Looking at Giacometti 
by David Sylvester.
Chatto, 256 pp., £25, October 1994, 9780701162528
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Personal witness has a peculiar status in the criticism of painting and sculpture, a status which it seems not to have in the criticism of other arts. There’s some feature of the visual arts that requires or favours the activity of the critic as witness. I’m not referring here to the supposed necessity for ‘expertise’ when it comes to the visual arts, or to the need evidently felt by its audience for authoritative/enthusiastic communicators (Kenneth Clark, Robert Hughes, Wendy Beckett) which no other artistic public feels – though these things are doubtless relevant. I mean the priority given to a mode of address: when the critic performs, not by talking to us about work to which we’re both assumed to have access, but rather by experiencing the work on our behalf, for our benefit.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann – father of both art history and art ‘appreciation’ – is probably the founding exemplar here. Face to face with the Apollo Belvedere, he was moved to a famous rapture (1764):

This body, marked by no vein, moved by no nerve, is animated by a celestial spirit which courses like a sweet vapour through every part ... In the presence of this miracle of art I forget the whole universe, and my soul acquires a loftiness appropriate to its dignity. From admiration I pass to ecstasy, I feel my breast dilate and rise as if I were filled with the spirit of prophecy.

However hard it is to share it now, this was an experience to be shared – though perhaps not shared entirely, not in all its intensity. We’re not to expect to feel quite as the critic says he does, and indeed that’s part of the transaction. While the critic’s response may not be fully our own, it is an ideal proxy, a model for what our response might be. Of course Winckelmann’s tone, his language of sensibility, is not what we ask from art critics now (though it is sometimes what we get). But that voice of witness still holds its place.

There are some good, quasi-practical reasons for this, in the nature of works of visual art. Paintings and sculptures are, in the main, unique objects: they’re met with at a particular time and place, and it’s proper to record this as an encounter, rather than as a general familiarity. Writing about the visual arts, one cannot quote; especially with sculpture, no reproduction is adequate; so readers may want a record of an experience which, reading, they don’t themselves have at first hand. One tends to view such works as an individual, not as part of an audience; that may need registering too. Lastly, and this seems the best of these reasons, some works of art address the spectator in a way that particularly demands a first-person response. Thus, John Berger in Success and Failure of Picasso evokes the experience of three pictures from the Thirties like this. (The sentences are interleaved with the relevant illustrations.) ‘The effect is magical; it is as though we, looking at these figures, possess their sensations. I am this woman as she sleeps ... I am this one as she cries ... I am that woman as she turns to see me.’ And whatever special delight Berger may take in saying ‘I am this woman,’ still, to impersonalise this account to read ‘we’ or ‘you’ or ‘one’ for ‘I’, wouldn’t make the needful point.

In Looking at Giacometti, David Sylvester records a similar – though far more articulated – face-off with one of Giacometti’s lean and vertical female figures. And the effect here is not simply one of identification:

I feel within my muscles the stance of the figure, feel I am adopting the same stance, feel this so strongly that sometimes I find myself doing so in reality – holding myself more taut and upright, squaring my shoulders, placing my hands straight down my sides. But however strongly I feel the figure’s action within myself, I never – as one normally does when one feels this – feel myself identified with the figure, never have the sense of losing myself in it, out there. I do not even feel a tingle in the muscles of my hands as if I were holding the figure ... Neither of touching it nor becoming it. Only, I feel I have its stance, here, where I am, not out there. And the more I feel with it, the more do I feel my apartness from it confirmed, the more do I recognise its otherness.

In the exactness of its attention, in its argument through sensation, it’s one of the finest passages in the book, though it teeters on the edge of comedy too, as writing in this vein must, especially if one stands back and tries to visualise the pas-de-deux between critic and statue from (as it were) the other side of the room. But any superficial similarities to Winckelmann’s rapturous bodily sensations before the Apollo are misleading, and not just because one can believe Sylvester’s witness in a way that one now can’t Winckelmann’s. The difference is that Winckelmann’s physical reactions are his response to the experience of the statue, Sylvester’s are the experience itself. Winckelmann’s first-person cannot therefore escape extraneous self-display. Sylvester’s is integral; and it need not be him, it’s any ‘I’.

