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Archive for the month “April, 2019”

Impressionism in the Age of Industry- the last week at the AGO

Usually I read reviews after I read a book , see a play or view an exhibit. However, I was interested in the show now departing the AGO so chanced to check it out in the papers months ago. Usually when one thinks of Impressionism, there are thoughts of bright colours, Monet’s waterlilies, dashing artists, cafes, stirring landscapes, pointillism, outdoor enjoyments. This particular exhibit takes a different tact, usually forgotten or dismissed by the viewer: the impact of technology, dislocation, and postwar trauma on artistic development.

Set up clearly from the beginning, Impressionism is put into immediate context as the curators list the major factors effecting the evolution of the trend : the Franco- Prussian war, the Paris Commune; George’s-Eugene Haussmann’s plan for modernization, and all the consequences of moving from an agricultural city to a boom town economy: which includes a reorganization of classes. To allow manufactured goods and raw materials to enter Paris by steam boat, the Seine had to be widened and deepened. Smokestacks, trains and train stations, barges and the accompanying disruption occurred. Not surprisingly, anarchy, the rise of unions, the beginnings of the metro, terrorism and even a feminist newspaper by Marguerite Duran accompanied the massive shift. This was the time of the Eiffel Tower, the Opera, the Worlds Fair, the box camera and the birth of cinema. To maintain and facilitate change, the worker class erupted documented in paintings of laundresses, shop girls and dock workers , these labourers strongly contrasted to pretty boys lolling in the countryside with prostitutes such as in Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe or Seurat’s Afternoon At La Grande Jatte of colourful apparently insouciant views of relaxing by the water.

Perhaps one thinks of the joys of those days because the artists experimenting with pointillism were not darkening their canvases with black pigment, only greying their colours with complements, appropriating a new Japanese perspective or rejecting stock scenes for painting en pleine air as the Barbizon school did. But looking more closely as for example in La Grande Jatte or Les Poseurs, again by Seurat, there is the presence of industry , and the scenes of resting people are exhausted seeking respite from their days of deadening work.

Seurat makes the labourers the subject of his work. Previously many of the artists of the day such as Claude Monet focused on the imagery of bridges or trains as the pervasive topic, for example in Arrival of Normandy Train , Gare- St. Lazare, or Henri Ottmann’s Luxembourg Station with its 10 tracks of trains or Gustave Caillebotte’s The Seine and the Railroad Bridge At Argentenuil , all presenting a visual analogy of the immense change occurring in the country. In Caillebotte’s, strong horizontal lines of the approaching train at Argentenuil appear unstoppable, contrasted with broken horizontal waves slowly lapping beneath the bridge. In another of Caillebotte’s , The Argentenuil Bridge and the Seine repeats that feeling of the inevitability of technology overpowering nature, the strong steel patterns of the bridge dominating the loose strokes of water over which the bridge casts a dark shadow.In 1830 there were 22 kilometres of train tracks, by 1876- 22,673. Photos in the exhibit by August Hyppolyte- Collad, Baldus augment the paintings and document the shifts.

George’s Espagnet, JamesTissot, Eugene Boudin and others glimpse the new middle class neatly attired in fashionable furs or boasting bowler hats, umbrellas, parasols…This class of people might spend 6 hours on the train to reach a spot for sea bathing, touted as beneficial for one’s health. These diversions from work into a colourful world of leisure are not the ones usually associated by many when the word Impressionism comes to mind .

A tiny painting by Georges Seurat of The Eiffel Tower confirms this notion with his colourful dots and the upward thrust of the iconic tower that suggests movement, colour and a positive approach to these days of turmoil. But this approach for Seurat, who died at 32, in his studies of workers at Asnieres , bestows dignity and respect to his beleaguered class of labourers, Seurat even believing each painted dot was a kind of democracy, equally sized to the one beside it on the canvas. A large painting by Tissot is quixotic as well, charming as a product of this new world, as a shop girl, almost seductively welcomes with a smile, passerbys to purchase a plethora of manufactured goods. Other artists depict workers as faceless nondescript, backdrops or part of the industrial scene. Even a piece by Van Gogh in Factories At Clichy dwarfs his two people in his well known blowing landscape, barely recognizable as part of the contemporary scene of this power of industry.

