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Bacon’s Spiritual Realism – The Spirit in the Body
‘Perhaps the entire evolution of the spirit is a question of the body; it is the history of the
development of a higher body that emerges into our sensibility...In the long run, it is not a
question of man at all: he is to be overcome.’ (Nietzsche 1968: #676, p. 358)
Bacon’s enigmatic figural paintings have solicited a number of speculative and theoretical
studies but only one, Gilles Deleuze’s 1981 book Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, has
attempted to deal with them in a distinctively philosophical way. One might ask what it is
about Bacon’s work that warrants a philosophical study. A possible answer to this question,
which is suggested by Deleuze’s reading, is that there remains a persistent enigma associated
with Bacon’s work regarding the relation between the meaning of appearance in his
paintings, and the question of the depth of meaning, which is in danger of being repeatedly
misunderstood. There is the appearance of figured bodies, yet these figures constantly
struggle against the confines of their own organic appearance and strain to metamorphose
into something other. The discipline of philosophy, insofar as it can be defined as the attempt
to comprehend the reality of appearance, often by traversing the abstract depths of that
appearance through analysis, is perhaps well suited to carrying out a rigorous and systematic
analysis of the persistent enigmas of Bacon’s work. There is a danger, when confronted by
Bacon’s paintings, of reading them in a superficially straightforward way, as if they were
representational objects. Such readings present the deformity, mutilation and dissipation of
the figures in Bacon’s work as a depiction of existential horror and suffering. In this way
Bacon becomes relegated to being a mere chronicler of the violent and primal excesses and
cruelties associated with the human condition. One of the crucial aspects of Deleuze’s study
is that he avoids the naive temptation of approaching Bacon’s work in this manner,
suggesting a deeper and far more thoughtful meditation upon Bacon’s work than is often the
Deleuze’s book suggests that there is indeed a brutal realism associated with Bacon’s art, but
it is not a realism of the violence of appearance. The figures in his work are not recording the
literal cruelties, humiliations and destruction perpetrated against the flesh. Rather, the figures
have become a visceral means for recording and transmitting with a necessary immediacy the
violent intensity of lived and embodied sensation. By breaking the organic norms of the
represented human form in his work Bacon is seeking to explore and communicate the
intensity of real existence. When questioned about the presence of violence and cruelty in his
work, Bacon makes this point extremely precisely:
‘When I look at you across the table, I don’t only see you but I see a whole emanation which
has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would
like to be able to do in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly
always live through screens – a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say
my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or
two of the veils or screens.’ (Sylvester 1987: 82)
This break with organic and stable representational form is connected with an intention to
explore the sub-representational intensities associated with real existence, and is linked to
what might be called the depiction of a spiritual realism of the body. Bacon’s paintings reveal
the depths of a strange visceral topography of real embodied sensation that is profoundly non-
representational and spiritual (the world beneath or beyond that of organic form). In this
chapter I propose to concentrate upon and expand Deleuze’s insight that what are being
repeatedly dramatised on Bacon’s canvases are figures engaged in a unique form of spiritual
athleticism in order to convey with the greatest immediacy the intensities of life, matter and
becoming. This peculiar spiritual athleticism involves the painted body being pushed beyond
the stability of its normal organic form, engaged in polyvalent forms of metamorphosis,
deformation and dissipation. I will show that what Deleuze ultimately suggests is that
Bacon’s path as a painter is to take the spiritual destiny of religious painting to its logical
conclusion, whereby embodied and figural elements are maintained in order to convey sub-
representational spiritual depths, and push into a fully atheistic and materialist spirituality of
the body that brings him into proximity with a post-Christian thinker like Nietzsche.
In order to develop this particular philosophical understanding of Bacon’s work, a reading in
which he becomes reconfigured as one of the great spiritual realist painters, it is necessary to
begin by looking at the spiritual dynamics associated with traditional religious painting. I
propose to do this by outlining the philosophical analysis of Christian painting that was
undertaken by the Nineteenth century German philosopher G.W.F.Hegel. Hegel’s account of
spiritual depth in painting (spirituality explicitly connected to Christian theology) enables us
to locate Bacon’s own position within this spiritual trajectory in the history of painting.
Implicit within Hegel’s understanding of religious art is a subtle appreciation of its affective
intensity and power. Hegel recognises that the task of religious painting of the past is often to
communicate with an overwhelming immediacy and power the presence of spiritual depth
and truth, particularly when the majority of people had no other means of directly accessing
the ideas and truths contained within theological texts. Painting thus had the task of trying to
invent ways of envisaging and transmitting the spiritual depths and truths of the Christian
religion in the most effective and immediate way.
Hegel provides a detailed account of the way painting developed the means for conveying
intense spiritual depth which, he argues, involves a process of delimiting its figured content
to a set of specific scenarios involving the earthly existence of Christ. Hegel specifically
prohibits painting from any attempt to configure the embodied Christ as traversing the
threshold between earth and the celestial realm of pure spirit, since this would involve
depicting a disharmonious movement towards the dissipation and abstraction of the body
which would inhibit the appropriate conveyance of spiritual depth. He also takes a pejorative
view of extreme efforts to convey the full intensity of Christ’s suffering through the
grotesque and graphic depiction of the full effects on the painted flesh of Christ. Such efforts,
he insists, perform a disharmonious evisceration upon Christ’s body, attacking its earthly
integrity, thereby distracting from the necessary serenity and fortitude displayed by Christ in
his suffering. In this chapter I will show that the two routes being proscribed by Hegel create
aberrant spiritual paths along which Bacon’s own figural paintings can be located.
Whilst Bacon is clearly unconcerned with maintaining the spiritual harmony associated with
Christian theology as identified by Hegel (indeed, a number of the original ‘religious’
painters must also have been unconcerned), he can be seen as engaging with a very similar
task of embodying and transmitting sub-representational intensities and sensations, and as
such convey a powerful degree of spiritual athleticism and depth in his painted figures. This
is something he acknowledged in an interview with David Sylvester when he is asked about
the prevalence of crucifixions in his work:
‘There have been so very many great pictures in European art of the Crucifixion that it’s a
magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation. You may say
it’s a curious thing for a non-religious person to take the Crucifixion, but I don’t think that
has anything to do with it.’ (Sylvester 1987: 44)
[Illustrations: Bacon, Crucifixion, 1933 (Catalogue Raisonne #6) & The Crucifixion, 1933
(Catalogue Raisonne #8)
This approach may appear aberrant insofar as it stresses the centrality of a certain affective
quality associated with the great religious and spiritual painters of the past. Bacon’s work
might be seen as inherently soliciting superficial and facile comparisons with sacred art but
Deleuze’s approach attempts to avoid such traps by developing a philosophical account of the
mechanics of religious expression in great Christian art, with particular attention on the way
the human body becomes a site for exploring intense and extreme physical experiences of
suffering, humiliation, degradation, and death (what Bacon terms the religious ‘armature’).
[Illustration: Grunewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece (Interior)]
The centrality of these embodied experiences within Christian theology forces the art of
painting to create extraordinary methods for presenting the brutal immediacy of the spirit in
the body as Christ’s corporeal suffering in painting. It is the mechanics of the conveyance of
spiritual depth that concerns Deleuze rather than details of the religious narrative content per
se. Bacon can be seen as incorporating many of the historical developments for conveying
figural and spiritual intensity in painting within his own work and, in my own view, much of
this remains unexplored in the existing critical literature. In Bacon’s paintings there exists a
powerful spiritual athleticism of the body – a spiritual athleticism of flesh and bone.
However, this athleticism is profoundly ecstatic, and displays the polymorphous body in
relation to immaterial and immanent spiritual realms that both recall and reconfigure the
transcendent athleticism of great Christian painting of the past.
Deleuze’s aim is to provide an understanding of this athletic dynamism of Bacon’s figures.
Therefore, it is not the religious trappings of Bacon’s subject matter (such as crucifixions)
which forms the basis of Deleuze’s argument, but the dynamics of the movements on the
canvas which are immediately evident and suggest a peculiar type of ‘spiritual’ depth.
[Illustration: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, 1944]
Deleuze goes further than any other to evince and elaborate this unusual and original aspect
of spiritual dynamism in Bacon’s work, uncovering its link to a very particular historical
trajectory (both ancient and modern).1 What emerges from Deleuze’s study of Bacon is an
emphasis upon the spiritual affectivity of the flesh, the mechanics of which are deeply
embedded within the history of religious painting. For Bacon, religious dogma and
theological narratives have been stripped away and are largely absent, yet some vestiges of
the spiritual mechanics remain.2 Bacon is thus read as a painter concerned with an ecstatic
tendency of the flesh and the capacity for the human body to experience intense affective
sensations beyond the codified norms imposed by consciousness and society. Just as great
religious painters were concerned with depicting the effects on the terrestrial body taken
beyond and outside itself, ecstatically communing with a transcendental celestial realm of the
divine, both in life and after death, Bacon is concerned with repeatedly exploring and
recording the different real capacities of the human body to undergo a range of powerful
affections and sensations when it is brought into proximity with the threshold of liveable

