The History of Sculpture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Introduction and Overview 

For thousands of years sculpture has filled many roles in human life. The earliest sculpture was probably made to supply magical help to hunters. After the dawn of civilization, statues were used to represent gods. Ancient kings, possibly in the hope of making themselves immortal, had likenesses carved, and portrait sculpture was born. The Greeks made statues that depicted perfectly formed men and women. Early Christians decorated churches with demons and devils, reminders of the presence of evil for the many churchgoers who could neither read nor write.

From its beginnings until the present, sculpture has been largely monumental. In the 15th century, monuments to biblical heroes were built on the streets of Italian cities, and in the 20th century a monument to a songwriter was built in the heart of New York City. Great fountains with sculpture in the center are as commonplace beside modern skyscrapers as they were in the courts of old palaces. The ancient Sumerians celebrated military victory with sculpture. The participants of World War II also used sculpture to honor their soldiers.

Prehistoric Sculpture

Sculpture may be the oldest of the arts. People carved before they painted or designed dwellings. The earliest drawings were probably carved on rock or incised (scratched) in earth. Therefore, these drawings were as much forerunners of relief sculpture as of painting.

Only a few objects survive to show what sculpture was like thousands of years ago. There are, however, hundreds of recent examples of sculpture made by people living in primitive cultures. These examples may be similar to prehistoric sculpture.

From recent primitive sculpture and from the few surviving prehistoric pieces, we can judge that prehistoric sculpture was never made to be beautiful. It was always made to be used in rituals. In their constant fight for survival, early people made sculpture to provide spiritual support.

Figures of men, women, and animals and combinations of all these served to honor the strange and sometimes frightening forces of nature, which were worshiped as evil or good spirits. Oddly shaped figures must have represented prayers for strong sons, good crops, and abundant game and fish. Sculpture in the form of masks was worn by priests or medicine men in dances designed to drive away evil spirits or beg favors from good ones.

Sculpture in the Ancient World

The earliest civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China gradually developed forms of writing about 3000 B.C. The people of these civilizations, like their prehistoric ancestors, also expressed deeply felt beliefs in sculpture.

Egypt

Egyptian sculpture and all Egyptian art was based on the belief in a life after death. The body of the Egyptian ruler, or pharaoh, was carefully preserved, and goods were buried with him to provide for his needs forever. The pyramids, great monumental tombs of Giza, were built for the most powerful early rulers. The pharaoh and his wife were buried in chambers cut deep inside the huge blocks of stone.

Life-size and even larger statues, carved in slate, alabaster, and limestone, were as regular and simple in shape as the tombs themselves. Placed in the temples and inside the burial chambers, these statues were images of the rulers, the nobles, and the gods worshiped by the Egyptians. The Egyptians believed that the spirit of the dead person could always return to these images. Hundreds of smaller statuettes in clay or wood showed people engaged in all the normal actions of life: kneading bread, sailing, counting cattle. These statuettes were astonishingly lifelike. Scenes carved in relief and painted in the tomb chambers or on temple walls described Egyptian life in all its variety.

Egyptian sculptors always presented ideas clearly. The pharaoh or noble is made larger than less important people. In relief sculpture every part of a figure is clearly shown. An eye looking straight forward is placed against the profile of a face, the upper part of the body faces front, and the legs are again in profile.

The Egyptians often combined features from various creatures to symbolize ideas. For example, the human head of the pharaoh Khafre is added to the crouching figure of a lion to form the Great Sphinx. This composition suggests the combination of human intelligence and animal strength.

Egyptian sculptors made standing and seated figures in the round and in relief. Changes in style reveal changed circumstances. The portraits of rulers of the Middle Kingdom (2134?-1778? B.C.) lose the strength and vigor of those of their ancestors at Giza. The faces are drawn, sad, and weary. A greater energy and force returns in the period of Egypt's greatest power, the New Kingdom (1567-1080 B.C.). Colossal figures like those of Ramses II at the entrance to his tomb at Abu-Simbel are broad, powerful, and commanding. A smaller portrait of Ramses II shows the smooth finish, precise craftsmanship, and elegance of late New Kingdom art.