Edouard Vuillard , a member of the Nabi group, often like his colleagues associated with bright pure colour, presents a lithograph of a street scene in Street One Rainy Evening,1895 in which the dark silhouettes of carriages obscure a blurry image of a woman in the corner. The feeling is full of foreboding, ominous. As well, Monet associated with catching the change of luminous light on churches, haystacks and waterlilies gives us The Coalmen,1840, in this show, with indistinct greens, repetitive wooden ramps that connect a ship to the shore as the coalmen like automatons toil up and down for hours.

Paul Signac, politically considered an anachist presents The Wreckers, reminiscent of the mythical golem, part men, part inanimate matter, destroyers yet creators of a new order. And Maximilien Luce exhibits the machinery of cranes, carts, construction workers along with horses and sand quarries in his works. In an violent burst of colour in The Steelworks , factory workers are the onlookers, mere silhouettes to an explosion, staring into a mighty furnace, Marxist philosophy of the downtrodden writ large. Similarly Jean- Francois Rafaelli’s The Return of The Ragpickers gives homage to the displaced souls collecting the debris of manufactured goods, leftovers and scraps discarded by this new society. But equally, Raffaelli has rendered them monumental, ascribing the men dignity much like Chagall’s wandering Jews.

Although the movement of Impressionism grows in a particular time and place, it is foremost an artistic turning point from previous realistic genre works of mythology, religion and portraiture.Felix Braquemond concern with movement, light and sensation is inspired and built on J.M.W. Turner’s explorations with the impact of wind , rain , light and motion on people in their environment. And Camille Pissarro’s scenes of The Factory Near Pontoise, 1873 lose their humanity for the sake of harmony that connotes the influence of Paul Cezanne’s basic shapes of square, circle , rectangle and triangle; the result being quite pretty unlike other depictions by Alfred Sisley or Armand Guillaumin of greyed dirty water, corrupted beige ground, railways pushed to the edges of houses and intruding into their midst.

It is a fascinating exhibit, especially for those who have lauded the flowers and pretty poetic scenes we’ve come to associate with Impressionism. It’s important to know the context, the disruption of one way of life as it made way for a world of transit, dependency on trains and ships that brought fancy finished goods to the door. Ironically, a painting of Notre Dame by the water is also included in this show- of course, before the fire two weeks ago. It’s a sad echo of times past, yet its endurance reminds us of another world, obviously not better or easier, just different : with its own pleasures, rewards, brilliance and hardships. Impressionism in the Age of Industry changes our perspective, enriching it with understanding of the meaning behind the waterlilies, the sunlit reverie of the newly formed classes and the background development of an art movement that would endure.

Notre- Dame

Interesting articles by author Nancy Huston and Joseph L. Clarke, assistant professor of architecture, in the Globe today, both focusing on Notre- Dame. Every art student has studied the Gothic cathedral built in the 1200’s by Violet-le- Duc, recalling the competition among cathedrals between towns : to build higher and higher into the heavens to reach God, until the structures unable to support their magnificent heights eventually began to tumble. Constructed from wood, churches were prime targets for the candles that kept them shadowy lit.

I chortle to recall learning the parts of the church, nave, transept, rose windows, gargoyles, spire, and the reason for the long aisles: to efficiently move the flow of tourists, yes tourists even back then, pilgrims, up one side , down the other, and out into the hubbub of throngs of stalls hawking things, stalls pushed up to the very edges of churches to tantalize the tourist trade. I chortle because I also continued to call the flying buttresses, those winged side supports to hold up the buildings, “ flying buttocks” as both ensured the bodies held upright. Even my professor guffawed.

But my memories of Notre- Dame are- as well -personal. I worked two jobs at university so I might travel to Europe and see for myself the hundreds of slides flashed on the screen during an hour in university class. I was so smitten with art history and the stories behind the artifacts. So I continually saved so I could fly to Europe every summer and haunt the churches. Paris where the most important treasures were located was my goal. As I rambled in the city, I discovered and immediately was charmed to stay at Hotel de Notre Dame, a sign I noticed as I wandered the streets with my heavy backpack that held my three wrinkle free dresses and assorted necessities for three months sojourn by myself. Sounding fabulous and magical, the name of the establishment was a revelation. Hotel Notre Dame was in reality a tiny bug- infested holeup above a café close to the cathedral, but the name called out to me and every meandering walk took me past the doors of the magnificent cathedral. So enchanted with the location and ignoring the bedbugs that laced my body, year after year I returned, even writing ahead to ensure a bed. Many years later I noted the petit hotel had been transformed to an establishment worthy of the epithet.