Deleuze argues that Bacon’s historical antecedents include Egyptian bas-relief, religious painters such as Tintoretto,
Grunewald and El Greco, and later painters such as Van Gogh and Cezanne.
Deleuze notes that ‘Bacon is a religious painter in butcher shops’ (Deleuze 2003: 24)
[Illustration: Bacon, Head VI 1949]
In order to better understand how Bacon’s work might indeed function in this way, how it
might express a new spirituality of the flesh, we begin by analysing the thorough and
insightful philosophical account of religious painting, flesh and the spirit contained in G.W.F.
Hegel’s nineteenth century study of aesthetics.
Hegel’s Philosophy of Christian Painting
For Hegel, art has an analogous function to that of religion and philosophy. It is, for him, one
of the ways of expressing the divine, which he understands as the deepest interest of mankind
and the most comprehensive truth of the spirit. Specifically it is a sensuous manifestation of
spiritual depth and truth and as such the sensuous aspects that constitute an artwork are the
subject of sustained philosophical analysis. According to Hegel’s analysis the realisation of
art performs a form of spiritual pedagogy, allowing us to attain a powerful level of spiritual
self-understanding. Art’s highest vocation is to express and bring to our consciousness that
which we regard as absolutely fundamental and universal. For Hegel, religion has the effect
of making us directly conscious (through inner feeling, belief and representation) of the
divine; we feel and believe the divine, as present within our own hearts and souls, to be a real
presence in the world outside of us. In aesthetic experience, by contrast, we encounter an
individual human creation (the artwork) in which the nature of the divine is given concrete
expression. The medium of expression may be purely sensuous or it may take the form of
images or representations. What is important is that it is an externalised object produced by
human artistry which reveals to us the genuine character of spiritual depth or human freedom.
The supreme task of art is to give sensuous and imaginative expression, through external
objects created by human beings, to the ‘highest interests of spirit’. This is effectively carried
out when art gives direct expression to our deepest religious beliefs and ideas, because, for
Hegel, religion is where our most strongly held views have their ultimate source.
In Hegel’s account of Romantic painting what appears in the sensuous or imaginative
medium is a particularly intense spiritual depth. For Hegel the God of Christianity is pure
spirit and love. However, essential to Christian faith is the belief that God became incarnate
in the figure of Jesus Christ. Christ comes to embody God’s pure spirit and love,
demonstrating what such love means in concrete practical and historical terms. Divine love is
thus understood by faith as making itself tangible and visible in the world, embroiling itself in
the complexities of human finitude, even to the point of physical suffering and death, thereby
making a visible difference to the world. The fact that this divine love became visible and
embodied in the world allows the spiritual depth of such love to be rendered supremely
visible and imaginable in Romantic art. Beauty in this form of art is the beauty of profound
spiritual depth, the supreme expression of which is to be found in the images of the Virgin
and Christ child and the disciples created by painters such as Jan Van Eyck, Rapheal, and
Corregio. Romantic beauty finds a fitting expression in painting where it is able to render the
profound depths of divine love as visible for us.
[Illustration: Corregio, Nativity (Holy Night), 1528]
For Hegel, the art of painting, disclosed in the masterpieces of Romantic art, is able to
dissolve the idea that what we see is a fundamentally material presence and so open the way
for us to envisage real spiritual depth and presence. Painting enables us to penetrate the
material appearance and perceive an immaterial spiritual truth. For Hegel this represents the
most important task for painting; it is able to give an outward visual appearance to spiritual
depth by individuating and embodying it. Painting opens a way for depicting the dynamic
between finite yet inherently infinite subjectivity, (which for Hegel is the true principle of our
own life and existence); thus in paintings we are able to recognise that which is most
effective and active in ourselves as embodied human beings. This is achieved in the art of
painting when God appears in himself as both a spiritual and living human being – when
spirit becomes flesh. The subjectivity depicted, in the life of its feelings, ideas, and actions,
embraces the whole of heaven and earth and is present in a variety of situations and external
modes of appearance in the body. Within the history of painting there is a delicate balance
between the finite and the infinite, and this dynamic opens up rich and multifarious ways for
art portraying the divine.
The fact that painting demands an ever increasingly subjective form of spiritual embodiment
and animation is, Hegel claims, fundamentally implicit within the materiality of painting. The
sensuous and material element of painting within which spiritual subjectivity moves (i.e. its
extension on a two-dimensional surface and the formation of the painting through specific
colours), forms the object as our vision perceives it, and is transformed from the shape of
something real into what Hegel calls ‘pure appearance’. In other words, it is a reality
artistically shaped by the spirit of the artist. External existence, the so-called real, is
effectively ‘degraded’ to being merely a ‘pure appearance’ of the inner spirit on the canvas
which desires to contemplate itself there on its own account. It is the inner life of the spirit
which undertakes to express itself as inner but within the mirror of the external world. The
surface upon which painting manifests its subjects, necessarily leads on to surroundings,
connections, and relations; and colour, as the particularisation of an appearance in the picture,
demands also a particularisation of the inner life, which itself can only become clear through
definite expressions, situations, and actions, and therefore requires a variety a movement and
a detailed inner and outer life. It is this principle of spiritual depth which, in its actual
appearance, is essentially linked with the varied forms of external existence. A certain
interior spirituality is recognised as being collected together out of its detailed external
existence. Hegel argues that the entire essence of painting remains within the development
which art attained within the confines of the Romantic sphere; only in the material available
in the Romantic art form does painting acquire topics that completely accord with its intrinsic
means and forms; and only in treating these topics does it use its intrinsic means and exhaust
them to the full.
‘The piety of the heart, the religion of the mind, can dwell even in the external form of a body
which, considered in itself, is ugly...Of course for the expression of spiritual beauty the artist
will avoid what is absolutely ugly in external forms, or he can subdue and transfigure it
through the power of the soul that breaks through it, but nevertheless he cannot entirely
dispense with the ugly. The subject-matter of painting has in it an aspect to which what
strictly corresponds consists of the abnormal and of misshapen human figures and faces. This
aspect is the sphere of the bad and the evil which comes into appearance in religious subjects
especially in the soldiers who play their part in the Passion story, or in the devils who, in their
fantastic shape, exceed the proportions of human figures and yet at the same time still remain
human.’ (Hegel, 1975: 864)
Painting assumes the spiritual depth of the human heart as the fundamental content for its
works, and is capable of bringing before the viewer spiritual depth in the form of an external
sensuous object. For Hegel it is unable to provide specific representational visions of the
divine, but only more indefinite forms associated with spiritual depth. However, this
represents its strength and power. The depth and profound feeling of the human spirit
presupposes that the human soul has progressed through feelings, powers and the inner life in
its entirety, i.e. that it has overcome much, endured and suffered profound grief, anguish and
the pain of the soul, and yet has been able to essentially preserve its integrity through
withdrawing from the world and elevating into its spiritual self. Hegel suggests that only in
this way does natural serenity become a higher form of serenity, a serenity of the spirit which
completely traverses the negative moment of disunion. The human soul becomes elevated
only after it experiences and endures the most profound conflict and agony, only after it has
triumphed over its sufferings.
The individual heart is reconciled with the notion of the Christian God, who in his embodied
appearance in the world as Christ has traversed the path of despair and suffering. The
objective substance of this spiritual depth of feeling is Christian religiosity. Here the human
individual, who has a genuine sense of his individuality, finds true reconciliation only when
his individuated and particular mundane heart is shattered, dissipated and elevated above the
realm of natural necessity, natural existence and its finitude, into a universal depth of feeling,
a spiritual depth and profound unity with the universality of God. The individuality of the
body is traversed and overcome. Hegel argues that only the religiosity of romanticism is able
to articulate this depth of spiritual love and freedom. Here painting is called upon to portray
the spiritual subject matter in the form of actual and bodily human beings, and therefore the
object must not be painted as a purely spiritual ‘beyond’ but as actual and present. For Hegel
the most important object presented by painting is Christ. Painting proceeds and passes over
into the embodied human sphere, and this ultimately expands beyond Christ into a further
province; i.e. the portrayal of Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, the Disciples, etc. Christ is
more appropriately taken as a subject for painting within the embodied situations of his
earthly existence. However, for Hegel there are significant challenges here too. For in
situations where his inherent divinity should break out by becoming incorporeal or exceeding
his finite human personality, painting confronts new difficulties. Since we must regard the
existence of the spirit in the consciousness of man as the essential spiritual existence of God,
such a mode of appearance will have to become particularly evident where Christ is depicted
as man resurrected, transfigured and ascended into heaven.
[Illustrations: Tintoretto: The Resurrection of Christ, 1565; Garofalo: The Ascension of
Christ, 1510]
But the means at the disposal of painting, i.e. the human figure and its colour, the flesh and
the glance of the eye, are for Hegel insufficient in themselves to give perfect expression to
what is implicit in Christ in situations like these. In particular, the Resurrection,
Transfiguration, and Ascension demand in Christ himself a higher expression of Divinity
than painting is completely able to give to him; for its proper means for portraying him (i.e.
human individuality and its external form) should be expunged here in order to present him in
a purer form. It would involve a strange metamorphosis of Christ’s embodied earthly form.
His form would become subject to the intensities of pure infinite spirit and would crack, swell
and become deformed. Painting is limited to trying to give a visual depiction of this spiritual
transfiguration that would appear as a form of ‘bodily’ violence. Perhaps Bacon’s figural
work is attempting this impossible spiritual figuration where the body escapes from itself to
become immaterial.
[Illustration: Bacon Three Studies of the Human Head, 1953]
What Hegel considers as being more advantageous for painting and more in correspondence
with its material and aims are therefore those situations out of the life story of Christ where
he appears not yet spiritually perfect or where his divinity is fundamentally restricted and
abased – i.e. those moments of his self-negation, the childhood of Christ and the story of the