Mesopotamia

The "land between the rivers," Mesopotamia, had a much less stable society than Egypt and lacked Egypt's vast amounts of stone for monumental sculpture. Its cities were often destroyed by floods and invading armies.

The earliest examples of sculpture in this region were formed of light materials: baked and unbaked clay, wood or combinations of wood, shells, and gold leaf. A group of stone figures from Tell Asmar depicts gods, priests, and worshipers in a way very different from Egyptian sculpture. These figures are cone-shaped, with flaring skirts, small heads, huge, beaklike noses, and large, staring eyes.

Stone sculpture from such heavily fortified city palaces as Nineveh, Nimrud, and Khorsabad reveal the aggressive, warlike character of later (10th-century B.C.) conquerors of this region, the Assyrians. At the entrances of their palaces the Assyrians placed huge symbols of the king's might and majesty in the form of colossal guardian monsters--five-legged, winged bulls with human heads. Slabs of stone carved in relief with scenes of hunts, battles, victory banquets, and ceremonial rituals were placed along the lower walls inside the palaces.

A greater lightness and brilliance can be seen in a still later center of this region, Babylon. The Babylonians used brightly colored tiles in their reliefs.

Persian conquerors who occupied Babylon in the 6th century B.C. brought with them a tradition of fine craftsmanship. This skill persisted as they continued creating superb designs in bronze and gold. Sometimes the designs are purely abstract ornamental patterns; sometimes they are animal forms freely shaped into graceful figures. Relief sculpture from the great palace of Darius at Persepolis (begun about 520 B.C.) retains some Assyrian features. The figures have heads with tightly curled hair and beards. Flat areas bounded by sharply cut lines contrast with richly patterned ones. The figures in this sculpture are softly curved and rounded; draperies are fine and light.

The easy, natural movements of these figures marching in stately procession along the walls of the palace at Persepolis may well reflect qualities of the most original sculptors of the era (6th century B.C.), the Greeks.

Aegean Civilization
 
Just a few examples of sculpture remain from the colorful Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. Ivory and terra-cotta; small statuettes of snake goddesses, priestesses, and acrobats; and cups with such scenes in relief as a bull being caught in a net or harvesters returning from the fields give lively suggestions of Minoans in action.

Just a few examples of sculpture remain from the colorful Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. Ivory and terra-cotta; small statuettes of snake goddesses, priestesses, and acrobats; and cups with such scenes in relief as a bull being caught in a net or harvesters returning from the fields give lively suggestions of Minoans in action.

Power passed from Crete to the mainland, but little sculpture from such sites as Tiryns or Mycenae has been found. The Lion Gate at Mycenae (about 1250 B.C.), with its two massive beasts guarding the entrance to the fortified city, is an exceptional monumental sculpture from this time. The beaten-gold mask of Agamemnon is memorable for its suggestion of the great heroes of Homeric legends. The mask was found buried with golden cups, daggers, breastplates, and other objects in the tombs and shaft graves of Mycenae.

Greek Sculpture

Around 600 B.C., Greece developed one of the great civilizations in the history of the world. Sculpture became one of the most important forms of expression for the Greeks.

The Greek belief that "man is the measure of all things" is nowhere more clearly shown than in Greek sculpture. The human figure was the principal subject of all Greek art. Beginning in the late 7th century B.C., sculptors in Greece constantly sought better ways to represent the human figure.

The Greeks developed a standing figure of a nude male, called the Kouros or Apollo. The Kouros served to depict gods and heroes. The Kore, or standing figure of a draped female, was more graceful and was used to portray maidens and goddesses. The winged female figure, or Nike, became the personification of victory.

The fact that Greek sculptors concentrated their energies on a limited number of problems may have helped bring about the rapid changes that occurred in Greek sculpture between the 7th century and the late 4th century B.C. The change from abstraction to naturalism, from simple figures to realistic ones, took place during this period. Later figures have normal proportions and stand or sit easily in perfectly balanced poses.

Historians have adopted a special set of terms to suggest the main changes in the development of Greek sculpture and of Greek art in general. The early, or Archaic, phase lasted about 150 years, from 625 to 480 B.C. A short interval called Early Classical or Severe, from 480 to 450 B.C., was followed by a half century of Classical sculpture. Late Classical indicates Greek art produced between 400 and 323 B.C., and Hellenistic art was made from 323 to 146 B.C.