And when we toured Europe with our children, they absolutely had to see and climb the turrets of Notre Dame, we recounting the story of Esmeralda and Quasimodo crazy in love with her. Houston picks up on the idea that the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame dwelled on outcasts,” the usual refuge of all those wretches who came to conceal in this corner of Paris, somber, dirty, muddy and tortuous, their pretended infirmities and their criminal pollution.” :truly the story of les miserables as presently we view them on screen, in the theatre from Victor Hugo’s books. Like the grandmother rarely visited that Houston evokes in her article, Notre Dame was a bulwark, a base, an enduring presence you appreciated because you felt grounded by something eternal, a family part, a piece of history that situated you in a rich culture of dreams, society, a landmark with which you could measure how far you had come from the medieval ages, a kind of cultural talisman.You didn’t have to enter it more than once or twice a trip, but note it -you did, giving it a friendly wink, acknowledging a relationship, but like the demise of that fond grandparent, you truly miss when gone, wishing you had explored further the tales that might have been shared.

But Joseph L. Clarke, that architecture maven, takes another look at the cathedral, also capitalizing on some thoughts from art class. We,once in seminar , debated how architecture can become redundant, fossilized if these structures do not change with society: the need being that artifacts do not stay stuck, unused in the past but somehow become remain relevant so people truly interact as they are reinterpreted for the present. Clarke cites the Neues Museum in Berlin, bombed but reconstructed. What is conjured for me is Daniel Libeskin’s addition to our ROM in Toronto, criticized for not really enhancing or working with the original design , or the Louvre with the strange black pyramid set against the rest of the building. It is hard to fathom a new limb on Notre Dame that does not cull from times past in an attempt to contemporize it. Often a mixture of old and new is a plan for discord, but perhaps a brilliant architect could manage a metamorphosis.

I actually think there are those pieces that should remain in tact,reminding us of another time, another world, not necessarily better, but different and unique, hallmarks against which we can measure our own growth, our distance. The Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Pyramids, the Great Wall, ancient libraries, castles and landmarks that provoke debates, contemplation of the evolving situations of freedom, liberty, strife and success. In Berlin, remnants of war ruins are juxtaposed with new joyous constructions and somehow the old and new coalesce, the old not erased with the memories they hold for those who endured during those terrible days.Perhaps ironically, however, the Memorial to the Jews Murdered in the Holocaust across from the Reichstag has become a spot for picnicking, selfies and jumping from block to block. Impossible to stop, many of the inhabitants of the city obviously feel no need to maintain the piece as a place for respect. Could one consider this a fitting tribute to the dead? Likely because a new generation is able to roam there, accept its presence as a living spot: the ghosts that may wander there can smile down that life continues and people can move freely without the fear of destruction. Yet there is something within me that would have preferred it become a shrine of sorts, the dead respected in a way I deem appropriate.

But I am of another generation, savouring all tales that connected me to the lost ancestors, cousins and relations slaughtered. Perhaps the mere words that honour that loss should suffice, for no actual relationship to the present inhabitants in the city may have caused this insouciance of behaviour.

Everything changes, but in deed, some memorials, some buildings like Notre- Dame will survive, their meaning open for learning or meaning for those fascinated by history and those who believe there is deep import and significance in preserving works of art because they hold unerasable truths.

Hitler’s Tasters

From earliest ages, we have poured ourselves into holocaust literature, trying to understand, witness, empathize. For the most part, the perspective has been a Jewish one, sometimes a scholarly dissertation, a history book, a probe into evil, a horrifying tale or memoir. And we are mystified, amazed, speechless. We are fascinated, distracted, hurt, aware, for we as survivors, the children or cousins or descendants or friends of survivors are only able to glimpse the horrors we did not experience. Thank G-d.

