California Literary Review

Francis Alÿs: Fabiola at the National Portrait Gallery, London


July 29th, 2009 at 10:45 am

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Saint Fabiola

Francis Alÿs: Fabiola. Installation view. National Portrait Gallery, London

Walking into the rooms devoted to the collection of portraits of Saint Fabiola amassed by Francis Alÿs is a beguiling experience. Hung salon-style against dark green walls, over 300 portraits are displayed. Each is of the same woman; each is painted in the same pose; facing right, her head in profile, hooded in a scrolled red veil and against a dark brown background.

The exhibition poses a whole series of questions, each of which demands to be asked in turn. Who was Fabiola? What is her enduring appeal? Who is painting her? Why has Alÿs collected her and what is his relationship to the exhibition we now stand in? Is he claiming some kind of authorship? Is he the curator? The collector?

Over the last 15 years, Belgium-born artist Francis Alÿs has collected over 300 of these portraits, mainly buying them from Flea markets and thrift stores in Mexico City, his adopted home. The portraits range in calibre, in condition, in size and shape but are almost all from the late Twentieth century, and created predominantly by amateurs.

Saint Fabiola

Mahssene, Fabiola, 1947.
[Photo: Francesca Esmay. Courtesy Francis Alÿs]

Saint Fabiola

De Burrs [?], Fabiola, n.d.
[Photo: Francesca Esmay. Courtesy Francis Alÿs]

Fabiola’s pose is generally one of pure pensiveness, she stares out past the frame of the painting, her concentration unfazed by her unusual surroundings, but once the eye becomes accustomed to the paintings’ likeness it is their very unlikeness that comes into view – in some she is chaste, demure; in some she is more natural; in some there’s a touch of Disney’s Snow White; in others she has more makeup that a 1950’s Hollywood actress. At times Fabiola’s ethereal beauty jumps out of the painting while elsewhere she is plain and dour. There are portraits in oil, gouache, embroidery, enamel, even seeds and beans.

It becomes clear that copying a portrait, especially one in profile, is an activity that not only can everyone do, but also in that act of copying, personal style shines through. The copy changes and moves with its author, perhaps reflecting their own style, their own vision of beauty or their reasons for wanting to create the image.

Fabiola herself is a Catholic saint. Born in Rome to a wealthy patrician family in the late forth century, she was married to an abusive husband with whom she committed the sin of divorce. She remarried only to be widowed some years later. Following her second husband’s death, she devoted her life to charitable work and is said to have set up the first hospital in Rome.

Fabiola may have remained obscure were in not for this portrait and a book about her, a racy bestseller about her life written in 1850 by Cardinal Wiseman, Archbishop of Westminster which was translated into 10 languages. Each of the portraits is itself a copy of a portrait by French artist Jean-Jacques Henner which has now been lost, but was captured in an early photograph.

Her appeal then, seems to stem from her enduringly contemporary story – that of an abused wife fighting for her rights and devoting her life to helping other women. The portraits do appear to have been made mainly by women who seem to speak of their own private thoughts or situations through Fabiola. Their intimacy seems to relate stories of abuse, sickness or loneliness, using the saint as a friend and mouthpiece.

Alÿs’ own practice uses the city as his studio – mapping, observing and intervening. His works have often been highly collaborative and process-led. For example, he has employed sign-writers in Mexico City to make copies of small paintings he has made, leaving them free to make them the size and style they wished. He would then make his own copies of these works, only to have them copy these copies in an open-ended collaborative process. In another project in 2002, he worked with hundreds of volunteers to move a sand dune overlooking a Lima slum by a metre (‘When Faith Moves Mountains’ (2002) Lima, Peru); an epic yet ultimately pointless gesture.

Perhaps what fascinated him about these portraits was that they show this urge to create and to communicate through art. More though, Alÿs’ display highlights the ways in which art inhabits a space of its own – outside of museums and critical appraisal. The works he has collected pay homage to the fact that it can be made anywhere, by anyone. The art changes and becomes personalized as it is interpreted and lived by individuals

Saint Fabiola

Unknown artist, Fabiola, n.d.
[Photo: Francesca Esmay. Courtesy Francis Alÿs]

Saint Fabiola

M. M., Fabiola, n.d.
[Photo: Francesca Esmay. Courtesy Francis Alÿs]

What endures in the exhibition is the very potential and contingency of the creative act, as seen through the guise of repetition. Going against the usual modes of display in the museum, with unnamed artists and the exhibition of a series of salvaged paintings, Alÿs’ investigation of the creative act makes it necessary to hold back on certain institutional assumptions. The viewer’s assessment of creativity and originality must include the act of copying as well as a work’s relation to authorship, here unidentified.

In this collection of works, the copy and the use of repetition include within them a natural divergence that in fact points to a clear creative drive, rather than a lack; a moment in time and space within which each individual author made their painting; repetition and mutation go hand in hand to facilitate individualized communication. In placing them all together, Alÿs is showing us that these attempts at copying by anonymous authors, produce images that are in fact far from being identical, are easily distinguishable from one another and as such are intrinsically personalized creative acts.

Combined with a knowledge of Alÿs’ own practice, this collection of Fabiola seems to celebrate the activity of collecting as an inquiry into the very nature of making and its presentation as a poetic act of reinterpreting and destabilizing the museum’s hierarchies of display.

Saint Fabiola

Francis Alÿs: Fabiola. Installation view. National Portrait Gallery, London

  • Julia Braun Kessler

    I was delighted with this essay. I found it like a virtual visit to the Nat’l Portrait Gallery, one of my favorite places in London, only this time in the company of a curator, or at least one thoroughly knowledgeable about the early history of Fabiola, the Catholic saint, as well as the circumstances around this contemporary artist’s creation and collection such paintings.
    To walk into the room with those remarkable faces everywhere must have been like a vision. Wonderful, thank you.

  • JACK

    When all these 300 paintings were displayed at London’s National Portrait Gallery, viewers were stictly monitored and NOT allowed to take any photographs. No reproductions were on sale. So no lasting memeories. Bit of a joke.

  • hal?l yagc?oglu

    bende bu resimden bir tane var eger ileti?im kurmak isterseniz mail yollay?n

  • Mike

    First paragraph says all the poses are facing ‘right’……….Doesn’t look that way to me. Are you sure you know which direction is ‘right’ and which is ‘left’?

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