☛ Christie’s: “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” by Francis Bacon, oil on canvas, in 3 parts, each: 78 x 58 in. (198 x 147.5 cm.). Image retrieved from Christie’s e-Catalogue (requires Flash), pp. 26-27.
This triptych from 1969 ―not to be confused with “Three Studies For Portrait of Lucian Freud” which I wrote about earlier― broke some records when it was sold at auction by Christie’s, on November 12, 2013:
It took seven superrich bidders to propel a 1969 Francis Bacon triptych to $142.4 million at Christie’s on Tuesday night, making it the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. William Acquavella, the New York dealer, is thought to have bought the painting on behalf of an unidentified client, from one of Christie’s skyboxes overlooking the auction. (The New York Times: “At $142.4 Million, Triptych Is the Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold at an Auction” by Carol Vogel, Nov. 12, 2013).
It is for others to discuss the significance or insignificance of this new record. Here, following some comments by Gilles Deleuze, our attention will concentrate instead on the boxes in which each one of the three versions of Lucian Freud’s body seem to be framed:
In short, the painting is composed like a circus ring, a kind of amphitheater as “place.” It is a very simple technique that consists in isolating the Figure. There are other techniques of isolation: putting the Figure inside a cube, or rather, inside a parallelepiped of glass or ice; sticking it onto a rail or strech-out bar, as if on the magnetic arc of an infinite circle; or combining all these means ―the round area, the cube, and the bar― as in Bacon’s strangely flared and curved armchairs. The are all “places” [lieux]. In any case, Bacon does not hide the fact that these techniques are rather rudimentary, despite the subtlelty of their combinations. The important point is that they do not consign the Figure to immobility but, on the contrary, render sensible a kind of progression, an exploration of the Figure within the place, or upon itself. It is an operative field. The relation of the Figure to its isolating place defines a “fact”: “the fact is…,” “what takes place is…” Thus isolated, the Figure becomes an Image, an Icon.
Not only is the painting an isolated reality, and not only does the triptych have three isolated panels (which above all must not be united in a single frame), but the Figure itself is isolated in the painting by the round area or the parallelepiped. Why? Bacon often explains that it is to avoid the figurative, illustrative, and narrative character the Figure would necessarily have if it were not isolated. Painting has neither a model to represent nor a story to narrate. It thus has two possible ways of escaping the figurative: toward pure form, through abstraction; or toward the purely figural, through extraction or isolation. If the painter keeps to the Figure, if he or she opts for the second path, it will be to oppose the “figural” to the figurative. Isolating the Figure will be the primary requirement. The figurative (representation) implies the relationship of an image to an object that it is supposed to illustrate; but it also implies the relationship of an image to other images in a composite whole which assigns a specific object to each of them. Narration is the correlate of illustration. A story always slips into, or tends to slip into, the space between two figures in order to animate the illustrated whole. Isolation is thus the simplest means, necessary though not sufficient, to break with representation, to disrupt narration, to escape illustration, to liberate the Figure: to stick to the fact.
Clearly the problem is more complicated than this. Is there not another type of relationship between Figures, one that would not be narrative, and from which no figuration would follow? Diverse Figures that would spring from the same fact, that would belong to one and the same unique fact rather than telling a story or referring to different objects in a narrative whole? Nonnarrative relationship between Figures, and non-illustrative relationships between the Figure and the fact? Coupled Figures have always been a part of Bacon’s work, but they do not tell a story. Moreover, there is a relationship of great intensity between the separate panels of a triptych, although this relationship has nothing narrative about it. (Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation, tr. Daniel W. Smith, New York: Continuum,  2003, pp. 1-3).
In a recent essay he wrote at the invitation of Leopold Lambert forThe Funambulist Paper, Dan Mellamphy discusses the “binding of the body” in the work of Francis Bacon, Hans Bellmer and others. At one point, picking up from Deleuze’s comment (reproduced above), he hints at an important influence through which the French philosopher might consider the figure/ground relationship:
Deleuze’s use of an uppercase F in ‘Figure’ […] serves to distinguish it from normative figuration[s]: an important distinction, since the ‘Figure’ in this case is, as Gilbert Simondon—formative influence (speaking of forms and formation) on monsieur Gilles Deleuze—put it in his treatise On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, “the [F]igure of a [G]round” as opposed to a figure distinct and distinguished from ground (hence we have here a “distinction” by way of indistinction, or again a “clarification” by blurring) (read more: THE FUNAMBULIST PAPERS 43 /// “AV (Anthropocosmogonic Vastupurushamanism)” by Dan Mellamphy, Nov. 21, 2013)
For this comment, Mellamphy refers to a passage of METO where Simondon discusses how “technical thinking” was the result of the rupture from “the primitive reticular structure of the magical world” (1958, Part III, Chap. I, §iii). This, and what follows, is to some extent reminiscent of one of the central argument made by Marshall McLuhan in his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, an argument he borrows from the ethno-psychiatrist J.C. Carothers:
Carothers stresses that until phonetic writing split apart thought and action, there was no alternative but to hold all men responsible for their thoughts as much as their actions. His great contribution has been to point to the breaking apart of the magical world of the ear ad the neutral world of the eye, and to the emergence of the detribalized individual from this split. It follows, of course, that literate man, when we meet him in the Greek world, is a split man, a schizophrenic, as all literate man have been since the invention of the phonetic alphabet. (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1962, p. 22)
Where Simondon underlines the fact that the advent of technological thinking also produces a “deficit”, McLuhan will evoke instead a “technological trauma” (previously). Although the works of Simondon and McLuhan greatly diverges on other points, here one could venture to suggest that McLuhan “split man” is also the result of a separation between figure and ground.
In this regard, part of Simondon’s theory can be understood as an effort the think anew the relationship between figure and ground through a process of individualization that avoids the traditional reduction into clearly distinct unities (figure against ground).
This would be one way to experience Bacon’s painting. His parallelepiped cage does not isolate a recognizable figure from a ground. Nor does it function as a traditional representation. On the contrary, it acts as a pictorial apparatus preventing such operations. In doing so, it allows the entire triptych to work as a field of sensation. In other words, instead of a painting representing Lucian Freud, there is paint, “on its own”, taking place (or presenting itself) as a Figure.
• • •
- Pieces of discarded painting(s) by Francis Bacon, c. 1953-54
- Francis Bacon’s Last Interview, by Francis Giacobetti, 1991-1992
- Francis Bacon: “If they were not my friends, I could not do such violence to them.” (1966)