Francis Alÿs : Fabiola

Fabiola's © MALI - Laurens Dhaenens

Fabiola's © MALI - Laurens Dhaenens

Faisant suite à mon précédent post, Laurens Dhaenens, doctorant en histoire de l’art moderne et contemporain à l’université de Louvain (KULeuven) et commissaire assistant au MALI — Museo de Arte de Lima, retrace pour ce blog l’histoire du projet mené par Francis Alÿs et révèle les principaux enjeux de cette exposition.


«  A young woman, wearing a red veil, portrayed in profile against a dark monochrome background; at first glance, the portrait of Saint Fabiola, by the French academic painter Jean-Jacques Henner, is not particularly striking. In style, composition and iconography, it is characterized by simplicity. The image uses no identifying attributes to present Fabiola’s hagiography, but focuses strictly on the face. The physiognomy appears as a mirror for the individual that Fabiola was. As the French writer and journalist Louis Enault (1824-1900) observes in his article on Fabiola, the simplicity of the portrait encompasses a subtlety that defines the value of the image. For Enault, Henner is “one of those who obtain the greatest effects with the smallest means.”[1]

The portrait of Saint Fabiola has never been considered Henner’s masterpiece, but in the beginning of the 20th century it was known as « one of Henner’s most popular figures.” [2] After it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1885, this image spread exceptionally quickly across the European continent, and beyond, through various reproduction practices. As early as 1913, François Castre describes Fabiola as “that superb virgin profile […] which the engraver’s art has spread throughout the world in the form of millions of reprints, until its renown is universal.”[3]

Francis Alÿs’ Fabiola [4], a collection of more than 360 handmade reproductions of Henner’s portrait, confirms the universality described in 1913. Featured along with a few versions recreated in textile, wood relief and brooches, the collection consists of paintings originating from Europe and Latin America, dating from the end of the 19th century until the 1990s. As a result, Fabiola presents a biography of an image: the life and itinerary of the white woman with a red veil.

Although the repetitive aspect of the collection creates a homogenizing effect, each portrait distinguishes itself unequivocally in its execution. Each Fabiola is distinct. If in one portrait the Fabiola’s silence reflects a melancholy, in another it conveys an emotional neutrality, or even an internal unrest. As a result, the saint appears simultaneously as a reserved, a liberated and a strong woman. Thus, the collection of seemingly identical portraits holds a diversity grounded on one binding criterion: each reproduction is handmade and, therefore, an original. To see Francis Alÿs’ Fabiola is to see Saint Fabiola through more than 360 artisanal reproductions, an impressive variety in which the portrait is repeatedly reinvented. This inevitably raises the question: who was Fabiola?

Fabiola was a Roman woman who belonged to the wealthy patrician family of the gens Fabia. Her life, as described in a letter by the church father Saint Jerome, was marked by misfortune, disgrace, repentance and conversion. [5] Fabiola divorced her husband, whose pernicious way of life she could no longer bear, and subsequently remarried, an act that contradicted the ordinances of the church and placed her outside the Christian community. After the death of her second husband, Fabiola decided to renounce her earthly life and devote herself to Christian asceticism and philanthropy. Among the contributions she made to charities was having the first hospital built for the poor in the suburbs of Rome. Although Fabiola was canonized in the year 547, few people knew about her until 1854, when Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman romanticized her life story in his novel, Fabiola, or the Church of the Catacombs. Thanks to this novel, Fabiola became widely known as the patron saint of the poor, and of widows, marriage and nursing.

If it was Wiseman who rescued Fabiola from anonymity, it was Henner who gave her an image, through a portrait that made a devotion possible. However, as Lynne Cooke points out, Saint Fabiola was never part of any religious institution. There is no altar or chapel that is known to be dedicated to her cult. The devotion of Fabiola was limited to the sphere of the private.[6] The small formats of the paintings and the sometimes highly personal elaboration, as exemplified by the versions in embroidery and in colored seeds, testify to an intimate personal destination.