Let that passage stand for many others, equally intensive. ‘Face to face with a Giacometti image, the spectator finds himself as if involved in a reciprocal relationship’; in so far as that is true, this voice of witness is fully justified. But it isn’t only a matter of such one-to-one encounters with the figures and busts. There is, throughout the book, another kind of witness, not necessarily connected though the two become confused: witness, in the sense of the view from within, the inside story of the art. Looking at Giacometti is neither a memoir nor a biographical study (though it has elements of both); but it is focused on and through Giacometti’s artistic life. It treats the works, not as public objects out in the world before us, but as the manifestations of this life. It sees them according to Giacometti’s artistic problems and obsessions, and through his words.

Looking at is looking with. Interpretation is a matter of ‘identifying’: establishing – from conversation, observation and imagination – Giacometti’s own perspective. ‘But what precisely are the elements in Giacometti’s sensations that might be thought to determine his notion of likeness?’ Sylvester looks at the work, and his vision is acute. But it always seeks to converge with the artist’s own, and then to incorporate the artist’s views and desires, so that you can hardly put your finger on the place where looking becomes inflected by acquaintance. ‘Giacometti has not only seen the figure, he has tried to re-create seeing it. His experience of seeing is inseparable from his desire to trap that experience in a work of art.’ But who is speaking? Where does direct observation stop and indirect quotation begin? ‘What was in front of him was marvellous because it was unknowable, but also because it was more than what was in front of him.’ Does this then transfer to what is in front of us? It is hard here to distinguish what Giacometti himself felt and saw, and what he made for all the world to see and feel; and pressing that distinction is precisely not Sylvester’s project.

So this is no Success and Failure of Giacometti. (For did not Giacometti himself say that ‘whether a work of art is a success or a failure is, in the end, of little importance’?) It is beyond advocacy even, because there is so little apprehension of another point of view or point of reference. There are few comparisons with works by other artists, favourable or unfavourable, apart from those which Giacometti himself drew. There is almost no engagement with any of the many other things that have been written about the work, except those written by the artist. To exaggerate a tendency, it is as if Giacometti were the only artist in the world, and as if Sylvester were the only person to have seen his work. That is the way in which this form of witness is ‘personal’: not that there’s any obtrusive display of sensibility, but that no other possible witness, even a corroborating one, is acknowledged – except the artist, and he is at one with the artist.

If this strikes you as a natural, even perhaps ideal, form for an account of an artist’s work to take, consider how odd it would seem in a serious study of, say, Beckett or Rossellini or Messiaen. In literature, cinema or music we wouldn’t give special privileges to this kind of ‘intimacy’. So is there something about visual art that makes it appropriate to give priority to an inside-story understanding? Or is it something specifically about Giacometti?

Well, you may say, the fact is that Sylvester knew Giacometti during the last 17 years of his life, and that knowledge isn’t to be excluded or disguised. He had his portrait painted by the artist, and – working with him – curated a retrospective of his work at the Tate, and those are points of contact which have no clear equivalents in other arts and which may need telling. That’s quite true. But still I would like those questions to nag.

It seems at any rate that this approach is what caused Looking at Giacometti to be so long delayed, and what then finally shaped it. The book was due originally to be published in 1966. But at the end of 1965, Giacometti died. The writing was suspended. In the Preface, Sylvester says: ‘It had become clear that a text written as a study of work in progress could not suddenly be converted into a text on the subject of a completed body of work.’

That is laconically put: ‘work in progress ... completed body’. But I surmise that, had the work not already been viewed as integrally connected to the working life, then the wrench wouldn’t have been so hard. John Berger, who didn’t, I think, know Giacometti, felt this link too. ‘It seems to me now’ – 1966 – ‘that no artist’s work could ever have been more changed by his death than Giacometti’s. In twenty years no one will understand this change. His work will seem to have reverted to normal – although it will in fact have become something different: it will have become evidence from the past.’

Almost thirty years on, and the book has at last arrived, observing that break between past and present. The first five of its 11 chapters are five pieces Sylvester completed between 1955 and 1965, reprinted though ‘to some extent revised’. The next five were already begun, but subsequently reworked, and (apart from one chapter on Giacometti’s pre-1935 ‘cubist’ and ‘surrealist’ work) aren’t divided on any obvious principle. The 11th, begun in the Eighties, is by way of an overview and at last offers a limiting judgment on the work. Finally, two interviews with Giacometti from 1965, which have been liberally quoted throughout the book, are transcribed. But this arrangement doesn’t create order. The progress of the book as you read it represents the movement of a mind, not the movement of an argument. I take this to be another aspect of Sylvester’s terms of engagement.

