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300 Portraits of Fourth-century Christian Saint Fabiola to be Shown at NPG in UK
Unknown artist, Fabiola, n.d. Photo: Francesca Esmay. Courtesy Francis Als.

LONDON.-Created by the internationally acclaimed artist Francis Als, Fabiola is an installation of over 300 portraits of a fourth-century Christian saint collected by the artist from flea markets and antique shops throughout Europe and the Americas. These seemingly identical portraits, including paintings, embroideries and miniatures are all copies of a lost original of Fabiola by the French nineteenth-century painter, Jean-Jacques Henner.

A majority of the Fabiolas on display are anonymous with limited provenance, and many are in poor condition and unframed. Viewed together, the cohesiveness of the display rests not only in the fact that all the images are of the same subject, but that they all adhere to the same strict iconographic formula - Fabiola is depicted in profile with her head covered in a rich red veil.

The stylistic differences between the portraits offer a window onto changing aesthetic, social and religious values over the past century. This collection of Fabiolas could be viewed as either an ensemble of academic and amateur copies or a trove of religious artefacts, and as Als has stated, the phenomenon of assiduous copying 'indicates a different criterion of what a masterwork could be.'

Jean-Jacques Henner's definitive portrait of Fabiola (1885) is the prototype for all of the works on display. The melodrama Fabiola or The Church of the Catacombs (1854), written by the British Cardinal Wiseman gave rise to the cult of Fabiola, previously an obscure female saint. Henner's depiction of Fabiola, coinciding with a Catholic revival sweeping Western Europe, became so widely admired that both his portrait and Fabiola herself gained renown. Printed reproductions of this lost original work have since reached a mass market through the Christian world, and hand-painted and -crafted versions continue to be produced over a century later.

The idea of gathering a collection of the copies of Fabiola was conceived by Als almost by accident. Spurred by an interest in artisanal production, and a fascination with the structure and role of the art market, he decided to build an art collection of 'hand-painted' copies of famous masterpieces found in flea markets. Rather than copies of depictions of the Madonna or Che Guevara, he encountered the saintly Fabiola in visits to cities as diverse as Maastricht and Mexico City. Als says of the portraits, 'I personally see them as all different: each seems to project some kind of personal ideal of womanhood or to disguise, consciously or not, a familiar face with the features of Fabiola.'

Fabiola was commissioned by Dia Art Foundation and installed at the Hispanic Society of America in Manhattan in 2007-2008 and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008-2009. The project is accompanied by an illustrated hardback book that includes background material on Saint Fabiola, as well as an essay by Dia Art Foundation curator at large, Lynne Cooke.

Born in Belgium in 1959, Francis Als originally trained as an architect. Soon after moving to Mexico in 1986 he turned to the visual arts as a more direct way of exploring issues related to urbanisation and socio-political conditions. He often works collaboratively within the public sphere and has developed an approach to art that is based on observations of, and engagements with daily life. Many of his projects are solitary, peripatetic journeys which take the form of urban walks conditioned by particular circumstances. In 2005 the National Portrait Gallery hosted a previous installation by Als in collaboration with Artangel, in which a fox called Bandit was set free in the Gallery with his movements recorded by surveillance cameras. Alongside public actions, Als continues to make more improvised projects as well as exquisite paintings and drawings. In 2004 Als was the inaugural winner of the Blue Orange Prize in Berlin and he participated in the Venice Biennial in 1999, 2001 and 2007, and the Carnegie International in 2004. Als lives and works in Mexico City.

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