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.