Passion. The passion story includes the mockery, the crown of thorns, the Ecce Homo, the
carrying of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the decent from the cross, and the entombment. There
is an insistence here upon a realistic/naturalistic environment for the depiction of embodied
spirituality, i.e. God made man in the form of Christ. Christ is limited to a spiritual being-in-
the-world. The subject is provided precisely by God in the opposite of his ultimate spiritual
triumph, in the earthly abasement of his infinite power and wisdom. It is God who suffers
insofar as he is confined to the body of a man, confined within this specific figural limitation,
and so his grief does not appear as merely human grief over a human fate – rather, this is an
awesome and almost unliveable suffering, the feeling of an infinite negativity, but it is
depicted in painting as occurring to a human being - as his own individual feeling.
‘It is God who suffers in so far as he is man, confined within this specific limitation, and so
his grief does not appear as merely human grief over a human fate; on the contrary, this is an
awesome suffering, the feeling of an infinite negativity, but in a human person as his personal
feeling...This expression of suffering of soul is an entirely original creation...in the lower
parts of the face grief is just seriousness...a contraction of the muscles which could be taken
to indicate an outcry, but in the eyes and on the forehead there are waves and storms of the
soul’s suffering which, as it were, roll over one another. Drops of sweat break out, indicating
inner agony, on the forehead, just where the chief determinant is the immovable bone. And
precisely at this point where nose, eyes, and forehead meet, and where inner thinking and the
nature of spirit are concentrated and emergent, there are only a few muscles and folds of skin
which, being incapable of any great play, can therefore exhibit this suffering as restrained and
at the same time as infinitely concentrated. [Some masters] discovered an entirely peculiar
tone of colour which is not found in the human face.3 They had to disclose the night of the
spirit, and for this purpose fashioned a type colour which corresponds in the most splendid
way to this storm, to these black clouds of the spirit that at the same time are firmly
controlled and kept in place by the brazen brow of the divine nature.’ (Hegel 1975: 824)
Hegel indicates a problematic boundary within the art of painting, one experienced during its
efforts to depict the ‘road of grief’ traversed by the Disciples, saints and martyrs, a road
traversed by Christ himself. There is an effort to convey the spiritual depth of Christ’s
experience of almost unliveable earthly suffering through concentrating upon a hyperbolic
form of visceral suffering. This visceral depiction goes so far as to eviscerate Christ’s body,
to tear it apart, mutilate and deform it. Hegel writes:

