Second, the form as force is possible not only for abstract painting but also—and perhaps especially—for figurative painting. Bacon’s portrait of Freud is indeed a figurative portrait, but one that has abandoned its representational character by showing that the form is always already an assemblage of formless forces. What intervenes here is the diagram: it confuses figurative forms and turns them into an isolated figure (Deleuze 2003, 157) without figurative, narrative, and illustrative character (Deleuze 2003, 2). A multiplicity of forces is created by the act of painting itself.

My lecture should not be a theoretical approach to paintings. In contrast, the starting point of thinking will be the aisthesis of concrete projected pictures, in order to involve the audience in the act of painting: being affected by pictures, getting part of a picture, destroying its clichés, its figurative forms, becoming a figure. The process of becoming haptic will thus be practiced in a performative manner in the lecture itself as a mode of artistic research.


Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. London: Continuum.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

—. 1994. What is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press.

From Painting to Sound: Musical Reflections on Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation

In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze becomes the philosophical voice of Bacon’s paintings. The book’s main arguments are developed in relation to Bacon’s thoughts and from Deleuze’s sensations and visual reflections on the paintings. Bacon resonates through Deleuze’s words; both the painter and the philosopher intermingle in the perception of the paintings and on the meanings of the philosophical arguments. Thoughts become images and images become thoughts. Does sensation have a logic? Or is logic merely the philosophical language derived from sensation?

The written expression of Deleuze’s sensations and my sensation of his words made me perceive and relate visual philosophical notions within the context of musical experience and thinking. My musical thoughts and sensations (or sonic imaginations) herein described arose from the experience of reading Deleuze’s book on Francis Bacon before establishing any connection with his writings on music. I relocated Deleuze’s visual notions to describe, in a particular way, musical layers and events spread through a musical piece. I will explain how my musical arguments relate and are similar to some of Deleuze’s thoughts on music, whilst emphasising the reason why some of his ideas on painting serve to describe and think musical problems with a different language and specificity.

In this presentation, I will introduce the three main pictorial elements that Deleuze describes in Bacon’s works: (1) spatialising fields, (2) the figure, and (3) the place. I will explain how I relate these pictorial elements to musical phenomena in my work and to the phenomenon of deterritorialisation through music as thought by Deleuze. In particular, I will delve into the idea of the “isolation of the figure” in Bacon’s paintings and explain how I relate “isolation” to a musical phenomenology. I will also describe how the mutual exchange and coexistence of the pictorial elements can be related to the interaction and resonance between multiple sonic layers and/or multiple realities, which consequently establishes a link between Deleuze’s visual thoughts on Bacon’s work and Jean-Luc Nancy’s ideas on resonance through listening.

To illustrate the relation of the pictorial elements to musical ones I will present a musicalised animation of Bacon’s painting Head VI (1949). The music will be created with processed material from the recording of my composition A Bao A Qu (2012) for nine musicians, a piece that I used in my doctoral dissertation to describe the relation between Deleuze’s notions on Bacon’s paintings and my music. The animated painting will transform in synchrony with the music, revealing and explaining through an audiovisual experience how visual elements can be associated with the musical ones.