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The Menil Collection’s latest exhibit Francis Alÿs: The Fabiola Project boasts everything a museum-goer craves: a strong female subject, riveting storyline, an inundation of art, historical significance and a little bit of mystery. (Did we mention free parking?)

Saint Fabiola was a fourth-century Roman aristocrat, Christian convert and dedicated steward to the poor, which garnered her sainthood. Centuries later, reproductions of an 1885 portrait by French artist Jean-Jacques Henner became popular, with Fabiola becoming a 19th-century marketing figure for Christianity on postcards and religious memorabilia. The image format is almost always the same: Fabiola's profile faces the left with her head covered by a rich red veil.

I was captivated by the notion that artist Francis Alÿs has been collecting paintings of Saint Fabiola since 1992. For Alÿs, his collection began when he uncovered her portrait in a flea market in Mexico City twenty-four years ago. While Alÿs anticipated finding da Vinci or Van Gogh replicas, he kept discovering her. 

“It was once the best selling postcard at the Louvre and was very widely disseminated,” Toby Kamps, the Menil Collection's Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, said. “For whatever reason, Fabiola caught on as a favorite for amateur painters.”

While the Mona Lisa can be viewed at the Louvre and Starry Night at MoMa, Fabiola’s original portrait went missing in 1912. Some speculate that it was lost in a San Francisco fire. The international replicas are all that remain of the 1885 portrait by Henner. Alÿs is still coming across them, recently in Beirut and other cities in Lebanon.

In 2009, his 300-plus Fabiola collection became a traveling exhibit. Today, you can see his 410 portraits on one wall in the Menil Collection's Byzantine Fresco Chapel, with 70 replicas of smaller sorts sprinkled throughout the campus.  

“We call it the great wall, as it’s meant to overwhelm,” Kamps said. And it does. When you walk into the dark room, with one well-lit wall, you’re instantly jarred by the plentiful profiles. As your neck careens and swivels, taking in the portraits that are mere inches apart, you slowly see more and more differences. “That’s the magic we want viewers to feel,” Kamps shared.

Thru January 28, 2018. Wed—Sun from 11 a.m.—7 p.m. Free. The Menil Collection, Byzantine Fresco Chapel, 4011 Yupon St. 713—525—9400. menil.org

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