Real icons at the NPG

Published on Culture 24

Fabiola, Francis Alÿs, National Portrait Gallery, London, until September 20 2009

Amid the many famous faces at the National Portrait Gallery are two rooms packed with 300 images of a fourth century Christian saint. It’s doubtful they capture her likeness, but they bear a striking resemblance to one another.

On all sides Fabiola gazes out in profile from beneath the hood of a red cloak. She comes in varying shapes and sizes, sometimes framed, sometimes not. Her image crowds every available wall and even runs over the doors.

The longer you look, the more differences appear. In at least two of the portraits she faces right or wears green. A handful are embroidered, one even made from varnished beans. Many are signed, by different people. Most appear to be the work of amateurs.

Their condition is as poor as their quality, which is a clue to what is happening. These portraits were not commissioned or bought from auction houses but picked up in flea markets all around the world over a 15-year period.

They share primary characteristics because they share the same original, a late 19th century impression of the saint by French painter Jean-Jacques Henner. His painting is now lost and the ones on display here are worked up from reproductions.

All of which casts the exhibition as another thought-provoking Francis Alÿs prank, especially given its context at the NPG – this is the same artist who sent a live peacock to an opening of the Venice Biennale.

But the latest show does more than poke fun. At the request of Alÿs, the walls have been painted a rich, ecclesiastical shade of green and by sheer volume the many kitsch pieces on display achieve a cumulative gravity.

These portraits may be copies of a copy, but that’s no reason not to take them seriously.

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