The most important function of Greek sculpture was to honor gods and goddesses. Statues were placed in temples or were carved as part of a temple. Greek temples were shrines created to preserve the images of the gods. The people worshiped outdoors.

Greek sculpture changed with Greek civilization. Praxiteles' Hermes is slimmer and more elegant than the strong, vigorous SpearBearer, by Polykleitos. Figures by Skopas from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus are harsher and more dramatic than the quiet, controlled figures by Phidias.

Hellenistic sculptors emphasized the human figure. They reflected the great changes in their world when they treated in new ways subjects traditionally favored by earlier Greek sculptors. A new interest developed in the phases of life, from childhood to extreme old age. Sculptors described their figures in as natural and exact a way as possible. An ill old woman hobbles painfully back from the market; a little boy almost squeezes a poor goose to death.

The Greeks were defeated by the Romans, but the Hellenistic style lasted for centuries. Greek sculpture survived because the Romans were greatly impressed by Greek art. From the early days of the republic, Romans imported examples of Greek art, ordered copies of famous Greek works, and commissioned Greek sculptors to do Roman subjects.

Etruscan and Roman Sculpture

Greek sculpture and Greek art had been exported to Italy long before Romans ruled the land. By the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. the Etruscans were firmly settled in Italy. Hundreds of objects have been and are still being found in vast Etruscan cemeteries. Some of the sculpture and many vases are Greek, while others are lively Etruscan translations of Greek forms. Many small bronze figures of farmers, warriors, or gods show the great talents of the Etruscans as metalworkers and sculptors.

Rome profited from the double artistic inheritance of Greek and Etruscan sculpture. The inventiveness of Roman sculptors added to this heritage. The most important contributions of the Roman sculptors were portraits.

The development of Roman sculpture was the reverse of that of Greek sculpture. Instead of progressing from fairly simple, abstract forms to more natural and realistic statues, Roman sculpture, once realistic, became far more simple and abstract.

 

Early Christian Sculpture

Early Christian sculpture resembled the art of Rome. Sarcophagi (burial chests) found in Italy are all Roman in type, although they are given a special meaning by subjects, signs, or symbols important for Christians.

Sculpture, however, was not a natural form of expression for the early Christians. This was because one of the Ten Commandments forbids the making of graven (carved) images. Many early Christians interpreted this commandment, just as the Hebrews had, to mean that it was wrong to make any images of the human figure. Eventually church authorities decided that art could serve Christianity. It was only the making of idols (false gods) that was regarded as a breach of the commandment.

In the 5th century A.D. the western half of the Roman Empire fell to invading Germanic tribes from northern and central Europe. These peoples soon became Christians and spread the religion throughout Europe. Unlike the Romans, the Germanic peoples had no tradition of human representation in art. Their art consisted mainly of complex patterns and shapes used for decoration. It influenced Christian art as much as Greco-Roman art did.

There are relatively few examples of sculpture made in the first 1,000 years of Christianity. Among these rare examples are portable altars, reliquaries (containers for the remains of Christian saints and martyrs), chalices, and other objects used in the services of Christian worship. These were shaped with great care and were often made of precious materials. Sculptors used the fragile and lovely medium of ivory in many ways. They carved it in relief for small altars or as covers for the Gospels, the Bible, or prayerbooks. Small, freestanding figures represented the Madonna and the Christ Child, angels, or Christian saints.

Romanesque Sculpture

A new and brilliant chapter in Christian art began after the year 1000. For the next three centuries sculptors, architects, masons, carpenters, and hundreds of other craftsmen created some of the most impressive Christian churches ever built.

These artists worked on a bolder and larger scale than had been possible for hundreds of years. For their ideas they looked to the best examples of great structures they knew—Roman buildings. The term "Romanesque" suggests the Roman qualities of the art of the 11th and 12th centuries. Important changes were made by these later artists. German Romanesque churches differ from Italian ones, and Spanish from French ones. Ideas of carving, building, and painting circulated freely, for people often went on pilgrimages to worship at sacred sites in different countries.