Thoughts from the early essays are later returned to, expanded, elaborated, substantiated with more biography, sometimes repeated verbatim, but not seriously revised or thrown into sharp perspective. So, in Chapter Three (1959), a summation of Giacometti’s ‘realism’: ‘What there is can only be stated tentatively. And the greatness of Giacometti’s art is that it is tentative but not vague. What this art does is to convey precisely why our sensations of reality cannot be conveyed precisely.’ And then in Chapter Seven (undated): ‘The uncertainty had to be copied with certainty. Copying the uncertainty was something that accrued, through adding together contradictory precise observations, from copying with certainty. Copying wasn’t a matter of working from doubt towards clarity; it was a matter of being lead by clarity towards doubt.’

Such déjà-lu is quite frequent. True, this retake does itself move towards greater clarity (and what’s really admirable about Sylvester as a writer on art is that he isn’t interested in being suggestive; he doesn’t stop before he has made his point absolutely clear). But the observations on the ‘work in progress’ and those on the ‘completed body’ aren’t sufficiently distinct for one not to regret that the whole hadn’t been worked together as originally planned. And as it stands, the five early pieces, the most condensed and energetic, remain the heart of the book.

This lack of radical development, given the book’s delayed arrival, has an unfortunate result. The matter of post-1935 Giacometti has, within the terms of Sylvester’s enquiry, been pretty well settled for some time – a state of affairs to which Sylvester’s own work (for instance, the Tate catalogue essay which is Chapter Five here) has made a large contribution. But as Harold Rosenberg remarked tartly of Giacometti, ‘an artist who interprets his own creations rarely lacks collaborators,’ and Giacometti has had several. There is Genet’s account of the artist and his work, and of having his portrait painted. There is James Lord’s account of having his portrait painted. There are the two essays by Sartre, which set an agenda for understanding the work that has hardly been surpassed. (The eye-witness bibliography alone is extensive.) Each of these men was in conversation as Sylvester was, and with different emphases the same topics are re-stated.

I should qualify: even back in 1955, Sylvester never seems to have been prey to the common ‘existential’ moralisations of Giacometti. He never calls the figures totems of modern alienation, nor indeed compares them to concentration camp victims; the furthest he goes this way is to say that our relation to them is ‘the paradigm of every human confrontation, the encounter between two beings whose likeness to each other is the likeness of their apartness from each other.’ (Every human confrontation?) But the master-reading here is a ‘perceptual’ one, where Giacometti’s aim is (artist’s words) ‘to give the nearest possible sensation to that felt at the sight of the subject’. And here we’re on fully authorised and for that reason already familiar ground.

So from 1935, when Giacometti began working from life again (as he supposed then just as a brief refresher), this art becomes a pursuit of reality. In the female figures, for instance – for economy, I’ll stick exclusively with them, neglecting the other sculpture and the painting entirely – he is concerned to register the fleeting appearances, and specifically the distance of the seen subject. The figures are in a sense pictorial, illusionistic. In their fractured surfaces and blurred contours, in their emphasis on the vertical, they re-create the experience of people seen at a distance, so that the human image separates and recedes from the actual statue. The figure seems further away from us than the sculpture itself is. (There’s some talk about how we ‘really’ see figures at a distance.) Sylvester’s readings are more vivid, discriminating and worked-through than many, but basically this is the standard line.

Some echoes are very prominent. Sartre in ‘La Recherche de l’Absolu’ from 1948:

You can’t approach one of Giacometti’s sculptures. Don’t expect a belly to expand as you draw near it; it will not change and you while moving will have the strange impression of marking time. We have a vague feeling, we conjecture, we are on the point of seeing nipples on the breasts; one or two steps closer, and we are still expectant; one more step and everything vanishes. All that remains are plaits of plaster. His statues can be viewed only from a respectful distance.

