The Body, the Meat and the Spirit: Becoming Animal

The body is the Figure, or rather the material of the Figure. Above all the material of the Figure is not to be confused with the material structure in space which is separate from this. The body is a Figure, not structure. Conversely, the Figure being a body, is not a face and does not even have a face. It has a head, because the head is an integral part of the body. It can even be reduced to its head. As a portraitist, Francis Bacon is a painter of heads and not of faces. There is a big difference between the two. For the face is a structured spatial organization which covers the head, while the head is an adjunct of the body, even though it is its top. It is not that it lacks a spirit, but it is a spirit which is body, corporeal and vital breath, an animal spirit; it is the animal spirit of man: a pig-spirit, a buffalo-spirit, a dog-spirit, a bat-spirit... This means that Bacon is pursuing a very special project as a portraitist: unmaking the face, rediscovering or pulling up the head beneath the face.

The deformations which bodies undergo are also the animal features of the head. There is in no way a correspondence between animal forms and forms of the face. In fact, the face has lost its form in the process of being subjected to operations of cleaning and brushing which disorganize it and make a head burgeon in its place. And the marks or features of animality are moreover not animal forms, but rather spirits which haunt the cleaned parts, which draw out the head, individualizing and qualifying the head without a face.1 As procedures used by Bacon, cleaning and features here assume a specific meaning. What happens is that the man's head is replaced by an animal; but this is not the animal as form, it is the animal as outline, for example the trembling outline of a bird which spirals over the cleaned area, while the simulacra of face portraits, beside it, serve only as 'witness' (as in the 1976 triptych). What happens is that an animal, a real dog for example, is outlined as the shadow of its master; or conversely the shadow of the man assumes an autonomous and unspecified animal existence. The shadow escapes from the body like an animal to which we give shelter. Instead of formal correspondences, what Bacon's painting constitutes is a zone of the indiscernible, of the undecidable, between man and animal. Man becomes animal, but he does not become so without the animal simultaneously becoming spirit, the spirit of man, the physical spirit of man presented in the mirror as Eumenides or fate. This is never a combination of forms, it is rather a common fact: the common fact of man and animal. To the point that Bacon's most isolated Figure is to begin with a coupled figure, man coupled with his animal in an underlying act of bullfighting.

This objective zone of the indiscernible was to start with the whole body, but the body in terms of flesh or meat. Without any doubt the body also has bones, but bones are only spatial structure. Distinctions have often been made between flesh and bones, and even between relationships of flesh and bone. The body only reveals itself when it ceases to be supported by the bones, when the flesh ceases to cover the bones, when they exist in a mutual relation, but each independently, the bones as the material structure of the body, the flesh as the corporeal material of the Figure. Bacon admires Edgar Degas' young woman, After the Bath (1885-86), whose broken-up spinal column seems to emerge from the flesh, while the flesh is made the more vulnerable and agile, more acrobatic.2 In quite a different composition, Bacon painted a similar spinal column for a Figure contorted upside-down. This pictorial tension between flesh and bones is something which has to be achieved. Now to be specific it is meat which brings about this tension in the painting, not least through the splendor of the colours. Meat is that state of the body where the flesh and the bones confront one another locally, instead of entering into composition structurally. Likewise the mouth and the teeth, which are little bones. In meat, it is as if the flesh drops from the bones, while the bones rise above the flesh. This is what is specific to bacon, as opposed to Rembrandt or Soutine. If there is some kind of 'interpretation' of the body in Bacon we find it in his fondness for painting lying figures whose raised arm or thigh stands in for a bone, in such a way that the lulled flesh seems to descend or fall from it. Thus in the central panel of the 1968 triptych, the two sleeping twins flanked by witnesses to the animal spirits; but also the series of the sleeping man with his arms up, of the sleeping woman with the vertical leg, and the sleeping or drugged woman with the raised thighs. Far beyond any apparent sadism, the bones are like gymnastic apparatus (a skeleton-like frame) whose flesh is the acrobat. The athleticism of the body is naturally prolonged in this acrobatics of the flesh. We shall see the importance of falling in Bacon's works. But already in the crucifixions what interests him is the droop, and the sinking head which reveals the flesh. And in those of 1962 and 1965, in the context of an armchair-cross or a trail of bones, we can literally see the flesh dropping from the bones. For Bacon as for Franz Kafka, the spinal column becomes nothing but the sword under the skin which a torturer has slid inside the body of an innocent sleeper.3 It sometimes even happens that there is a bone just added on in a random spray of paint as an afterthought[...]