An early 11th century example of Romanesque sculpture shows the way Roman ideas were translated. The bronze doors of the Cathedral of Hildesheim have ten panels with scenes from the Bible. The placing, purpose, and arrangement of these large doors clearly recall the 5th-century doors of Santa Sabina in Rome. But the details are different. Small figures twist and turn freely. Their heads and hands are enlarged and stand out from the surface of the relief.

Gothic Sculpture

Sculpture after the 12th century gradually changed from the clear, concentrated abstractions of Romanesque art to a more natural and lifelike appearance. Human figures shown in natural proportions were carved in high relief on church columns and portals.

As Gothic sculptors became more skilled, they also gained greater freedom and independence. Later Gothic figures are depicted much more realistically than those made during the Romanesque and earlier Gothic periods. The faces of the statues have expression, and their garments are draped in a natural way. Hundreds of carvings in the great Gothic cathedrals all over Western Europe presented aspects of the Christian faith in terms that every Christian could understand.

The great era of building drew to a close by the early 14th century. A series of wars and crises prevented the building of anything more than small chapels and a few additions to earlier structures. One finds only small statuettes and objects, used for private devotions, instead of the great programs of monumental sculpture that in the 13th century had enriched such cathedrals as those at Amiens, Paris, Rheims, Wells, Burgos, and Strasbourg.

Renaissance Sculpture

Jutting into the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian peninsula, at the crossroads of several worlds, had been the heart of the Roman Empire. Rome was the center of the western Christian world. Later, northeastern Italy--especially Venice--became the gateway to the Near East and the Orient. Italian artists never completely accepted the Gothic styles that dominated art in Western Europe. The reason is that Italian artists were surrounded by the remains of the Classical Age and exposed to the Eastern influence of Byzantine art. (The article Byzantine Art and Architecture can be found in this encyclopedia.)

As early as the 13th century the Italians planted the seeds of a new age: the Renaissance. Although the elements of medieval and Byzantine art contributed a great deal to the formation of Renaissance sculpture, Italian artists were interested in reviving the classical approach to art. ("Renaissance" means "rebirth.")

The most significant change in art that occurred in the Renaissance was the new emphasis on glorifying the human figure. No longer was sculpture to deal only with idealized saints and angels; sculpted figures began to look more lifelike.

The relief sculpture of Nicola Pisano (1220-84) forecast the new age. In the late 13th century Pisano carved nude male figures on a church pulpit. (The nude figure had not been used in sculpture since the fall of Rome.) Although Pisano obviously tried to copy the heroic figures of classical art, he knew little about human anatomy, and his work was still proportioned like Byzantine and medieval sculpture.

By the early 15th century the Renaissance was well under way. The sculptor Donatello created the first freestanding nude since classical times, a bronze figure of David. Donatello clearly understood the whole anatomy of the figure so well that he could present the young biblical hero with an ease and assurance. By the early 16th century the sculptural heritage of another Florentine, the great painter and sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti, was such that his version of David is almost superhuman in its force and strength.

Donatello and his contemporaries Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) and Jacopo della Quercia (1378?-1438) made themselves the masters of both the freestanding human figure and sculpture in relief. Jacopo's stone panels at San Petronio, Bologna, are powerful and emotional. Ghiberti's famous bronze doors of the Baptistery in Florence show his control of the science of perspective and his masterful handling of the human figure.

A host of sculptors worked with these men and, in turn, trained younger sculptors. Their individual talents varied, and these were applied to a number of different sculptural problems. Christian themes continued to be important, but in addition, fountains, portraits, tombs, equestrian statues, and subjects from classical mythology were all created to meet a lively demand. Luca della Robbia (1400?-82) and others developed a new medium--glazed terra-cotta. It was a popular and attractive substitute for the more expensive marble.

Michelangelo unquestionably became the dominant figure in 16th-century sculpture, and he is thought by many people to be the greatest single figure in the history of art. All his sculpture, from the early, beautifully finished Pietà to the tragic fragment the Rondanini Pietà, left unfinished at his death, was made with skill and power. Michelangelo's contemporaries and the sculptors who lived in later years in Italy and elsewhere developed a more elegant, decorative style, relying on a smooth, precise finish and complex, elaborate designs. This style was called mannerism.

