Francis Alÿs, Fabiola, Installation view, Dia at the Hispanic Society, September 20, 2007-April 6, 2008, Photo Cathy Carver.
De Burrs [?], Fabiola, n.d., Photo Francesca Esmay, Courtesy Francis Alÿs.
Unknown artist, Fabiola, n.d., Photo: Francesca Esmay, Courtesy Francis Alÿs.
Francis Huys, Fabiola, n.d., Photo: Francesca Esmay, Courtesy Francis Alÿs.
M.M., Fabiola, n.d., Photo: Francesca Esmay, Courtesy Francis Alÿs.
Mahssene, Fabiola, 1947, Photo: Francesca Esmay, Courtesy Francis Alÿs.
Unknown Artist, Fabiola, n.d., Photo: Francesca Esmay, Courtesy Francis Alÿs.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Boulevard
Francis Alÿs, Fabiola
September 7, 2008-March 29, 2009
By LYNNE COOKE
All the works on view in the gallery depict the same subject. Contrary to expectation, they belong to a single collection, and what makes this collection remarkable is its exclusive focus on that singular subject: a fourth-century Christian saint known as Fabiola, who is portrayed, in accordance with her canonical iconography, as a young woman in profile, facing left, wearing a crimson veil. The prototype from which virtually every work derives is a lost painting by a late- nineteenth-century French academician named Jean-Jacques Henner. In its iconography, style, and composition, Henner’s portrait was unexceptional, even quite conventional; nonetheless, his delicate rendering of her features was deceptively subtle and, as evidenced by the examples in this gallery, not easily replicated. The original is long lost, so the immediate model for these works must have been a reproduction, perhaps an illustration in a book or a magazine, perhaps a picture postcard or an engraved print.
Although many thousands of mechanically reproduced images of this young woman exist, every object included here has been made by hand. The initial impression of homogeneity is dispelled, for the nearly three hundred objects quickly distinguish themselves from one another; within the collection’s unusually narrow compass there is an enormous range. The spectrum of mediums is immediately striking: oil paint, gouache, embroidery, enamel, plaster, ceramic, and, in one particularly memorable instance, seeds and beans. There is also a surprising breadth in the makers’ technical skills. Only a few demonstrate the proficiency expected of a professional artist; most must have been made by amateurs. Yet, it’s often precisely the technical limitations that make a particular rendering compelling. Further differences may be attributed to the fact that, whether consciously or not, some of these painters interjected features belonging to another model, sometimes known personally to the maker, more often probably idealized or imaginary.
Little noted in the ecclesiastical pantheon for centuries after her canonization in AD 537, Fabiola finally escaped from obscurity on the wave of the Catholic revival that swept late-nineteenth-century Europe. According to her first advocate, the early church father Saint Jerome, she left an abusive husband and remarried, only to be widowed some years later. After converting to Christianity and making public penance for the sin of divorce, she then devoted the remainder of her life (and fortune) to charitable work, reputedly founding the first hospital for the poor and needy on the outskirts of Rome in the late fourth century. Fabiola’s rise to cult status began in the 1850s, when a racier version of her story was published in the guise of a romantic historical novel of the kind popularized by Sir Walter Scott. Written by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, a British prelate and leading pillar of the Catholic revival, Fabiola, or the Church of the Catacombs became a best seller, and has since been read by generations of impressionable young minds.
Revered as the protector of abused women, Fabiola is also extolled as the patron of nurses; her popular veneration may therefore owe much to the concurrent growth of the modern nursing profession through the efforts and example of Florence Nightingale. Yet, though unquestionably esteemed, especially among women, Fabiola does not seem to have become the object of an official or public worship expressed in the form of dedicated sites and shrines; so, while widespread, devotion to her has remained at the level of personal supplication. Henner’s economical depiction was never supplemented by narrative variants, such as scenes of her nursing the infirm. His thus-definitive rendering is, moreover, infused with a degree of naturalism and animation that makes her seem approachable and somehow contemporary — even though she undoubtedly remains a religious icon. Given that her signature features — a simple red cloak and a limpid profile — are so basic, artists have stuck closely to his canonical portrayal to ensure that those seeking her sanctity could instantly recognize her. Traces of subjective or expressive distortion in painted variants are likely more inadvertent than intentional.
