May 11, 2018, JOURNAL


Muscling the Maestro of Manipulation at Fondation Beyeler Text & Images: © Play Hunter

According to Francis Bacon, it takes three things to be an artist. In short: technical ability, a subject matter that fascinates you and a knowledge of art history. None of it really matters anymore “because the art form of the 21st century is marketing,” as Germaine Greer noted. To cut it today, you need to be a master of meta, become a well-connected brand and act as a social media performer. How does Bacon fit into the picture? Assuming the part of a fly-on-the-wall art watcher, I went to see the Bacon – Giacometti blockbuster at Fondation Beyeler.

Note No 1: Watching You Watching Me Turning Away In Mild Terror from ‘Bullfight No2’

Play Hunter in front of Francis Bacon's 'Study for Bullfight No.2' at Fondation Beyeler I © Play Hunter I 2018

When it came to his attire, Bacon was ostensibly flamboyant and old-school camp. He knew how to pose and was definitely no stranger to picking himself and his fur up from the gutter at three in the morning after a binge in a seedy Soho club. It is safe to say Bacon knew more about the power dynamics of fashion than your average fashion editor ever will. So, countering Bacon’s habitual disfigurements and dressing downs with irreverence and a statement shirt can’t be too sacrilegious, can it.

Note No 2: This Charming Brute

Gentleman in a suit in front of Francis Bacon's 'In Memory of George Dyer' at Fondation Beyeler I © Play Hunter I 2018

George Dyer was Francis Bacon’s rough East End muse and lover. Beautiful, ready and lost to drink, he was the perfect match for Bacon’s exuberant personality and camp bitchiness. Their relationship was very intense, very savage, very kind and very cruel. Bacon’s sadistic instincts and subsequent guilt inspired the deformed depictions of Dyer. Though they count among Bacon’s finest, Dyer himself absolutely hated them, considering them ‘dreadful daubs’. In 1971, on the eve of Bacon’s major retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, Dyer was found dead from drink and drugs in his hotel room.

Note No 3: He Loves Muscles. But She Loves Instagram More.

Ana Branko checking her Instagram in front of Francis Bacon's 'In Memory of George Dyer' at Fondation Beyeler I © Play Hunter I 2018

On a side note: Bacon and his lovers wrestling for dominance delineate the shifts in power between art and audience: as a pair, they are symbiotic, but in tension. Art still holds on to its power, but the art-watching influencer is getting the control: there’s the gallery-going art-meets-fashion blogger who instagrams herself in front of the works in carefully curated designer clothes. Social savvy institutions (like the Fondation) host special meet-ups with select influencers. Even art insiders are at it: there’s the micro-trend, identified by Matt Carey-Williams, of the auction house employee faking it as alpha collector in front of Peter Doigs. Or Bacons, or whatever means headline making money. On the face of it, it’s all a bit meta-meh, but the daily dose of eye candy and unintentional visual puns is just too good to resist.

Note No 4: The Art of Calling the Shots

Play Hunter and iPhone SE front of Francis Bacon's 'In Memory of George Dyer' at Fondation Beyeler I © Play Hunter I 2018

iPhone SE in front of Francis Bacon's 'In Memory of George Dyer' at Fondation Beyeler I © Play Hunter I 2018

Bacon clearly understood the power of photography and knew exactly how to exploit it to his best advantage. His portraits of tormented friends and lovers are based on specially commissioned photographs. He carefully cultivated his public image: the messy studio shots and the John Deakin portrait of a topless Bacon holding up two halves of a butchered pig, capture the artist’s prowess and fearless embrace of naked otherness. But they’re also the results of meticulous planning and rather brilliant branding, based on the catchphrase: “I believe in deeply ordered chaos”. Though it was omnipresent in his art, Bacon dismissed photography as mere ‘illustration’. Really? He never seemed to mind being the subject of the camera’s gaze or calling the shots.


Note No 5: Insouciant Defiance Wins the Day

Francis Bacon's Michel Leiris with Purple Orchid Covering His Mouth, shot at Fondation Beyeler by Play Hunter I 2018

Bacon described friendship as: “Two people pulling each other to pieces”. It also sums up his life and art. A master of manipulation and disruption, Bacon deliberately takes the familiar and distorts it, drawing your gaze in and alienating it at the same time. Looking at the caged popes and crushed lovers, you come unwittingly face-to-face with your own flaws and demons. Essentially, looking at Bacon is a goddam struggle. But if your gaze can take it, you come out of the battle on a survivor’s high. Life’s a scream. Embrace it.


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