Gilles Deleuze, ‘Athleticism’, pp.12-19, in:

Deleuze, G. 2003. Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation. Translated by Daniel W. Smith (London; New York: Continuum


Let us return to Bacon’s three pictorial elements: the large fields as a spatializing material structure; the Figure, the Figures and their fact; and the place – that is, the round area, the ring, or the contour, which is the common limit of the Figure and the field.

The contour, as a “place,” is in fact the place of an exchange in two directions: between the material structure and the Figure, and between the Figure and the field.

The contour is like a membrane through which this double exchange flows. Something happens in both directions. If painting has nothing to narrate and no story to tell, something is happening all the same, something which defines the functioning of the painting.


But what is happening, or is about to happen, or has already happened, is not a spectacle or a representation. In Bacon, these waiting Figures or “attendants” are not spectators.

In many cases there seems to subsist, distinct from the Figure, a kind of spectator, a voyeur, a photograph, a passerby, an “attendant”: notably, but not exclusively, in the triptychs, where it is almost a law.

However, we will see that, in his paintings and especially in his triptychs, Bacon needs the function of an attendant, which is not a spectator but part of the Figure.

Even the simulacra of photographs, hung on a wall or a railing, can play this role of an attendant. They are attendants not in the sense of spectators, but as a constant or point of reference in relation to which a variation is assessed.


In this attempt to eliminate the spectator, the Figure already demonstrates a singular athleticism, all the more singular in that the source of the movement is not in itself. Instead, the movement goes from the material structure, from the field, to the Figure.

In many paintings, the field is caught up in a movement that forms it into a cylinder: it curls around the contour, around the place; and it envelops and imprisons the Figure.

It is the extreme solitude of the Figures, the extreme confinement of the bodies, which excludes every spectator: the Figure becomes a Figure only through this movement which confines it and in which it confines itself.


But the other movement, which obviously coexists with the first, is on the contrary the movement of the Figure toward the material structure, toward the field of color.

From the start, the Figure has been a body, and the body has a place within the enclosure of the round area. But the body is not simply waiting for something from the structure, it is waiting for something inside itself, it exerts an effort upon itself in order to become a Figure.

Now it is inside the body that something is happening; the body is the source of movement. This is no longer the problem of the place, but rather of the event.

The body exerts itself in a very precise manner, or waits to escape from itself in a very precise manner. It is not I who attempt to escape from my body, it is the body that attempts to escape from itself by means of… in short, a spasm: the body as plexus, and its effort or waiting for a spasm. Perhaps this is Bacon’s approximation of horror or abjection.


The standard formula, “To pass through the eye of a needle,” trivializes this abomination or Destiny. It is a scene of hysteria. The entire series of spasms in Bacon is of this type: scenes of love, of vomiting and excreting, in which the body attempts to escape from itself through one of its organs in order to rejoin the field or material structure.

Bacon has often said that, in the domain of Figures, the shadow has as much presence as the body; but the shadow acquires this presence only because it escapes from the body; the shadow is the body that has escaped from itself through some localized point in the contour.

The bowl of the washbasin is a place, a contour, it is a replication of the round area. But here, the new position of the body in relation to the contour shows that we have arrived at a more complex aspect (even if this aspect was there from the start).


It is no longer the material structure that curls around the contour in order to envelop the Figure, it is the Figure that wants to pass through a vanishing point in the contour in order to dissipate into the material structure.

The contour thus assumes a new function, since it no longer lies flat, but outlines a hollow volume and has a vanishing point.


If the ring or the round area is replicated in the washbasin and the umbrella, the cube or the parallelepiped is also replicated in the mirror. Bacon’s mirrors can be anything you like – except a reflecting surface.

Bacon does not experience the mirror in the same way as Lewis Carroll. The body enters the mirror and lodges itself inside it, itself and its shadow. Hence the fascination: nothing is behind the mirror, everything is inside it. The body seems to elongate, flatten, or stretch itself out in the mirror, just as it contracted itself by going through the hole.

The Figure is not simply the isolated body, but also the deformed body that escapes from itself.


What makes deformation a destiny is that the body has a necessary relationship with the material structure: not only does the material structure curl around it, but the body must return to the material structure and dissipate into it, thereby passing through or into these prostheses-instruments, which constitute passages and states that are real, physical, and effective, and which are sensations and not imaginings.


What the mirror shows, or what the washbasin heralds, is exactly what happens to the Figure. The heads are all prepared to receive these deformations (hence the wiped, scrubbed, or rubbed out zones in the portraits of heads).

Just as the effort of the body is exerted upon itself, so the deformation is static. 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.