Reading Deleuze on Painting (from Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation [1981, trans. 2002])

In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze begins the eleventh chapter, “The Painting before Painting,”

It is a mistake to think that the painter works on a white surface. The figurative belief follows from this mistake. If the painter were before a white surface, he could reproduce on it an external object functioning as a model, but such is not the case. The painter has many things in his head, or around him, in his studio. Now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas, more or less virtually, more or less actually, before he begins his work. They are all present in the canvas as so many images, actual or virtual, so that the painter does not have to cover a blank surface but rather would have to empty it out, clear it, clean it. (71)

After a few interesting pages on photographs and perceptual cliché, he continues,

Triptych, March 1974

If we consider a canvas before the painter begins working, all the places on it seem to be equivalent, they are all equally “probable.” And if they are not equivalent, it is because the canvas is a well-defined surface, with limits and a center. But even more so, it depends on what the painter wants to do, and what he has in his head: this or that place becomes privileged in relation to this or that project. The painter has a more or less precise idea of what he wants to do, and this prepictorial idea is enough to make the probabilities unequal. There is thus an entire order of equal and unequal probabilities on the canvas. And it is when the unequal probability becomes almost a certitude that I can begin to paint. But at that very momentonce I have begun, how do I proceed so that what I paint does not become a cliché? “Free marks” will have to be made rather quickly on the image being painted so as to destroy the nascent figuration in it and to give the Figure a chance, which is the improbable itself. These marks are accidental, “by chance”; but clearly the same word, “chance,” no longer designates probabilities, but now designates a type of choice or action without probability. These marks can be called “nonrepresentative,” precisely because they depend on the act of chance and express nothing regarding the visual image: they only concern the hand of the painter. [. . .] From start to finish, accident and chance (in this second sense) will have been an act or choice, a certain type of act or choice. Chance, according to Bacon, is inseparable from a possibility of utilization. It is manipulated choice, as opposed to conceived or seen probabilities. (76-77, bold emphasis added)

And later on:

Triptych, Studies from the Human Body, 1970

[The painter] enters into [cliché and probability] because he knows what he wants to do, but what saves him is [not himself] but the fact that he does not know how to get there, he does not know how to do what he wants to do. He will only get there by getting out of the canvas. [. . .] One can only fight against cliché with much ruse, perseverance, and prudence: it is a task perpetually renewed with every painting, with every moment of every painting. [. . .] Between the [first and second figurations: pre-given and accidental] a leap in place is produced, a deformation in place, the emergence-in-place of the Figure: the pictorial act. Between what the painter wants to do and what he does there was necessarily a know-how, a “how-to.” A probable visual whole (first figuration) has been disorganized and deformed by free manual traits that, by being reinjected into the whole, will produce the improbable visual Figure (second figuration). The act of painting is the unity of these free manual traits and their effect upon and reinjection into the visual whole. (78-79)

Passages like these captivate me and move me to reflect on what it is I do when I study literature or teach writing or purport to know something about an author’s life and work. What am I doing? What is it I am studying or teaching or knowing? Indeed, when students (or when I, for that matter) face the blank word processing screen, we are not just facing an empty document. It is hard, isn’t it, to clean it of all the readymade clichés that are there, already there, even when we’re not trying to be profound or to create art. I wonder: is it possible to teach writing as Deleuze/Bacon describe the art of painting (and the art of painting before painting)? Is this method of manipulated choice and utilized chance a teachable skill or mental habit? Would I want to teach writing this way? Or when I’m reading Woolf or Lawrence, when I type, “when I’m reading Woolf or Lawrence,” what is it I’m engaging with? Lately I’ve come to read the awkward repetitions in Lawrence’s work as so many efforts to scrape, deform, and affirm the potential Figure of an accident.

I need to think on this more, but I’m thinking now of Deleuze’s essay/lecture, “What Is a Creative Act?” as well as the introduction to What Is Philosophy? Though painting and philosophizing are not the same thing, they are both creative activities, according to Deleuze and Guattari, activities in which the concept, affect, or percept impose themselves even as they are created by the philosopher or artist. What do we gain or lose in reading philosophy as a clearing away of that which always already fills the blank pages in front of the philosopher? A thinking that clears the image of thought, producing—but in what sense producing—the improbable Vampire, the thought without image (Difference and RepetitionA Thousand Plateaus)? And what is Deleuze exploring in Francis Bacon? Certainly not all painters begin by clearing the canvas. Do all philosophers? All novelists?

What canvas must I clear? What problem is most urgent? And what Figure (if any) will emerge if I learn to utilize the accidents ahead? Reading on . . .

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