As years pass and more distance accumulates, we can stand slightly apart and instead of engulfed in tears and anger, we are able to glean other stories, perhaps not written by those whose narratives are first hand. In At the Wolfs Table by Rosella Postorino, she rewrites the story of the last surviving woman tester, Margaret Wolk, forced to taste Hitler’s food before he did. Although Postorino changes Margaret’s name to Rosa, recalling her own name, Rosella ,the author, personally embodies the question of the protagonist faced with a terrible moral dilemma : What would I do if…..? By sampling Hitler’s food, Rosa/Margaret is ensuring Hitler’s survival, and knowingly supports his war endeavours and atrocities. Obsessed with her protagonist’s issues of guilt and responsibility, Postorino states, “We cannot ask everyone to be a hero, and I wanted to tell the story of an ordinary woman.”

Margaret Wolk was a secretary living in Berlin in 1941, married to Karl, with Jewish friends. Her husband departed for war and her apartment was bombed, forcing her to relocate in Gross- Partsch( now Poland) to live with her mother-in-law. The details of the true life are closely replicated in Postorino’s book as she describes the circumstances of Rosa’s life : her meals of vegetables, grains and fruits Hitler demanded in his diet; her escape on Goebbel’s train aided by a Nazi; and even the return of her husband from a Soviet prison camp. Because Wolk died at 95 before Postorino could interview her, she gleaned the facts revealed in podcasts, articles and newspapers such as der Spiegel that lay out the interment at Wolfsschanze and after. It took decades for Wolk to speak publicly about her wartime life.

Rosa Sauer, our protagonist in Postorino’s book is a sympathetic German, forced along with nine other women in the story to taste Hitler’s food to avoid his being poisoned. Born into a family who has resisted and scorned Hitler’s philosophies, Rosa’s idealistic father is a railway worker, her mother a seamstress so Rosa comes to the reader as the innocent bystander. She recalls a vivid memory from high school fixated on Adam Wortmann, a beloved math teacher, marched away because he was a Jew.

She confides ,” I had never been a good German”, and explains even at an early age, she had played at the game of death by swallowing threads from her mother’s creations. Rosa’s mother dies when their apartment is bombed and Rosa continually returns to her past, her former life and her mother’s admonitions regarding the necessity of eating. She remembers her mother saying that eating was a way to battle death: “She said it even before Hitler, back when I went to elementary school”. Chosen by the town mayor in Gross- Partsch as a taster, Rosa has become party to the war effort and so, the correlation between food and endurance continues : ironic when most are starving. Three times a day , a bounty of asparagus, peppers, peas, rice, salads, milk and even cakes are her daily fare : “ Hitler nourished me and that nourishment could kill me.”, she relates.

Rosa says, “We were ten digestive tracts.” Wolk herself commented, “Some of the women cried at the beginning of every meal, fearing the food [was] indeed poisoned and they were going to die. We had to taste everything and wait an hour, after which we cried our eyes out, knowing that we were saved, day after day.” Although treated to delicacies and the finest foods, eating is far from a comfortable, enjoyable pastime. In one scene in the book, many women succumb, faint, become extremely ill, vomit, but ultimately recover .Hitler’s tasters are always in peril, for the food might be toxic ;the Allies, but especially England had wanted to destroy Hitler.

Fears for Hitler’s security were not unfounded. On July 20, 1944, Claus von Stauffenbergs, a trusted soldier, detonated a bomb in the Wolfsschanze in an attempt to kill Hitler. He survived, but nearly 5,000 people were executed following the assassination attempt. In the story, Rosa describes meeting von Stauffenbergs at a party given by her father-in-law’s employer, the baroness who is quite taken with the Fuhrer, believing he will save Germany. She is also entranced by Rosa, inviting her to the castle where they ride horses, talk books, music, film and theatre: a contrast and brief respite from the Wolf’s Lair. However, with assassination attempts, the tasters are forced to live on the premises believed secure. Rosa never encounters Hitler, but glimpses his dog, Blondi. At the baronness’s party Rosa -the- taster becomes Rosa -the -love interest as she is noticed by one of Hitler’s obersturmfuhrer, Ziegler. Before the lock down, he begins to appear at Rosa’s window at night.