Baroque Sculpture

Sculptors in the 17th century continued to deal with the same wide variety of sculptural problems as their Renaissance predecessors, using the human figure as a form of expression. They reacted, however, against the mannerism of late 16th century sculptors. They worked instead for a return to the greater strength of Michelangelo and the energy and agility of 15th-century sculpture.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was, like Michelangelo, a gifted artist. In a long and productive career, he easily became the dominating figure in his own country and one of the major artists in Europe during a brilliant, creative period. Bernini's David reveals his admiration for Michelangelo and his own originality. It has the largeness and strength of Michelangelo's David but is a much more active and less tragic figure. Bernini's figures stand in dramatic poses--as though they were actors on a stage, reaching out to the observer. As a result, we feel drawn toward them and their grace.

Rococo Sculpture

The basic qualities of 17th-century art were carried forward into the 18th century but were transformed for the taste of a different generation. The term "rococo" suggests the preference for gayer, lighter, and more decorative effects in sculpture and in all the arts.

Jean Baptiste Pigalle (1714-85) and Étienne Maurice Falconet (1716-91) show the same technical dexterity as Bernini, but their figures are slight and cheerful. The skill revealed in their delicate work, with its tiny, sweetly shaped figures and graceful movement, represents a marked change from the strong, religious intensity of Bernini's work.

Statuettes and statues of small groups were designed as pleasant and often witty additions to lovely rooms. The individual talents of the sculptors and their joint efforts created an ornamental effect. The same brilliance and skill also created a group of superbly beautiful churches in southern Germany.

 

Neoclassic and Romantic Sculpture

The pendulum of taste swung in a new direction in the late 18th century while Clodion (1738-1814) and other rococo sculptors were still active. This direction, called neoclassic to describe the deliberate return to classical subject matter and style, lasted in strength for nearly a century. The change can be seen in the work of the distinguished sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). His statue of George Washington could be compared to a portrait of a Roman emperor.

The most commanding figure of neoclassical sculpture was the Italian Antonio Canova (1757-1822). Canova was a favorite of the kings and noblemen of Europe. His specialty was the monument in which a statesman or other important figure was dressed in the robes and garlands of classical figures. Canova frankly imitated antique sculptors. His Perseus and The Pugilists are exhibited in the Vatican with ancient classical sculpture.

During the 19th century many sculptors rebelled against the neoclassical tradition. They wanted their works of art to say something, to express an idea or a feeling. They wanted to copy nature, not the works of other sculptors. François Rude (1784-1855) was one of the first to react against the coldness of the neoclassical style.

An intensity of emotion brings to life the work of Antoine Louis Barye (1795-1875). Jaguar Devouring a Hare is an exciting scene of conflict and violent struggle.

 

Rodin

Although the Romantic movement was growing, many artists still preferred to work in the classical tradition followed in the academies. In the 1860's a young sculptor named Auguste Rodin was turned away three times from the École des Beaux-Arts, the academy in Paris. By the end of the century he was the most famous sculptor in France and throughout most of Europe.

Although Rodin sought to copy nature, he used many new techniques. Both the hollows and raised portions of a surface were important to Rodin. He experimented with the effects of light on the surface of forms, just as the impressionists were doing in painting. He carved figures in shadow or emerging from an unfinished block. Whether he praised the homely courage of the subjects in Burghers of Calais or the lovers in The Kiss—their heads enshadowed—Rodin suggested the natural, unposed moments in life.

20th-Century Sculpture

The 20th century was an age of experimentation with new ideas, new styles, and new materials. Studies of the human figure gave way to new subjects: dreams, ideas, emotions, and studies of form and space. Plastic, chromium, and welded steel were used, as well as boxes, broken automobile parts, and pieces of old furniture.

Twentieth-century sculptors owed a great debt to Rodin. His tremendous output and variety inspired a new generation of sculptors to express new thoughts in an art form that had been repeating old ideas for 200 years. Although Rodin's successors tended to move away from both his realism and his literary subjects, his innovations had an important influence. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) rejected Rodin's rough surfaces. The smooth figures of Maillol's stone and bronze works seem to rest in calm repose.