‘This grief lies in a way at the boundaries of art which painting may readily be inclined to
cross by taking as subjects the cruelty and horror of physical suffering – flaying, burning at
the stake, the torment and agony of crucifixion. But, if painting is not to depart from the
spiritual ideal, this it cannot be allowed to do, and not simply because there is no beauty in
bringing martyrdoms of this sort clearly before our eyes or because we have weak nerves
nowadays, but for a deeper reason, namely that the ideal has nothing to do with this physical
aspect of suffering. The real topic to be felt and presented is the history of the spirit, the soul
in its sufferings of love (not the immediate physical suffering of an individual in himself),
grief at the sufferings of someone else, or grief of heart at personal unworthiness.’ (Hegel
1975: 830)

Hegel completely downplays this particular tactic as being insufficient for imparting spiritual
depth. It is, however, an aspect that Bacon pursues in order to realise a more intense form of

Note Hegel’s awareness of the requirement for painting to incorporate anti-realist elements (here in colouring)
to effectively depict spiritual depth (‘the night of the spirit’).
spiritual realism. In his study Deleuze locates Bacon at this proscribed spiritual threshold that
Hegel indicates. For Hegel a form of painting that attempts to depict such a spiritual
transformation and becoming inevitably results in an extreme form of figural abstraction,
deformation and dissipation, and as such risks undermining the specific spiritual task of
transmitting the basic theological tenets of Christianity and Christian love. He refers
somewhat pejoratively to the way this boundary is transgressed by Flemish and German

‘There is a transition from a more peaceful and reverential piety to the portrayal of torments
and the ugliness of the world generally. This is the sphere in which especially the masters of
North Germany excel when, in scenes from the Passion story, it is the crudity of the soldiers,
the malignity of the mockery, the barbarity of their hatred of Christ in his suffering and death,
that they revel with great energy in characterising the greatest ugliness and deformities which
are external forms corresponding to an inner corruption of the heart. The quiet and beautiful
effect of peaceful and deeply felt piety is disdained and, in the case of the movement
prescribed by the situations just mentioned, portrayal goes on to horrible grimaces and
gestures expressive and ferocious and unbridled passions.’ (Hegel 1975: 884)

[Illustrations: Grunewald, The Mocking of Christ, 1503]

Hegel attributes to painting an extraordinary spiritual power – it is an art capable of

conveying, in a visual medium and with remarkable immediacy, the powerful and intense
spiritual depths that are beyond the represented surface of reality’s appearance. While
arguing that the effort to convey religious and spiritual depth through sensuous affectivity has
to be somewhat limited in order that spiritual serenity and balance be maintained, Hegel
reveals two paths within the art of painting serve to disrupt the religious theology it serves to
express. The first is the attempt to figure Christ in his transition from an earthly embodied
man to a pure spiritual being or presence, and the second is the effort to convey the
overwhelming and unliveable intensity of Christ’s suffering by concentrating on the
evisceration of his earthly body. Hegel implies that painting has the dangerous potential to
explore and present aberrant forms of spiritual dynamism when it either attempts to depict the
dynamics of figural transformation and proximity to a pure spiritual ‘beyond’ or when it
engages in the evisceration associated with extreme physical suffering.

[Illustration: Grunewald, The Small Crucifixion, 1510 + Isenheim Altarpiece (Interior) detail
of Christ’s feet]

Whilst one can comprehend why Hegel would want to delimit painting’s efforts to the
depiction and transmission the presence of spiritual depth to the confines of Christianity, his
account actually acknowledges not only the existence of Christian art (such as Grunewald)
that transgressed these limits, but also a whole set of aberrant possibilities for painting if it
were to ever become unhinged from the specificity of its Christian task. Such possibilities
form the grounds for Deleuze’s own philosophical analysis of Bacon’s paintings.