Besides the wartime examination of the tasters, At The Wolfs Table illuminates many themes that pertain to women, many feminist ones. It is a story of victimized women forced to comply during wartime to the orders of men. Rosa talks about missing love and her own body. For the baroness’s party, Ulla, another taster, had come to arrange Rosa’s hair and Rosa herself altered an old dress from Berlin’s nightlife in attempt to feel attractive. Her dalliance with Ziegler is part command performance, part investigation of self. She believes she ultimately has no choice, but also recognizes a desire within herself.

As a young bride before Karl’s departure, Rosa spent barely a year with her husband, dreaming of children, a life of normalcy, but of course, the extremes of war disrupts lives and hopes. In Gross- Partsch, tormented by his absence, she writes to Gregor everyday,” a diary of me missing him.”

The other women in her group also cope with their stilted loveless lives and their used but de- sexualized bodies. One of the tasters, married with two young children, becomes pregnant by a young farm hand , and Elfreide , another of the inmates, is able to procure a clandestine abortion for her in the woods.And another of the young women, Leni with a blotchy complexion dreams of her first love experience, but naively allows herself to be courted and betrayed by a soldier. She blames herself, disclaiming the admittance of rape. Elfreide speaks up, refusing to allow the outrage to pass. Rosa briefly in a position of power demands Ziegler provide protection for her, but Rosa too is betrayed when the woman disappears, likely sent off to a camp. Yet the Rosa- Ziegler liaison is complicated as he does insist on finding safe passage for her on Goebbels’s train once the war appears lost. She had told herself, “ But at night , Gregor( her husband) disappeared because the world itself disappeared and life began and ended in the trajectory of the connecting of Ziegler and me.” Cold comfort and rationalization for her nagging submission to Ziegler’s advances and withdrawals.

Rosa’s escape back to Berlin on the train, her discovery among the luggage and simple meal with a young family, the crooning of a lullaby and simple kiss to their baby juxtaposes the chaotic inhuman cattle cars that drove the precious human cargo of unfortunate targeted Jews to camps. Without mentioning that final destination, it is strongly evoked in the gently contrasted paragraphs. I doubt any Jew could read the section without a gasp of sorrow for those lost in the persecution.

As well, the theme of eating that should be pleasurable becomes a main obsession in the book. As readers we think of bulimics and anorexics who cannot tolerate or vomit their meals. Forever, women have considered their bodies too fat, too thin, playing with, balancing their diets.From skeletal Twiggys to curvaceously plump Sophia Lorens, the size of hips, busts, waists, legs and butts( whether to enlarge like the Kardashian’s or not) are the fodder of magazines and the cause of self doubt plaguing women forever. One of the tasters papers her room with images of stars, fantasizing about the perfect looks of a German actress. The women are all stand ins for Little Red Riding Hoods, guessing who or what ( food) will destroy and devour them, helpless? And will they all be blaming themselves or others for bad choices, too tight clothing, wrong moves, uncertain paths, neglecting the advice of those older and wiser.

Rosa aware of this strange life she is leading writes, “ The ability to adapt is human beings greatest resource, but the more I adapted, the less human I felt.” In a wash of contradictions and consumed by guilt, she admits her personal punishment was not poison, or death but life: as she had persisted in living by ingesting food, engaging in a romantic tryst with the enemy and seeking escape back to Berlin.In all of these situations, Rosa cannot rejoice or even forgive herself, as women often refuse to do, for there is shame, guilt, the burden of surviving when so many others succumbed.

At The Wolf’s Table raises many complicated and complex issues. In real life, Margaret Wolk’s leaving Wolfsschanze and return to Berlin was not the end of her story. Her treatment by the Russians was a nightmare. It is not surprising that only towards the end of her life did she reveal the horrors. As Jews who have continued on with our own memories, I think we can empathize, once more sadly aware of lives lost and destroyed – even those who were not Jewish.

Time Lapses

Watching This Is Us this week triggered some emotional residue that concerned my family.In this particular segment of the show, hospitals play a pivotal role. Kate confined after Jack’s precipitous birth, ministers to her underweight premie, However, the underlying focus is Rebecca, Kate’s mother who not only keeps watch on the infant but is revisited as a patient: once as a young mom in a car accident, her body broken but also her mind slowed by meds; then at the conclusion of the episode, her hands fidgeting , her eyes blank, likely beset by Alzheimers. The children now grown and grey- haired gather, perhaps for the final goodbye.