As artists of the Renaissance had used the rediscovered works of classical Greece and Rome for inspiration, artists of the 20th century looked to the simple and powerful forms of the primitive African and Oceanic art. Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919), the German sculptor, began under the influence of Maillol. Later Lehmbruck distorted his figures by making them unnaturally long in the manner of primitive art. The faces of Women, by Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), suggest the sculpture of ancient India. The round, solid, and massive bodies seem to symbolize the vitality of womanhood.

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a Romanian who worked mostly in Paris, combined Romanian folk traditions with the simplicity of African wood carving and Oriental sculpture. Brancusi sought absolute simplicity of form and purity of meaning. This simplicity and purity is found in such works as New-Born and Bird in Space.

Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest sculptors as well as perhaps the greatest painter of the 20th century, saw another quality in primitive art. In the simplicity of forms he saw that objects of nature are not necessarily solid masses but are made up of circles, squares, triangles, and cubes. This led to a style called cubism, which was developed by Picasso and Georges Braque. Picasso's Head of a Woman (1909) is one of the first cubist sculptures. In it Picasso divided the surface of a head into many different planes.

With Picasso and Brancusi, Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) was one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century. His powerful bronze forms show his understanding of cubism and the simple strength of African art, as well as all the other movements in 20th-century art.

As World War I began, the atmosphere in Europe was anxious. Some artists reflected the tensions of the uneasy times in a new form of art called dada--meaningless, representing nothing, and opposed to all other art. "Found objects" and household items, such as the sinks and hangers of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), were exhibited as sculpture. At the same time, a group of Italian artists called futurists were excited by the pace of the machine age. Their sculpture showed objects in motion. Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was a leading futurist.

After World War I, the movement called surrealism developed. Many artists who had been cubists or dadaists became surrealists. The work of Jean Arp (1887-1966), with its fanciful forms that seem to float in space, belongs to this movement.

During the 1920's and 1930's, the constructivists built rather than carved or modeled their sculptures. The beauty of pure form and space excited them. The Russian brothers Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962) used blades of metal and plastic to achieve an effect of lightness and transparency. Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942) introduced the use of forged iron. The tremendous influence of his technique is seen particularly in the work of Picasso, a student of Gonzalez in the technique of welding.

As modern sculpture developed, it became more and more individualistic, although it still showed its debt to the past. The long, thin figures of Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) seem to wander alone in a world without boundaries. Alexander Calder (1898-1976) created moving sculptures called mobiles and stationary ones called stabiles. The wire and metal-strip constructions made by Richard Lippold (1915-2002) evoke a feeling of delicate lightness. The steel geometric sculptures of David Smith (1906-65) have a sense of balance and order that pleases the eye.

In the 1960's and 1970's, still more new styles developed. Some artists chose to portray subjects from the everyday world around them—the Brillo boxes and soup cans of Andy Warhol (1928-87), the surrealist boxes of Joseph Cornell (1903-72), the plaster hamburgers and "soft typewriters" of Claes Oldenburg (1929-). Others combined painting, sculpture, and "found objects," as in the work of Marisol Escobar (1930-). George Segal (1924-2000) used plaster casts of human figures in everyday poses. Louise Nevelson (1900-88) combined small units of metal and wood (often table and chair legs, bed posts) into huge structures that she called "environments." Sculptors like Barnett Newman (1905-70) and Tony Smith (1912-80) created massive pieces that are often shown outdoors. Some sculpture not only moves but is run by computer.

One dominant figure in the world of sculpture, Henry Moore (1898-1986), used traditional materials (wood, bronze, and stone) in exploring traditional problems of sculpture such as the seated figure and the reclining figure. He believed that the space shapes created by a sculpture are as important to its design as the solid forms, and he often put holes or openings in his sculptures. Moore also contrasted light and dark by curving his bronze figures inward and outward.

Form and space, reality, emotion, and perfect beauty are the interests of artists in all centuries. The 20th century only gave them new shape.

Eleanor Dodge Barton
Formerly, University of Hartford

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