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Over the Line

The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

May 27-August 19, 2001

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

November 8, 2001-February 3, 2002

The Detroit Institute of Arts

February 24-May 19, 2002

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

June 16-September 8, 2002

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

October 5, 2002-January 5, 2003

Catalogue edited with an introduction by Peter T. Nesbett, founder and director of the Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, and Michelle DuBois with essays by Patricia Hills, Paul J. Karlstrom, Leslie King-Hammond, Lizzeta LeFalle-Collins, Richard J. Powell, Lowery Stokes Sims, Elizabeth Steele and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London in association with Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle and New York, 2002, 336 pages, $40.

"The Shoemaker" by Jacob Lawrence

"The Shoemaker," by Jacob Lawrence, gouache and watercolor on paper, 22 5/8 by 30 7/8 inches, 1945, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, George A. Hearn Fund, 1946

By Carter B. Horsley

Jacob Lawrence, who died June 9, 2000 at the age of 82, was one of America's greatest 20th Century artists with a spectacular flair for composition and social comment.

His brightly colored works are a blend of realism and abstraction and have a kindred spirit with the oeuvres of Stuart Davis and Ben Shahn, but his inventive eye places him with Monet in the pantheon of those artists gifted with infinite riches of compositional creativity.

In their introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Peter T. Nesbett, founder and director of the Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, and Michelle DuBois, observe that Lawrence "is an iconic figure, one of the great modern painters of the twentieth century, a distinction he earned early in his career when he gained widespread recognition for the narrative painting series, 'The Migration of the Negro in 1941.'"

"He has walked a careful line between abstract and figurative art," they wrote, "using aesthetic values for social ends. His success at balancing such seemingly irreconcilable aspects of art is a fundamental characteristic of his long and distinguished career. Lawrence is one of the first American artists trained in and by the black community in Harlem, and it was from the people of Harlem that he initially obtained professional recognition. He was also the first African American artist to receive sustained support from mainstream art museums and patronage outside of the black community during an era of legalized and institutionalized segregation. In 1941, at the age of twenty-four, Lawrence joined the Downtown Gallery, becoming the first artist of African descent to be represented by a major commercial art gallery. There he exhibited alongside such established modernists as Stuart Davis, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Ben Shahn, all of whom later became close friends. For over sixty years and with intentionally limited means (water-based paints on boards or paper), he has harnessed the seductive power of semi-abstract forms to address many of the great social and philosophical themes of the twentieth century, especially as they pertain to the lives and histories of African Americans: migration, manual labor, war, family values, education, mental health, and creativity. He made visible a side of American history that includes the contributions of African Americans; has presented scenes of daily life that provide a compassionate counterpoint to stereotypical images of African Americans; and painted poignant social commentary on the effects of racism and bigotry in American culture."

There are numerous other fine African-American painters such Romare Bearden, Horace Pippin, Robert Gwathmey, Robert Duncanson, and Osawa Tanner. While the African-American experiences and history make up much of the subject matter of Lawrence's oeuvre, a preoccupation with the importance of racial interests takes much away from a full appreciation of his art, which transcends its important subject matter and is not limited by it. It is a bit unfortunate that his materials were so inexpensive as they also tend to distract a viewer from his always powerful and dynamic imagery. While there is no question that Lawrence was a great "black" artist, he was, more importantly, a great artist. While Lawrence unquestionably was very focused on black concerns and issues and his oeuvre is very important in its social statements, it wrongly marginalizes his powerful artistic talents to view him merely as an ethnic artist.

Jacob Lawrence Jr. was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917. Lawrence's mother and her children moved to Philadelphia in 1924. She moved to New York City in 1927, but her children stayed in foster homes in Philadelphia until 1930 when they joined their mother in Harlem in an apartment at 142 West 143rd Street. Lawrence attended PS 68 and the Frederick Douglass Junior High School and after school he studied arts and crafts with Charles "Spinky" Alston at the Utopia Children's House at 170 West 130th Street. In 1932, Lawrence attended the High School of Commerce and continueed to study with Alston at the WPA Harlem Art Workshop in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library and then at 306 West 141st Street and from 1934 to 1940 he rented space in Alston's studio. In 1934 he dropped out of school and delivers newspapers and liquor and works for a printing shop. The next year he meets Charles Seifert, a lecturer and historian who encourages him to make use of the Arthur Schomburg collection at the New York Public Library and visits museums with him and sees Afrian Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art and he begins painting Harlem scenes using commercial tempera (poster) paints on lightweight brown paper.