Deleuze, Bacon and Spiritual Realism

Despite the evacuation of explicit narrative (theological or otherwise) in Bacon’s paintings,
something occurs or is ‘happening’, and it is this event which defines the functioning of the
painting. To uncover and identify this as a spiritual event, Deleuze attempts to place its
mechanics within the formal efforts identified by Hegel to display spiritual depth and truth
within classical religious narrative painting. To support his argument Deleuze analyses El
Greco's The Burial of Count Orgaz.
[Illustration: El Greco, The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586-8]
Deleuze notes the presence of a horizontal division separating El Greco’s painting into two
distinct sections – the terrestrial and the celestial. In the lower section of the painting there is
figurative and narrative content (albeit unorthodox and already displaying a degree of figural
distortion) as the Count's terrestrial body is laid to rest in the Earth. However, in the upper
section where the count's living spirit is being received by Christ, there is an astonishing
figural liberation – ‘the Figures are lifted up and elongated, refined without measure, outside
all constraint.' (Deleuze 2003: 9) The figures in this section of the canvas are relieved of their
representative (earthly and bodily) role, and are placed upon an entirely different, spiritual
register -they are being put 'into relation with an order of celestial sensations' (Deleuze 2003:
9). Deleuze uses El Greco’s painting to demonstrate how a Christian painting that was
ostensibly governed by the historical task to represent and communicate a sacred narrative
discovered startlingly aberrant painterly means for expressing non-representational and
sensational affects. These are the means proscribed by Hegel’s analysis. Here 'lines, colours
and movements' are radically freed from the demands of representation and narration, and
express celestial, infernal, immaterial and spiritual sensations. This is particularly true if one
spends any time at all looking at the different ways Christ's body is depicted at times within
the history of Christian painting as a means of expressing the broadest range of intense and
extreme sensations, ranging from Cimabue to Grunewald, and to peculiar attempts at
depicting God himself.
[Illustrations: Tintoretto: Creation of Animals, 1550 & Giotto, Stigmatization of St Francis,
Deleuze's argument suggests that, contrary to Hegel’s attempts to impose a form of religious
discipline upon the art of painting, significant numbers of great religious narrative paintings
which are marked by representational imperatives, provide the means and conditions of
possibility for an essential atheistic yet spiritual liberation of figures, i.e. the emergence of
Bacon’s Figures which are freed from figurative and normal organic constraints and become
able to be the armatures of sensation. Deleuze notes that ‘Christianity contains a germ of
tranquil atheism that will nurture painting; the painter can easily be indifferent to the religious
subject he is asked to represent' (Deleuze 2003: 124). In Christian painting representational
and narrative space is placed into a direct relation with not only accidents but also an aberrant
non-representational space (any-space-whatsoever), a spiritual space, the realm of the
immaterial and the invisible. There is, he claims, dynamism within Bacon’s work that
emulates this movement of the great religious paintings – the movement between the earthly
(bodily) and the celestial (spiritual). Religious sentiment and narration (for example, Christ's
passion, the Creation, the Apocalyptic, visions of Hell) animate and inform not only the
efforts within painting to 'represent' them as events in space and time, but also the efforts to
express them as intensities, sensations, and extreme modes of affectivity (a divine realm seen
and a divine realm felt). The affective register of religious painting remains locked into a
causal relationship with the narrative content of the Christian religion. Such art might aim to
represent a particular event in Christ's life (e.g. the crucifixion of Christ) as a type of religious
or spiritual portrait, however to do this it is not enough to merely illustrate it as a discrete
event in time. Rather, it is important to utilise the depiction of such events to communicate
the affective force of the 'spiritual' depth associated with them. This affective quality,
informed by religious sentiment, operates as a disruptive modulator to the representation of
'good' stable organic form, and the earthly body becomes subject to deformation by invisible
celestial forces. Bacon's own practice inherits much of this dynamic structure insofar as his
work displays repeated motifs seemingly borrowed from (or almost certainly analogous to)
traditional religious art – i.e. crucifixions, death and physical dissolution, bodies in the
process of becoming immaterial (a process of ‘becoming-indiscernible’), bodies confronting
spirits, and bodies placed in relation to animals (a process of ‘becoming-animal’). However,
the religious sentiment and concrete theological concerns have been extracted and are no
longer being represented or narrated. For Deleuze, Bacon's paintings operate like great
religious paintings evacuated of their religious narrative and representation. Such content is
simply of no relevance to Bacon – his work signifies an accelerated form of pictorial atheism,
the very roots of which Deleuze identifies as being present in great Christian art itself.
Bacon’s pictorial atheism is elaborated as a material movement of exchange between the
Figure and its surrounding Field. It is as if both the Figure and this surrounding Field were
composed of one matter, that there is a deep underlying identity and affinity between the two.
Just as individuated spiritualised figures in religious painting yearn for a spiritual reunion
with the immaterial realm of the divine, just as they yearn to overcome their abased earthly
bodies and become one with the pure spirit of the divine, Bacon’s Figures engage in an
analogous material dynamic. Bacon’s Figures display a powerful force for overcoming their
organic embodiment by becoming dissipated in the material Field. There exists a dynamic of
ecstatic material expansion and overwhelming confinement in Bacon’s work where
‘something happens in both directions.’ (Deleuze 2003: 12) The dynamics at play are
discovered by paying close attention to some of the formal and structural elements of Bacon’s
paintings, beginning with the Figure and the Field.
To develop his reconfigured understanding of Bacon’s non-representational Figures, Deleuze
draws upon Artaud’s notion of the ‘nerve meter’ (Artaud 1968). Artaud originally formulated
the idea of the nerve meter as a means for constituting a minute intimacy to the study of the
human body. Artaud’s polemics call for a radical anatomy of the physical and physiological
dynamics emanating from the sensory fields of the human nervous system – its flesh, bones,
marrow, synapses, etc, and there is in Artaud an attempt to reconfigure and create a new
order of the affective body that Deleuze sees as being synonymous with Bacon. In Artaud, as
in Bacon, there is an intimate mapping and re-coding of the physical body, discovering the
body’s spiritual depths.
‘One must have been deprived of life, of the nervous irradiation of existence, of the conscious
fulfilment of our nerves, to realise to what extent the Sensation and Knowledge of all thought
is secreted in the nervous energy within our bones...I am a man who has lost his life and who
is seeking every way of re-integrating it in its proper place. In some measure I am the
Generator of my own vitality.’ (Artaud 1968: 165)
This process entails a brutal effort to destroy the extant body until it becomes ‘nothing except
fine Nerve Scales’. Artaud’s demands equate to the most extreme physical immediacy or
what he terms ‘the purest reality’, which is extremely close to Bacon’s own commitment to
‘the brutality of truth’. The Figure for both Artaud and Bacon becomes a means of recording
the aberrant, intensive and impersonal body beneath the appearance of the organic body.
Bacon’s Figures give a painted reality and immediacy to this intensive body. Deleuze writes:
‘The form related to the sensation (the Figure) is the opposite of the form related to an object
that it is supposed to represent (figuration). (Deleuze 2003: 36)