Exhibition view. © MALI - Musuk Nolte


With Fabiola, Francis Alÿs displaces every object from its original context. The intimate sphere is exchanged for a collection with an exhibitional status. The artist, however, does not seek to open a discourse on collecting / collections / collector, although this inevitably happens, but on what this particular collection represents: a secondary circuit of amateur art in which Henner’s Fabiola flourishes in the form of handmade reproductions. Fabiola reveals a cultural phenomenon. Completely independent of an institutionalized context, the image of Fabiola, is brought to life through multiple forms and geographically dispersed over a period of one hundred years. In the words of Alÿs, Fabiola points to “a different criteria of what a masterwork could be.”[7]

For the presentation of his collection, Francis Alÿs distances himself from the standard exhibition spaces where contemporary art is shown today. Instead, he opts for locations marked by history and dedicated to ancient and historical art. The collection has been exhibited in the Hispanic Society of America, in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, in London, the Monasterio de Santo Domingo de Silos, in Burgos, and the Haus Zum Kirschgarten, in Basel. It is currently on display at the Museo de Arte Italiano, in Lima. By choosing historical contexts, the artist locates the reproductions in the circuit of the (now lost) original. This generates a confrontation between two different economies: one of the artisanal, the other of the established artwork. By juxtaposing these two economies, Francis Alÿs reflects on the mechanisms defining the significance of image.

In the economy of the artisanal, both the artisanal elaboration and the personal relations surrounding the image determine its value and meaning. Here, the significance of an image is not fixed, but depends on the context in which it is situated. This is in contrast to the economy of the established artwork, where an image embedded in an institutional context is generally recognized in its value. In this circuit, the veneration of the original, the unique and, therefore, the irreproducible image prevails, while in the circuit of the artisanal, an image lives and transforms and is, thus, characterized by a mobility.


Exhibition view. © MALI - Musuk Nolte


Hung without frames, and without any indentifying data, the Fabiolas appear as counter-images of the historical artworks present at the various locations. Honoring anonymity and plurality, the Fabiolas contradict the modernist criteria of originality, uniqueness and authorship that characterize the historical works of art. However, by remaining faithful to the characteristic of Henner’s portrait, the collection also reinforces the value of “the original”. Hence, the exhibition does not only highlight the distance between the circuits, but also their interaction. The circuit of the artisanal and that of the established art work do not follow a pattern of parallel lines but of undulating waves, alternately running very far apart from each other and very close together, to only rarely touch. In Fabiola lies that single point of contact.

By locating the handmade reproductions in a recognized cultural institutional context, Alÿs’ Fabiola revalues the artisanal. The displacement of the artisanal objects, however, takes place in the form of a collection, a micro-context in which every object is inevitably reduced to a fragment of a larger entity. Each object appears as a part of Fabiola, a new original work of art that, at first sight, seems to conform completely to the economy of an established work of art. Yet, in the destination of the collection, the logic of the artisanal circuit prevails. Originating from a serendipitous encounter in a Brussels flea market – the artist was looking for handmade reproductions of master works such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper when he found Fabiola -, the collection initially grew out of the artist’s own personal search. During the past few years, however, Fabiola has mainly been given form through spontaneous donations, unexpected encounters and creative contributions. Consequently, Alÿs no longer considers himself the driving force behind the project, nor “the owner” of the collection. According to Alÿs, Fabiola ideally finds her destination not in a collection of an institute or a collector, but in the continuation of her itinerary.[8] It is in movement, on tour, that Fabiola functions, reinventing herself through a continuous dialogue with new contexts and publics. »


[1] « un  de ceux qui obtiennent les plus grands effets avec les plus petits moyens. » (translation from the author) Enault, Louis, Paris-Salon, Paris: Bernard, 1885, p.58.

[2] « une des figures les plus populaires de Henner. »  (translation from the author)  Des Gachons, Jacques, ‘Jean-Jacques Henner’, in: Je sais tout, March 15, 1908, p.234.

[3] Castre, François, Henner, Frederick A Stokes Company: New York, 1913, p. 68.

[4] When Fabiola is written in italics, Fabiola, it refers to the project of Francis Alÿs.

[5] Bahn, Stephan, etc., Francis Alÿs. Fabiola: An Investigation, Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 2008, pp. 81-90.

[6] Lynne Cooke, ‘Fabiola on Tour’, in: Oeri, Maja (ed.), Francis Alÿs: Fabiola, Schabe Verlag Basel: Basel, 2011, p. 16.

[7] Alÿs, Francis & Medina, Cuauthemoc, Fabiola. Una investigación de Francis Alÿs, Curare Espacio Crítico para las Artes: Ciudad de México, 1994, p. 4.

[8] Conversation between Francis Alÿs and Lynne Cooke, 17 setiembre 2011, Museo de Arte de Lima, Lima, Perú.



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