310809: National Portrait Gallery: Francis Alÿs – Fabiola

Lookalike phantom Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”, at the very least the detail of the slouching angel, or Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, even Dürer’s “Praying Hands” would have been a good bet. But the depiction of a saint nobody has ever seen or heard of before? Nearly 15 years ago, Francis Alÿs started his collection - despite the meager financial resources available to artists. It was never meant to include works by artist-friends or paintings worth investing in, but rather a motif popular among amateurs, dilettantes, and dabblers, acquired at flea markets and antique shops. It came as a huge surprise to the artist that not one of the renowned art historical works caught his attention, but rather the depiction of Saint Fabiola, in a version dating back to the 19th century, created by the French realist Jean-Jacques Henner. Alÿs collected 300 copies of this long forgotten work, which was disseminated as a reproduction of the original in Europe and the USA, 300 portraits of a woman, her head in profile with a crimson veil, 300 faces, which all resemble one another, yet each is different. A vigorous chin, a pudgy nose, the entire ensemble much like a cartoon. But what did the model really look like? Fabiola lived in Rome during the 4th Century, was married twice, once to a brute from whom she was divorced and then to a man whose early death soon left her a widow. After her re-entry into the Christian community she cared for the poor and the sick, and was remembered as the patron saint of nurses. The English Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman wrote a bestseller about her life, which positioned the saint, who fit perfectly into the picture of a self-assured female protester including her Christian reversion, into the centre of attention. After Francis Alÿs displayed his continuously growing collection, which is under the auspices of the Dia Art foundation in the Hispanic Society in New York, at the Los Angeles County Museum and now at the London National Portrait Gallery, the number of those who are convinced that they have discovered Jean-Jacques Henner’s original on their grandma’s attic and publicize their discovery on the Internet, is constantly getting larger. This would have surely not happened to the Belgian artist with Raphael, Leonardo, or Dürer. Was it possibly a stealthy patriotic gesture, a salutation to the Queen? By Daniela Gregori National Portrait Gallery WC2H 0HE London, St. Martin’s Place, until 20.09.09 www.npg.org.uk

National Portrait Gallery
WC2H 0HE London, St Martin`s Place
Tel: +44- 020 7312 2463, Fax: +44-020 7306 0056
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