For both Artaud and Bacon the body is in direct contact with a vital ontological power that is
discovered by going beyond the individuated body of the human organism. This ontological
power is called the ‘body-without-organs’ by Deleuze, a term he again borrows from Artaud,
and indicates the presence of a singular and vital ontology of intensities.4 The body-without-
organs is a single and vital non-organic life, in relation to which the individuated organism
cannot be considered to be life at all. The organism is always considered as an entity that
merely represents one discrete emergent variation on life and that acts, through its
determination, to imprison and stratify the unliveable and indeterminate intensity of life. The
emergent body is always in contact with this powerful non-organic life, at once through its
ancestry and its eventual ontological destiny. Its own organic individuation originates from
the indeterminate and chaotic substance of life, and it is destined to one day become
inevitably dissipated back into it. The organic body is an individuated embodiment of the
excessive and unliveable realm of sensation associated with the body-without-organs, and as
such Deleuze claims that the body in Bacon’s work should be recognised as being
consistently presented at the threshold of ontological intensity. At this threshold bodies take
on an excessive, exaggerated and spasmodic appearance – ‘exceeding the bounds of organic
activity.’ (Deleuze 2003: 45). The Figures are the body-without-organs - individuated bodies
that are being systematically dismantled through their sheer proximity to the intensity of the
ontological field in which they are placed. Such intensive evisceration and deformation
clearly recalls Hegel’s proscription regarding the visual depiction of pure spiritual and
presence, a spiritual and figural path taken up by Bacon with his depictions of a reconfigured
spiritual athleticism of the body at the edge of being a body. This demonstrates the high
spirituality in Bacon’s work where ‘the spirit is the body itself, the body-without-organs.’
(Deleuze 2003: 47) It is ultimately this power that tears Bacon’s Figures away from
representation (from figuration) in order for sensation to be embodied as something real:
‘When sensation is linked to the body in this way it ceases to be representative and becomes
real; and cruelty will be linked less and less to the representation of something horrible, and
will become nothing other than the action of forces upon the body, or sensation (the opposite
of the sensational).’ (Deleuze 2003: 45)
In becoming expressions of the intensive body, Bacon’s Figures demonstrate a singular
athleticism that is directly related to their reconfigured role. The source of their movement,
Deleuze observes, very often appears to be in something other than themselves (i.e. in
something other than their voluntary will). It is as if the Figure is engaged in a broader
movement originating in the material structure around it, from what Deleuze terms the Field.
This is analogous to the powerful effect of the spiritual realm and the effect it has on the
figures depicted as being in proximity with it. [Illustration: El Greco] Part of the dynamic
exchange originates in the force acting upon the Figure to confine and compress it. This
element of the movement results in an overwhelming sense of solitude or confinement where
the Figures appear imprisoned:
‘The material structure curls around the contour in order to imprison the Figure, which
accompanies the movement of all the structure’s forces...the Figure becomes a Figure only
through this movement which confines it and in which it confines itself.’ (Deleuze 2003:15)
[illustration: Bacon Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, 1963 (Catalogue Raisonne
The phrase comes from Artaud in ‘To Have Done with the Judgement of God’, (Artaud 1976: 571 –2) - ‘When
you will have made him a body without organs, then you will have delivered him from all his automatic
reactions and restored him to his true freedom.’
There is an accompanying ecstatic and spasmodic movement which originates from within
the body of the Figure. The Figure moves expansively out towards the material structure of
the Field. Bodies seldom appear as passive agents waiting for something to happen, arriving
from the outside of the structure. Bodies often appear as waiting for something to occur
within themselves and as exerting an extraordinary efforts upon themselves – ‘it is inside the
body that something is happening; the body is the source of movement.’ (Deleuze 2003: 15)
[Illustration: Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer Staring at a Blind-cord, 1966]
Neither one of these movements represents the effects upon individual subjects or agents, but
rather upon the impersonal body of the Figure. The movement’s source cannot be the
voluntary will of an individual subject but the pre-personal and intensive body’s implicit
attempts to escape from the confinement of its own individuated and embodied state by
means of a physical spasm. It attempts to perform this ecstatic spasm in an effort to escape
and rejoin the material field or structure – to become de-individuated matter and reunite itself
with the unconstrained intensity of the pure material continuum. This second ecstatic
movement, in conjunction with the first isolating pressure coming from the material field,
results in differing and shifting degrees of bodily deformation. Deleuze talks of this physical
deformation as a destiny that all bodies share since they all have a necessary relationship to
the material or matter of the substance that is outside them – they are constituted by yet
separated from substance – ‘the body must return to the material structure and dissipate into
it.’ (Deleuze 2003: 18) Bacon’s work explores this necessary relationship and destiny of
physical bodies – repeatedly dramatising this spasmodic and ecstatic movement of return to
the singularity and intensity of eternal substance as if it were a transfiguration into a pure
spiritual zone beyond or beneath the world of individuated organic forms. The Figure moves
out towards infinity – ‘This most closed of worlds is also the most unlimited.’ (Deleuze 2003:
32) With Bacon it is not necessarily the literal depiction of ultimate dissipation,
disappearance and individual organic death of the body – rather his paintings chart the
physical sensations associated with being enclosed within an organic body and having to
exist in relation to this physical destiny of dissipation. The Figures record and transmit the
powerful forces that traverse the body as an intensity within and an intensity without. They
are forced to express these movements of intensity as outrages upon their organic integrity –
they swell, split and deform.
[illustration: Bacon, Turning Figure, 1963 (Catalogue Raisonne #212)
Figures are thus depictions of ‘real, physical and effective’ lived states – ‘which are
sensations and not imaginings’.(Deleuze 2003: 19) The recording of the sensation and
intensity of lived states held in relation to the physical destiny of dissipation is what
effectively renders the bodies that Bacon paints to appear the way they do:
‘An intense movement flows through the whole body, a deformed and deforming movement
that at every moment transfers the real image onto the body in order to constitute the Figure.’
(Deleuze 2003: 19)
The represented organic body is inhabited, haunted, deformed and effectively mutilated by
another intense body within. The human body, composed as an organism, i.e. an individuated
organisation of eternal and chaotic material of substance, holds this presence of material
intensity within the confines of its body. This sets up a very powerful dynamic akin to the
spiritual one which Hegel had discovered within traditional Christian painting. There the
embodied figure of Christ contains the essence of God’s pure spirit, and his earthly existence
enables painting to depict the spiritual dynamic between the finitude of Christ as embodied
man and Christ as the infinity of pure celestial divinity. Bacon’s material dynamic of the
material Figure and material Field sets up a pictorial depiction of a sub-representational and
sub-organic spiritual athleticism.
In an effort to convincingly establish this spiritual athleticism Deleuze provides an analysis of
Bacon as a portraitist. Insofar as his intention is to move beyond merely representing the
appearance of the face and paint the spiritual depth of the intensive body beneath, he is to be
understood as a painter of ‘heads’ and as a very particular type of spiritual portraitist. His
purpose as a portraitist is to deconstruct the human face, to rediscover and allow the
emergence of the head beneath the face. This allows Bacon to concentrate upon the different
atavistic and intensive spirits that haunt the matter of the head.
[Illustration: Bacon, Head II, 1949]
The specificity of the spirit that takes bodily form in the head is what Deleuze terms the
‘animal spirit of man.’ (Deleuze 2003: 20) This animalistic atavism moves the human
organism one stage closer to the intensive immediacy of the pure matter of which it is
composed. It is not a matter of simply shifting the head towards a literal animal
metamorphosis, i.e. as a figured animal form, rather it is a process of ‘becoming-animal’ in
order to discover the animal traits that reside below the represented human face. These
atavistic animal spirits that inhabit the matter of the head are ‘traits’ of animality rather than
organic forms. As the integrity of the face is challenged through Bacon’s interventions
(scrubbing, distortion, splitting and deformation) the animal traits of the head individuate and
transform the represented face into the head of a Figure.
[illustration: Bacon, Head, 1962 (Catalogue Raisonne #205)]
The represented subject is repeatedly placed into a dynamic ‘zone of indiscernability or
undecidability’ between man and animal:
‘Man becomes animal, but not without the animal becoming spirit at the same time, the spirit
of man, the physical spirit of man presented in the mirror as Eumenides or Fate. It is never a
combination of forms, but rather the common fact: the common fact of man and animal.’
(Deleuze 2003: 21)
[Illustrations: Bacon, Seated Figure 1974]
Bacon’s spiritual athletics as a portraitist involves performing a radical material
transfiguration upon a subject (a represented figure) which is systematically subjected to and
swept up by a process of material de-individuation akin to the type of spiritual transfiguration
in religious art proscribed by Hegel. The heads in Bacon’s portraits display a common zone
of animality, a fluid pool of animality, that has the effect of bringing the body into proximity
with the intensive material continuum of Being. Whilst destined to assume temporary reified
organic forms, all bodies are subject to being dissipated back to the non-organic material of
which they are constituted. Ultimately this is not simply a matter of discovering the head
beneath the face in portraits but of plunging the entire body back into the material zone of
[Illustrations: Bacon, Study of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966; Study of Henrietta Moraes, 1969 &
Portrait of George Dyer Talking, 1966]]
The entire physical body is constituted by the base animal matter of flesh and bone. The
bones of the body often form the nexus of its organic integrity, particularly when such
integrity is the sole object of representation. The intensive body (that which is common to
man and animal) is revealed ‘only when it ceases to be supported by the bones, when the
flesh ceases to cover the bones, when the two exist for each other, but each on its own terms;
the bone as the material structure of the body, the flesh as the bodily material of the Figure.’
(Deleuze 2003: 22) The tension between flesh and bone, with each attaining a degree of
autonomy (once freed from the imperatives of organic integrity and familiar bodily
organisation), is expressed by Bacon through the depiction of the common state of man and
animal – namely ‘meat’:
‘Meat is the state of the body in which flesh and bone confront each other locally rather than
being composed structurally.’ (Deleuze 2003: 22)
Bacon’s athleticism of meat is demonstrated by the repeated iconography of the prone Figure.
(Illustrations: Bacon Lying Figure, 1959 (Catalogue Raisonne #148); Lying Figure, 1959
(Catalogue Raisonne #152);Reclining Figure, 1959 (Catalogue Raisonne #151) Reclining
Woman, 1961 (Catalogue Raisonne #180)]
The raised limbs of these prone figures are equivalent to a bone structure from which the
flesh descends. For Deleuze the bones in these paintings function like ‘trapeze apparatus’ for
hanging carcasses upon which the flesh becomes acrobatic (much like he uses a cruxifix to
hang ‘all types of feelings and sensations’). An athleticism of the intensive pre-personal body
is being played out through an acrobatics of the flesh. These visceral experiments in
recording the sensations associated with the lived reality of a body portray meat as alive and
as retaining ‘all the sufferings and colours of living flesh.’ (Deleuze 2003: 23) The meat
Bacon paints is able to manifest the pessimism, pain and vulnerability associated with being
embodied, with being alive, but it also expresses the optimistic joy and vitality associated
with life:
‘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 butcher’s shops.’
(Deleuze 2003: 23-4)
Deleuze traces an entire scale of intensity developed through different series of paintings in
depicting the relationship between the head and meat. The relationship takes a certain form in
Painting, 1946 where the meat (separated into flesh on one side and bones on the other) is
positioned on the periphery of a balustrade where the Figure-Head is seated.
[Illustration: Bacon, Painting, 1946]
In this painting it is as if the dense slabs of flesh surrounding the head are responsible for
fundamentally dismantling the face beneath the umbrella. There are the series of Popes,
variations on Velasquez’s portrait, where it is as if the scream that comes out of the Pope’s
mouth and the pity that comes out of his eyes have meat as their object.
[Illustration: Bacon, Pope No. 2, 1960]
There are the paintings where Bacon gives meat its own mouth through which it tries to
escape and descend from the cross.
[Illustration: Bacon, Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962 & Crucifixion, 1965]