From its first public showing, copies of Henner’s image rapidly proliferated in print media, though for a different — mass — market. Far into the second half of the twentieth century, popular interest in Fabiola continued to require inexpensive reproductions. Yet, as attested by the collection on view, amassed from cities throughout western Europe and Latin America, hand-painted versions by both professional and amateur artists also continued to multiply and still find a ready audience. While most of the examples shown here could be described as copies after an old master painting, it is unlikely that they were undertaken for the usual pedagogical reasons: both the rudimentary levels of technical proficiency and the obscurity into which Henner’s reputation has fallen argue against that hypothesis. If the striking homogeneity of the collection depends on its single subject, the collection’s identity and character rely on not simply the handwrought but the utilitarian — these works were produced for functional, rather than purely aesthetic, ends. Indeed, the use of unconventional mediums, plus the unusually broad range of supports (which includes even glass and velvet), blur conventional distinctions between artisanal or handcrafted artifacts and traditional fine-art objects.
Over the past four decades, interventions by contemporary artists in museums of all types have become a familiar aesthetic strategy; indeed, so routine has institutional critique become that it is now codified as a historical category of artistic practice. Such interventions typically probe the power relations, ideologies, and disciplinary structures of museums. Originating in the late sixties in the radical site-specific and site-related works of Michael Asher, Hans Haacke, and Marcel Broodthaers, this genealogy provides a filter for viewing the Fabiola collection in LACMA’s galleries.
From the first tentative discussions concerning the exhibition of this collection, the owner placed certain restrictions on its presentation. LACMA is an encyclopedic museum; its globe-spanning collections range from antiquity to the present day, and include both fine and decorative arts. For this presentation of the Fabiola collection, the owner required a location adjacent to galleries housing the European old masters collection. Sequestered in a room whose decor, while tailored to the needs of this display, still resembles that of its neighbors, the collection is hung according to conventions established by the nineteenth-century academic salon; the paintings are closely aligned in rows, with the objects displayed nearby in a period-style vitrine.
Such an installation prompts the kinds of aesthetic and historical questions that are typically addressed to old master artworks, questions pertaining to authorship, iconography, function, originality, and uniqueness. However, given the degraded condition of many of these artifacts, matters of connoisseurship become subsumed to other issues. Although some of the works in this collection appear to have a venerable patina, close inspection reveals that most were made in the later part of the last century. On occasion, artificial aging has been reinforced by the accidents of history. Shorn of the frames that once would have enhanced and protected them, many bear abraded edges or are otherwise damaged. None, however, reveal the type of restoration customarily accorded to artworks that are highly valued, whether for financial or sentimental reasons. And, tellingly, no attempt has been made by their current owner to redeem their fall from grace by disguising the signs that almost all were found in flea markets and similar haunts: their lowly status is incontestable. Compared with the exhibits in adjacent galleries, they have scant pedigrees and slim provenances, yet in retrieving and contextualizing them in this fashion, their owner has not only restored them to life but offered them multiple new identities.
In the eyes of its creator and owner, artist Francis Alÿs, this collection invites investigation as a collection, in and of itself. Although he has developed a conceptually based practice, Alÿs plays down the claim that the acquisition and presentation of his collection constitute a work in his own oeuvre. Instead, he emphasizes the process, the way in which the open-ended activity of amassing and shaping his collection has devolved into a mode of inquiry or investigation.
In the mid-1990s, several years after he relocated to Mexico City and abandoned his vocation as an architect, Alÿs decided to make an art collection for himself. As a young artist with limited resources, he had developed a fascination with various forms of artisanal production and an interest in the structure and role of the art market as it impacts economies of production. He therefore resolved to build a collection from hand-painted copies of masterpieces of Western art, which he hoped to find in the flea markets and antique stores he loved to frequent. He soon discovered, however, that in lieu of the journeyman renderings of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, Leonardo’s Last Supper, Jean-François Millet’s Angelus, and like works that he assumed copyists would favor, he confronted pictures of a young female saint whom he quickly learned was Fabiola. Most of his early acquisitions were made serendipitously, on wanderings through places as far-flung as Maastricht and Mexico City; more recently colleagues and acquaintances have supplemented his finds with theirs. Beginning as a modest, almost casual quest, Alÿs’s deliberately low-key venture has evolved in unanticipated ways. Far from terminating when it reached the bounds of a domestically scaled collection, it is open-ended: there is no inevitable closure.