But is it possible to say the same thing, exactly the same thing, about meat and the head, namely that it is the objective zone of indecision of mean and of animals? Can one say objectively that the head is meat (as much as the meat is spirit)? Of all the parts of the body, is not the head the one closest to the bones? look at El Greco, and once more at Chaim Soutine. Now it looks as if Bacon does not experience the head like that. The bone belongs to the face, not to the head. For Bacon there is no death's head. The head is deboned rather than bony. Yet it is not at all soft, but firm. The head is flesh, and the mask itself is not mortuary, it is a firm block of flesh which separates itself from the bones; these are the studies of a portrait of William Blake. Bacon's own head is flesh haunted by a very beautiful gaze without an orbit. And this is how he honours Rembrandt, for having been able to paint a last self-portrait like such a block of flesh without orbits.4 Throughout Bacon's oeuvre, the head-meat relation goes through intensive shifts of scale which make it more and more intimate. At first the meat (flesh on one side, bone on the other) is set on the edge of the track or the balustrade where the figure-head stands; but it is also the thick, fleshly rain surrounding the head which unmakes its face beneath the umbrella. The scream which issues from the Pope's mouth, the pity which issues from his eyes has meat as its object. Then the meat has a head whereby it flees and descends from the cross, as in the two earlier crucifixions. Later on all of Bacon's series of heads will also declare their identification with meat, and among the finest are those which are painted in the colours of meat, red and blue. Finally, the meat is itself a head, and the head has become the de-localized force of meat, as in the Fragment of a crucifixion of 1950,j where all the meat is screaming, with a dog spirit looking down from the top of the cross. How we know that Bacon does not like this painting is the simplicity of the manifest procedure; all he had to do was dig out a mouth in the middle of the meat. The affinity of the mouth, and of the mouth's interior, with meat still has to be made plain, and it has to reach that point where it has become strictly the section of a cut artery, or even of a jacket sleeve which stands in as an artery, as in the blood-soaked packages of the Sweeney Agonistes triptych. Then the mouth acquires that power of de-localization which turns all of the meat into a head without a face. It is no longer a specific organ, but the hole through which the entire body escapes, and through which the flesh drops (what is required for this procedure of loose involuntary marks). What Bacon calls 'the scream' is the immeasurable pity which extends to the meat.


1.Felix Guattari has analysed these phenomena of facial disorganization: the 'features of faceness' are released and become equally well the features of the head's animality. See Felix Guattari, L'Inconscient machinique (Paris: Editions Recherches, 1979) p. 75.

2.David Sylvester, L'art de l'impossible: entretiens avec Francis Bacon trans. Michel Leiris and Michael Pappiatt (Geneva: editions d'Art Albert Skira, 1976) p. 92-94.

3.Franz Kafka, "Das Schwert" (The Sword) in Max Brod (ed.) The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-23 trans. Martin Greenberg and H Ardent Schacken (New York: Schoken Books, 1949) p. 109-110

4.David Sylvester, L'art de l'impossible op.cit., p. 114

From Tracy Warr (ed.) The Artist's Body, Translated by Liz Heron, Phaidon Press, London 2000, p. 197. Originally published as "Le corps, la viande et l'espirit, le devenir-animal" in Francis Bacon (Paris; Editions de la difference, 1981) p. 19-22.


jlmartin100 said...

Thanks so much for posting these - it's a fabulous resource!

Marina Monge said...
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Anna said...

Could you give a link to French version please? (I can't find a lecture on body for example)