There are the series of heads which exemplify an intimate identity with meat, the most
striking of which are those painted in the vivid reds and blues of raw meat.
[Illustration: Bacon Miss Muriel Belcher, 1959 & Head of a Woman, 1960]
There are also the paintings where meat not only attains a mouth or an associative intimacy
with the head, but is in fact the head. In Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 the Meat-Head
howls beneath a dog-spirit positioned at the summit of a cross. The mouth of the meat-head
exemplifies a process of becoming-animal expressed by the scream where the individuated
body is trying to escape from itself and return to the intensive material continuum.
[Illustration: Bacon Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950]
Most of Bacon’s work is marked by the presence of such Figures that have not yet completely
dissolved back into the material Field - they have not yet been ‘effaced on the wall of the
closed cosmos’ or melted ‘into a molecular texture’. Figures persist. Yet their movement
back into the material field is, according to Deleuze, a spiritual movement back to eternity,
the eternity of substance. He suggests that at this extreme point of bodily dissipation a
spiritual justice will prevail ‘that will no longer be anything but colour and light, a space that
will no longer be anything but the Sahara.’ (Deleuze 2003: 27) Deleuze refers to the small
number of paintings which are oddly marked by the complete absence of the Figure, which he
speculates as being the realisation of the Figures spiritual destiny towards total dissipation
into the material Field. These are the paintings of sand, water, and wind, where the Figure has
finally realised its destiny to become nothing but ‘sand, grass, dust, or a drop of water.’
(Deleuze 2003: 31)
[Illustration: Bacon, Jet of Water, 1979 & Sand Dune 1983]
For Deleuze, Bacon’s spiritual exploration of the body manifests a very peculiar form of
painterly hysteria where the hidden sub-organic presences are given a reality. The sub-
organic realm of the body-without-organs is defined by the presence of indeterminate organs,
whereas the individuated organism (the figured body) is defined by its determinate organs. In
his paintings Bacon repeatedly attempts to depict the sheer intense presence of the spirit in
the body that is the body-without-organs by painting the figured body at its limit. This
hysteria is particularly evident within Bacon’s series of papal portraits inspired by Velasquez.
Bacon effectively hystericizes all the elements of Velasquez’s paintings.
[Illustration: Velasquez, Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650 & Bacon, Study After
Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953; Study After Velasquez, 1950; Pope III, 1951;
Study for Portrait VIII, 1953 (Catalogue Raisonne #66; & Study for a PopeV (Catalogue
Raisonne #186]
It is as if the body and its surrounding field are being placed in proximity to an intense sub-
representational spiritual field which acts to hystericize them, throwing the body into an
abnormal athleticism of spasmodic screaming and writhing. Bacon’s Figures are often
defined by the hysterical, temporary and provisional presence of determinate organs, organs
which are polyvalent, aberrant and monstrous. The extreme fluidity of Bacon’s Figures is
expressed through a series of different means – the textural and tonal variation across flesh,
which is one of the ways Bacon attempts to inscribe the lived reality of time into Figures. In