Sylvester in the Tate catalogue from 1965 (or rather perhaps – ‘to some extent revised’ – 1965/94):

When I face one of them from the far side of the room and start moving towards her, for the first few paces she seems to come nearer, then she begins to recede from me as fast as I approach. She keeps, so it seems, her distance ... And when I get right up to her, to the point at which I expect to be seeing details in close up, relishing the curve of the cheek, of a breast, I see hardly anything of a figure at all, but a piece of bronze.

Little has changed but the pronoun and the medium: ‘we’ into ‘I’, plaster into bronze.

Of course, the point is a true and important one, and any study of Giacometti must make it. But some acknowledgment might be expected. Its absence is, I think, a telling clue to, or a sign of, Sylvester’s method. I don’t mean that he is trying to arrogate uniquely or originally to himself what is manifestly a common perception of the statues (here again his ‘I’ might be any ‘I’). Rather, that it’s a procedural rule of Looking at Giacometti that no more than one point of view should be involved. That’s how Sylvester obtains his peculiar intimacy with the work, and then communicates it perspicuously to the reader. His, and thereby our, vision must not be deflected by the interposition of any third party. A remark like ‘as Sartre has observed’ would constitute such a deflection. It would make us look at Sartre, and then look at Sylvester too, nodding to a brother critic. Whereas he wants us in his head, looking with his eyes (looking with Giacometti’s). Whether this procedure is truly more ‘inclusive’ than recognising a crowd of witnesses on the scene – Sylvester, Sartre, us, others – is open to question.

Still, even when Sylvester has been anticipated, this can be all to his advantage. For instance, he concludes the 1962 piece with this peroration on the female figures:

Whatever they suggest at once provokes the question whether its opposite is not more relevant. They are insubstantial, fragile, their surface looks as if it might have been corroded merely by exposure to the light. And they stand there like petrified trees or the tapered columns of Persepolis. They rise from the ground as if rooted. And they are poised in flight like medieval saints zooming complacently up to heaven. They are deities, remote, imperious, untouchable. And they are vulnerable naked girls trying to attract customers at a cabaret. They are like dancers when a dancer stands motionless and seems to be drawing her body and the ambient air inward to a still centre. And they are like the dead, their heads indrawn and dry as skulls, limbs bound as though bandaged for the grave.

This is magnificent, and it moves away from a purely ‘perceptual’ reading. But here is Sartre (1948) again:

His thin, gracile creatures rise towards the heavens and we discover a host of Ascensions and Assumptions: they dance, they are dances, made of the same rarefied substance as the glorious bodies promised us. And while we are still contemplating the mystical upsurge, the emaciated bodies blossom and we see only terrestrial flowers.

What one should notice is not merely a partial replication of imagery and thought. It’s that, around this replication, Sylvester has much improved things. He has made sense of and completed what Sartre was trying to say; or rather, he’s shown that there’s no need to take his list of opposites as complete. What it implies is that certain basic ambiguous features in the statues – the contrary upwards-and-downwards dynamic, their combined frailness and rigour, their qualities as statues and as human forms – can be turned into metaphors almost indefinitely. He has several other goes himself. (Incidentally, as for ‘bandaged for the grave’: it is remarkable to judge from studio photographs how effective the figures remain when tightly swathed in damp cloths.)

On the other hand, I’m not too sure about the ‘cabaret’. That seems to be a bit of anecdote imported from Giacometti’s conversation that you don’t read from the figures. And I don’t feel that this passage is assisted by a remark of Giacometti’s quoted, for authority, just before: ‘When I’m walking in the street and see a whore from the distance with her clothes on, I see a whore. When she’s in the room and naked in front of me, I see a goddess.’ (The sentiment might count as charming if put, as an idée reçue, into the mouth of Leopold Bloom.) But Sylvester then adds, concurringly: ‘These figures are untouchable because they are to be adored.’

I think that Sylvester, while rightly resistant to high talk of ‘the mystical’, is too susceptible to Giacometti’s own vie de bohème reflections. But perhaps I’m only trying to save the figures from a ‘life-style’ reading which is really very damaging. The social is, after all, not obviously registered in Giacometti. But if you follow the whore-cum-goddess line, then you arrive at what seems to me a most destructive criticism of Giacometti’s work, and a possible one: namely, that in it the vie de bohème masquerades (as that life loves to masquerade) as a mythic condition of being.