With the copy as its founding precept, Alÿs’s collection privileges the replica over the original, the anonymous over the renowned, the artisan or amateur over the professional, and the lowly or kitsch over the precious. Veneration of unknown artisans is fully in keeping with his practice, for he has long worked with craftsmen of various kinds, sometimes collaboratively, pooling and exchanging skills as needed. Similarly, his redirection of the collection into an investigatory venture dovetails with his willingness to allow any project and its governing logic to move in directions he could not have fully foreseen at its start. Also consistent with his practice is the fact that this project’s underlying ethic downplays a signature statement in favor of communal or collective discourse. Where it differs from many of his other works, such as Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic (2004), on view now in LACMA’s Latin American galleries, is that they normally evolve in relation to a specific context or venue, and are dispersed afterward.
By eschewing conventional white galleries that are the norm for the display of modernist and contemporary artworks and the raw warehouse spaces generally utilized for post-1960s installation art as possible sites for display, Alÿs has sought to historicize his collection’s reception. In so doing, he makes an interpretive maneuver designed, above all, to center attention back on the image of Fabiola, that is, on the elusive prototype somehow ever present among the myriad approximations. Over the past fifteen years, he has asked himself repeatedly: “Why that image in particular? What gives it that power to resist . . . first, mechanical reproduction and, now, digital reproduction? Is the ritual, the act of painting, a requisite for conferring on the image its aura? What is it that made it become an icon, an object beyond any consideration of taste? How has it served as a reminder of the existence of a completely parallel and separate art scene from, say, ‘ours,’ one with its own references and obsessions?” The shards of a resilient, but nonetheless threatened, cultural practice, Alÿs’s flea-market finds exemplify resistance to a rapidly changing technological world. A trace of melancholy consequently permeates many viewers’ initial impressions of wonder.
Lynne Cooke is curator of the Dia Art Foundation.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents Francis Alÿs, Fabiola, an exhibition comprising more than 300 portraits of the Christian Saint Fabiola — all of them copies of a famed lost original — collected by artist Francis Alÿs. Organized by Dia Art Foundation as part of its four-year collaboration with The Hispanic Society of America in Northern Manhattan, and curated by Dia’s Lynne Cooke, LACMA’s exhibition marks the West Coast premier of Alÿs’s encompassing group of Fabiola works, mostly paintings, as well as several versions in needlepoint, wood relief, and other materials.
Over the past two decades, Francis Alÿs assembled a significant collection of nearly identical paintings and other depictions of fourth-century Saint Fabiola. All of these are based on a renowned portrait devised by 19th-century French academic painter Jean-Jacques Henner. This much-venerated image has been so assiduously copied by amateurs and professionals alike that it has become a popular icon, a phenomenon that, as the artist stated, “indicates a different criterion of what a masterwork could be.” Gathered from flea markets, antique shops, and private collections throughout Europe and the Americas, Alÿs’s collection offers a window onto aesthetic, sociological, and theological values over the past century and more.
Born in Belgium in 1959 and originally trained as an architect, Francis Alÿs turned to a visual arts based practice in the early 1990s as a more immediate, direct, and effective way of exploring issues related to urbanization. He prefers to work collaboratively, or when this is not appropriate, to operate within a public arena. For some of his best-known works, he initiated a design, which was copied and reworked by a team of trained sign painters in Mexico City, where Alÿs currently lives. His series Beggars (Mendigos) 2002-4, will be among the works exhibited in LACMA’s new Latin American art galleries. The installation consists of a series of slides projected onto the floor that document people pleading for money at the entrance of Mexico City’s subways.
Francis Alÿs, Fabiola is accompanied by a hardcover book that will include background material on Saint Fabiola, as well as essays by art historians, theological historians, and Dia curator Lynne Cooke. The publication will also catalogue each Fabiola, including detailed descriptions and photographs, many in full-color.
Francis Alÿs, Fabiola is organized by Dia Art Foundation. Organizational support for the project was provided by the Hispanic Society of America, the Brown Foundation, the Peter Norton Family Foundation, The Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds Foundation, and Erica and Joseph Samuels. Additional support for the accompanying publication was made possible by the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.