addition to the extremes of the textural and chromatic variation in the Figures, there is the
extraordinary figural invention that has been attributed to Bacon.5
[Illustration: Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer Crouching, 1966]
The flux of the movement in such Figures extends from there being movement from the
determinate represented figure towards becoming a ruptured figure that displays radical
figural interruption. This results in the emergence of strange indeterminate and polyvalent
organs – before the establishment of new, temporary and transitory organs and features.
Determinate organs are annulled in order that they are capable of entering into new and
aberrant relations across a reformed body. The complete series, often depicted as a
simultaneous event ‘happening’ to a Figure, is one of extreme figural mutation and
mutilation, and this is what Deleuze understands as the systemic hysterical reality, or
spiritual reality, of Bacon’s Figures at the limit of the body-without-organs.
This hysteria enables Bacon to visualise the sub-organic body-without-organs, which is akin
to a pure spiritual realm beyond representation, and as such places him upon the aberrant
trajectory of great religious painting that was proscribed by Hegel. As Hegel had originally
identified, painting has an extraordinary capacity to depict and release the presences beneath
the surface of appearance and to reveal spiritual depths. For Hegel this is directly linked to
painting’s ability to depict and represent not just the narrative events associated with
Christianity, but also its spiritual depth - divine truths about human freedom, responsibility,
love, respect and truth. The materiality of painting, its line and colour systems, have the
capacity to transmit these spiritual depths with an immediate overwhelming presence.
Painting is capable of not merely treating the eye as a fixed and determinate organ, but as a
free spiritual organ that can be guided towards perceiving (through vision) the outlines of
new and previously unseen spiritual depths. As was outlined earlier, Hegel talks extremely
perceptively about the capacity of the art of painting to perform this spiritual task. Yet, for all
the sense of visual liberation identified by Hegel, allowing for the depiction of profound
spiritual presence, his account remains overdetermined by a reified and fixed understanding
of Christian theology. Those spiritual depths, linked to a celestial and transcendent realm
delimited by Hegel’s Christian notions, remain far too bound up with spiritual zones always
already mapped out. Within the atheistic and post-Nietzschen milieu that Bacon occupies, the
spiritual depths pursued are utterly liberated and unconstrained. Here the spiritual depths
pursued have become unhinged from Christianity and are now associated with the non-
representational and non-organic vitality of matter, the body and life. This is a truly strange,
mysterious and aberrant form of spirituality which emerges consisting of the unmapped and
unforeseen chaosmosis of all matter, its affects, intensities, movements and rhythms.
Despite Hegel’s misgivings, many of the great religious painters of the past had realised the
eye’s capacity to perceive invisible and hidden spiritual depths by liberating lines and colours
from their representational function (evident in the paintings of El Greco and Tintoretto).
Bacon is read as going even further by seeking to liberate the eye’s adherence to the organism
itself, from its character as a fixed and qualified organ. With Bacon the eye not only becomes
liberated from its representational function, but in liberating itself from the organism it is able
to become a polyvalent organ capable of envisaging the body-without-organs as a series of
aberrant figural possibilities testifying to a powerful spiritual presence in matter. Bacon’s
Figures discover, through a spiritual movement enacted by the liberated eye, the materiality

See John Russell’s comments on this painting in which he credits Bacon with ‘an entirely new way of
portraying the human head’. (Russell 1979: 131)
out of which they are composed and individuated, the pure singular and eternal presence from
which they emanate.
To conclude, this is the shape of Bacon’s spiritual realism that Deleuze’s philosophical study
ultimately elicits – a subtle and profound insight that has the potential for transforming how
we understand Bacon’s art in the future. Spiritual realism is Bacon’s discovery about the art
of painting, a secular continuation of the religious trajectory in painting.6
‘This is the double definition of painting: subjectively, it invests the eye, which ceases to be
organic in order to become a polyvalent and transitory organ; objectively, it brings before us
the reality of a body, of lines and colours freed from organic representation. And each is
produced by the other: the pure presence of the body becomes visible at the same time that
the eye becomes the determined organ of this presence.’ (Deleuze 2003: 52)
Bacon’s art of painting is capable of discovering the brutality of truth, the material reality of
bodies, with its line – colour systems and its polyvalent organ, the eye. The spiritual
adventure of this art of painting is one whereby the eye discovers that it is capable of
attending to the full depths of material existence and its strange and intense material
presence. His paintings directly address the limitations of our understanding of what a body
is, what forces belong to it and what it is in fact preparing for. His Figures have the capacity
to force us to realise what we are and what a body can do. For Deleuze, Bacon is ultimately
an ally of Nietzsche, contributing aesthetically to a new and reconfigured material piety – a
renewed spiritual faith in life.
[Illustration: Bacon, Detail of centre panel of Study for Self-Portrait Triptych, 1985-6]

For Deleuze Bacon’s spiritual realist forebears include Van Gogh, Cezanne and Klee.

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Arataud, Antonin (1968) Collected Works Vol. 1, trans. Victor Corti, London: John Calder
Artaud, Antonin (1976) Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press
Deleuze, Gilles (2003) Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel Smith, London:
Hegel, G.W.F. (1975) Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. Malcolm Knox, Oxford:
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Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968) The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale,
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Russell, John (1979) Francis Bacon, (revised edition), London: Thames & Hudson
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