The views I’ve considered so far have been in terms of the effects achieved by the sculptures. But alongside this, Sylvester – like others – has an important counter-theme running: that Giacometti’s dogged pursuit of reality and likeness is, in its nature, an unachievable one. Whether working from life or memory, the real must elude the artist. Every look and every imagining is fleeting and not the same as the next, and ‘our very awareness of having a sensation pushes it into the past.’ Nothing can be rendered stable. This is reflected in Giacometti’s working habits, his constant modelling, stripping down and remodelling of figures – a process which is inherently interminable.

From time to time, though, a satisfactory state is reached, or an exhibition calls, or he gets bored, and a piece is taken away and cast. But this permanent artifact is only work suspended (no question, then, of success or failure). Nothing is to be considered definitive. Giacometti was insistent: ‘He was sure to pull one up pedantically if one ever referred to anything of his as “finished”: it became comically difficult to find terms with which to make a purely pragmatic distinction between things he was currently working on and pieces long since consecrated in the world’s museums.’ For pragmatic purposes, tricky. But, as a general principle, it seems to me that Sylvester doesn’t really want to make this distinction either. Isn’t the impossibility of making it just his point? In that impossibility is the underlying justification for his whole approach. Because if the work consists essentially of an almost continuous process of looking, remembering, making and remaking, from which individual sculptures are from time to time drawn off; if the real life of the work is thus in the working life, in the action in the studio, not in the museums; if the work, in this sense, ended with the artist’s life, becoming after that, in Berger’s phrase, ‘evidence from the past’ – then Sylvester’s inside story is the only true kind.

I asked earlier if it was something about Giacometti that made this approach seem appropriate, and here is an answer. For with Giacometti, at least on this view, the artist at work is the real subject. And to a degree this may apply to all visual artists, in so far as, unlike other sorts of artist, they may be seen and known at work. So it may seem that in that knowledge we have some special access to their art, and that the critic who communicates this knowledge is the most valuable. (Or is it that the visual artist’s body is peculiarly involved in the work, and so we naturally turn back to that body, and from that to the living, working, talking person?)

Giacometti is dead. His evidence is still with us. What are we to say now? Is there some way to resolve the tension between process and artifact? Sylvester does not seem to register a problem here. Sartre saw it at the time, and then benignly dismissed it. Pace his protestations of defeat, ‘Giacometti is also a victor, and he is well aware of the fact. It is futile for him to hoard his statues like a miser and to procrastinate, temporise ... People will come to his studio, brush him aside, carry away all his works, including the plaster that covers his floor.’ (They have. The very walls are now dismantled and shown in exhibitions.) ‘He knows that he has won in spite of himself, and that he belongs to us.’ As it were: chef is such a perfectionist, just ignore him. We don’t have much alternative but to agree. We cannot prevent Giacometti’s work ‘reverting to normal’. Better that, at least, than making a cult of artistic failure and impossibility.

Which Sylvester does tend towards. It’s one thing to say the work is precisely imprecise, that it’s about seeing, and that ‘in representing what he has seen, Giacometti objectifies the conditions under which he has seen it.’ That is a view of the work. But it is another thing to say: ‘Giacometti’s art defines a situation intolerable to the artist, for any artist wants to take possession and control of all he sees ... Giacometti’s work lays naked the despair known to every artist who has tried to copy what he sees.’ That is to make the problem, the frustration, the agony in the studio into an expressive feature of the work, or to offer some striving art-and-artist composite as Giacometti’s true opus. (Besides, if we’re asked too much to be moved by the man despairing before the motif, then – worse troubles at sea.) But it is just such a composite that Sylvester’s method can hardly avoid producing.

He doesn’t go so far as to say, as some have, that Giacometti ‘lived out the myth of Sisyphus’. And at the very end of the book Sylvester at last steps back and judges that, from the mid-Fifties on, Giacometti’s search for ‘a likeness’ to the exclusion of every other consideration led to a falling off. ‘It seems to me now that Giacometti sacrificed his art in pursuit of an obsession.’ But this is a late decision, and it comes as a complete reversal of approach. I don’t mean the particular decision about Giacometti’s success and failure, but the decision to step back from the inside view to distinguish art from obsession and to commit open judgment on the work. Within the voice of close and sympathetic witness – a voice Giacometti has very often been treated in – Looking at Giacometti is the best book on the artist there is. But by this date I would have had things all out in the open, all through.