The juxtaposition of Rebecca’s hospital scenes of young and old combine for a curious and sudden effect, the immediate ellipsis of foreshadowing an event, a mind under attack, with its eventual outcomes. And within less than an hour of the viewers’ time, we observe Rebecca grow, interact, age, decline: the cycle of life as if captured in one of those National Geographic photographic speed ups of a seed planted, blooming, blossoming and dying. For a flower, it’s startling ;for a beloved human, it’s painful because we know that this is our fate as well, and for the inevitable trajectories of those we love.

As a child yourself, perception and time is skewed. Summer vacations of sun and redolent sand of a few months seem to stretch forever, oases from dreaded pounding school. Teachers, in reality young and perky in their twenties, even kind ones appear to be ancient, so so old. Proceeding through middle and high schools, life accelerates soon, shorter vacations, an awareness that more closely conforms to truth. But eventually before you are even aware, the reverse sets in and months seamlessly turn into days as you mark out holidays, milestones, plans for weekends, next month, next year, checking them off in red on your calendar as quickly as they appear. It’s Groundhog Day in reverse.

Even if you are ignoring or not noting your own changes, your children are the physical markers of the days as they first crawl, then walk, then leap to adulthood, all ready making plans for future endeavours and love relationships. In your own head, you’re still the same, but your mirror records the alterations on your face, your back, your walking gait, that shrink you each year, reminding me of Marquez ‘s One Hundred Year’s of Solitude, both in confusion and imagery of shoes or clothes enormously large for bodies that have become the size of dolls. Still you collect treasured precious moments in photographic books or digitally, in which you’ve frozen the frozen perfect marriages, celebrations that slowed the days, making them memorable and retrievable of a good life you created for your family.

In the flow of time, I think too of my parents and their last days in hospital, and I don’t want to think of them. My mother ,who like me hated hospitals, demanded to go home, turned her face away in anger, and my own response of self protection and little acquiescence; my father enclosed in his hospitable bed, the victim of doctor ignorance, then in a coma when only a few days prior I had been rubbing his feet and he assuring me, “ Of course, I loved you Pat.” He 68, younger than I am now. I think both would have preferred to drift into sleep at home, never to return. Or my mother-in-law’s agitation, her final days as a patient in an institution where she once, warmly welcomed, was a volunteer.

Rebecca’s leap from active to passive, the dramatic speed up of time, ephemeral time was what caught me off guard. Even in my doctoral thesis, I had quoted TS Eliot in the Four Quartets, so fascinated have I always been by the seconds, minutes, hours and years that can lapse, meander, speed by, confound and heal. Eliot once wrote,

“Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.”

And so watching the combination of “ time” in Rebecca’s life in This Is Us exerted a profound effect on me. Perhaps more than ever, it’s my own age as I struggle to accept I’m no longer young, for the belief of the baby boomers was that, unlike their parents, they would endure fresh, active and able forever, time posing no barrier. Unlike our dodgy parents who toiled, wore white gloves only in the summer, obeyed rules and conventions, we would dance at dawn, free. If you are a boomer, you know exactly what I mean.

Now there is an incredulity that accompanies what slows us down now, amazed at our selves. Strangely, what we wore, our clothes, tie dyed,high waisted have been reverted, unlike us, persisting, now lauded and reissued as retro and our rock groups of Jagger and Lightfoot and Fleetwood Mac make last gasp tours as their boyish( and girlish) charms and talents have faded. But even they must know time has marched on. And we finally acknowledge what our parents knew and tried to impart to our stubborn refuting heads.

As above, the poets said it best as in Tennyson’s lament by Ulysses,

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remain…

Ironic words for Tennyson was 24 when he wrote the poem in 1833.

In one of Tara Brach’s meditation, she soothes by quoting Tilopa,

Let go of what has passed.

Let go of what may come.

Let go of what is happening now.

Don’t try to figure anything out.

Don’t try to make anything happen.

Relax, right now, and rest.

At present, this is my mantra.

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