Over 370 portraits of a woman in profile, wearing a crimson veil, mostly facing the right, all similar, yet none identical. For twenty years, the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs (born 1959 in Antwerp, now living in Mexico City) has collected images of
Saint Fabiola painted by amateurs, which he acquires in flea markets and antique shops. Despite the differences between the images, they are all based on the 1885 portrait of Saint Fabiola by the French realist painter Jean-Jacques Henner, which has been lost for years.
Schaulager, an institution dedicated to the storage and maintenance of the collection of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation and to its innovative use as an active visual-art archive, has brought this very different collection to Basel. The Haus zum Kirschgarten, once Basel’s foremost town house, now a museum of elegant domestic living, has been flooded by a tide of Saint Fabiola portraits, monopolising the permanent exhibition. In the prototypical surroundings of the protestant upper class, Saint Fabiola, a popular representative of Catholicism, generates a fascinating conflict between two contrasting worlds.
Fabiola was a fourth century patrician Roman who, despite divorce and remarriage, later did such fervent penance and such good deeds that she was welcomed back to the faith and, after her death, sainted. She is the patron saint of the divorced,
the deceived, the mistreated and of widows. For years she fell into oblivion, but in the nineteenth century again enjoyed great popularity. “Francis Alÿs: Fabiola” is not one of the internationally renowned artist’s “classical” artworks. The entire collection constitutes an intervention, infiltrating its surroundings to demonstrate the power of imagery and the strength of faith in the potency of a portrait. Francis Alÿs has been presenting the continually growing collection several times since 1994. He chooses a special location for each Fabiola exhibition, devising a new, site-specific intervention with varying constellations and perspectives. He cunningly uses the collection as a Trojan horse, penetrating and occupying ever more new spaces.
In Basel Francis Alÿs has integrated the collection into a domestic environment for the first time. The galleries of haut-bourgeois residential living at the Haus zum Kirschgarten, otherwise so calm and self-possessed, have now been taken over entirely by the conflict with their intruder, allowing a fascinating dialogue to unfold across social, cultural and religious boundaries.