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Vol. 17 No. 4 · 23 February 1995

The long review of my book on Giacometti (LRB, 12 January) provokes the thought that long reviews can take so long to write that the reviewer is left short of time to read the book. In the present case Mr Lubbock would only have had to read the Preface to discover that, contrary to his statement that all five chapters in Part One are reprints, in reality two of them are, three are not. (Dammit, it’s difficult enough to sell books nowadays without having unpublished work described in a reputable literary journal as having long been in print.) Later, Mr Lubbock asserts that Chapters Seven to Ten ‘aren’t divided on any obvious principle’. Well, the division goes like this. Following on Chapter Six, which deals with the surrealist work – it’s the longest chapter in the book and goes unmentioned in the review – Chapter Seven is a discussion of two texts by Giacometti, one surrealist, the other post-surrealist, which touches on his working methods as a writer. Chapter Eight is a detailed description of Giacometti’s working methods as an artist. Chapter Nine is a blow-by-blow account of Giacometti’s development as a representational artist which begins with his juvenilia and ends with his death. Chapter Ten, the penultimate chapter of Part Two, tries to say something about the content of the work, first recapitulating the penultimate chapter of Part One and then taking off in another direction.

David Sylvester
London W11

Vol. 17 No. 5 · 9 March 1995

I see my mistake. As David Sylvester points out (Letters, 23 February), I was wrong to say that the first five chapters of Looking at Giacometti are ‘reprinted’, implying previous publication. (Chapters One and Five have already been published: Two, Three and Four, not.) I meant only to say that those five chapters were written by the time of Giacometti’s death in 1966, and are printed as they stood then – unlike later chapters, which were at that point unfinished and were reworked subsequently.

Tom Lubbock
London NW1

Vol. 17 No. 3 · 9 February 1995

I enjoyed reading Tom Lubbock on Giacometti (LRB, 12 January) on my way home from looking at Giacometti, so marvellously exhibited in Malmö. ‘What this art does is to convey precisely why our sensations of reality cannot be conveyed precisely.’ David Sylvester’s phrase seems spot on. However, what no one seems to remark on is the blackness. Far from the chicness of silhouette, this is tangible mystery. I was gripped by how the pieces seem to absorb light, as we approach, and with it all life-affirming emotions. What’s more, we seem to take on their bodily manner as we return the black gaze. Such observations, I suspect, are widespread rather than the special insight of Sylvester the interpreter, medium, priest.

But I left the exhibition deeply unsettled. First, by the show: it is introduced with a great wall of photographs, many taken by the famous or showing the sculptor with the famous, as if to validate the work itself. And these images are given much more attention by visitors than are the works themselves. Second, I was unsettled by the work: this man seems to have none of the power to touch us as a modern artist, the way – to take another for whom Sylvester acts as medium – Francis Bacon surely does. How is he among the greats? For, despite obsessive repetition which (beyond fascination in his biography) is just boring, despite the variable quality (especially in drawings and paintings), despite anything, Giacometti’s images haunt and continue to haunt. Does this say more about us, end-of-20th-century gallery walkers, than about art? Rather than overrated, is he wrongly judged?

I think of the ancient cult image of Athena which ruled on the Athenian Akropolis from time immemorial, before being challenged by Pheidias’ modernist/realist ‘Parthenos’. An archaic, olive-wood shape, far from a realist representation, it may have become almost unrecognisable as human form: but it was equally far from vague in its representation. This powerful object, its clothing ritually renewed, its life and order (kosmos) made manifest in its being wrapped (‘cosmetic’ comes from the same root meaning), retained its archaic power for the Athenian populus; though Pheidias, of course, is the great sculptor.

Perhaps we only need to ‘see’ a Giacometti unclothed very rarely; even once. It speaks no more to us from prolonged observation. But this rare experience burns its image in our souls. The photographs of Giacometti’s figures swathed in cloth are not just ‘effective’, as Lubbock notes: they suggest a rather different, mysterious, archaic potency in his work suited to our disintegrating time, as the millennium turns and 2500 years of modernism collapse.

John Mckean
School of Architecture

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