Within the medieval walls of Senlis, just outside Paris, in an old building that once housed priests, an unusual contemporary art collection has taken shape. The Francès Foundation — the brainchild of collectors Estelle and Hervé Francès — is organized around themes of religious persecution and intolerance.
The couple seeks out art that reflects a complex human condition plagued by fear, doubt, and violence. It's not your typical collector's subject matter, but, for Hervé Francès, beauty is overrated. He finds that in general viewers "are too rarely awakened to the meaning of a work." He told ARTINFO France that he and his wife must feel the same way about a piece before buying it. "The ones we choose must make us think and move us," he said, adding that he has sometimes called a gallerist "as soon as I got out of bed, to be sure not to let certain pieces get away."
The foundation's collection numbers 300 works, and it puts on shows four times a year, centered on the work of a particular artist. The newest exhibition, the ironically named "Pax," which runs through June 4, is a contemporary reflection on "violent acts done in the name of religions and done to religions," according to the foundation's Web site, and draws on imagery from the world's three great monotheistic religions. The disturbing figurative paintings of Ronald Ophuls are shown alongside the more conceptual work of Mounir Fatmi, Kader Attia, and Adel Abdessemed.
Ophuls shows forgotten scenes of anguish such as prisoner rape, dysentery, suicide, and death in the disturbing settings of Birkenau and Srebrenica. In his treatment of Bosnian genocide, he represents young Muslims in positions taken from Christian artistic imagery, including a version of the Pietà with a man holding his dead brother.
Upon entering the exhibition, viewers encounter Mounir Fatmi's "Save Manhattan 01," in which the artist has built a pre-September 11 representation of New York's downtown skyline out of copies of the Koran and political science works analyzing the attacks. Another Islam-inspired work is Kader Attia's wall-sculpture "Alpha-Beta," which constructs Arabic letters from knives — a reminder that language can also be a weapon.
"Pax" is certainly the most political exhibition the foundation has held. Hervé Francès said that "the debate on secularism begun by Sarkozy has met up with a larger inquiry into religious intolerance, which happens to describe the line of argument of 'Pax.'" According to Francès, the exhibition was originally intended to be more spiritual than political, "but life often catches up with art."