In 1936, Lawrence works for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) near Middletown, New York and watches Alston painted Magic and Medicine, a WPA mural installed in 1937 at the Harlem Hospital.

In 1938, Lawrence completes his first series, The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a group of 41 paintings about the establishment of the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere in Haiti. In 1937, he obtains a two-year scholarship to the American Artists School at 131 West 14th Street, an organization that the catalogue notes was "organized by the John Reed Club, a Communist organization." He applies to the WPA Federal Art Project but is rejected because of its age requirements. In 1938, he begins a series on the life of Frederick Douglass, the Maryland slave turned abolitionist, speaker and writer and is hired by the easel division of the WPA Federal Art Project. The Douglass series of 39 paintings is completed in 1939 and he gives it to the Harmon Foundation as collateral against a loan of approximately $100 and he begins work on a series about Harriet Tubman, a former slave who became an abolitionist and an important figure in the Underground Railroad. In 1938, Lawrence has a solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA sponsored by the James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild and he also exhibits in the Twenty-one NYC Negro Artists at the Harlem Community Center. In 1939, Lawrence exhibits with Samuel Wechsler at the American Artists School and ARTnews notes that his "style is easy to call primitive but closer inspection reveals draughtsmanship too accomplished to be called naïve." The Toussaint series is shown as part of the Contemporary Negro Art show at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Newsweek singles it out as a "discovery." The series is then shown at the De Porres Interracial Council headquarters on Vesey Street in New York and he is praised by Alain Locke in Opportunity magazine as an "intuitive genius."

In 1940 Lawrence wins second prize at Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro, 1851-1940 at the American Negro Exhibition in Chicago and the Toussaint series is shown at Columbia University. Also in 1940, Lawrence gets a $1,500 fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund to do a series on "the great Negro migration during the World War" and his application is accompanied by recommendations by Alain Locke, Lincoln Kirsten, Helen Grayson and Carl Zigrosser. In 1940 he moves to 33 West 125th Street, a building where Romare Bearden also has a studio.


"Home Chores" by Jacob Lawrence

"Home Chores," by Jacob Lawrence, gouache on paper, 29 1/2 by 21 1/16 inches, 1945, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, anonymous gift

The next year, he works on 60 panels of the Migration series simultaneously, completing them with the assistance of Gwendolyn Knight, an artist who prepares the gesso panels and helps write the captions and he marries her and soon joins the Downtown Gallery where he exhibits regularly until 1953. The Migration is shown at the Downtown Gallery and Fortune magazine publishes 26 of the panels. In 1942, Adele Rosenwald Levy purchases the even-numbered works in the Migration series for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Duncan Phillips agrees to exhibit the entire series at his Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C., and he purchases the remaining 30 panels. Also in 1942, he is a summer art instructor at Wo-Chi-Ca (Workers Children's Camp) in Port Murray, New Jersey, a camp loosely affiliated with the IWO (International Workers Organization), a Communist organization. According to the catalogue, Lawrence "is recruited to join the Communist Party but never does."

In 1943, Lawrence is inducted into the U. S. Coast Guard and the next year he is assigned to the USS Sea Cloud, a weather patrol boat and the first racially integrated ship in U.S. naval history. His paintings of the Coast Guard are shown at the Museum of Modern Art in October, 1944. In 1946, he teaches at the summer session at the Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C., at the invitation of Josef Albers, who, the catalogue notes, "hires a private train car to transport the Lawrences to and from Asheville so they need not move to the 'colored' section of the train at the Mason-Dixon Line." In 1947, Walker Evans of Fortune magazine commissions him to do paintings of Negro Life in the South. In 1948, Lawrence voluntarily enters Hillside Hospital in Queens for depression and Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery contributes to his medical expenses. He stays at the hospital for almost a year.

In 1953, Halpert decides to create a new gallery, the Alan Gallery, that will represent the work of the Downtown Gallery's younger artists such as Lawrence and Jack Levine, but Lawrence is unhappy with the arrangement and when four years later the Alan Gallery "restructures" itself, Lawrence is no longer represented by it, but that same year, 1957, he serves as president of the New York chapter of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1958, he joins the faculty of Pratt Institute where he stays until 1960 when he is given a retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1962, he joins the stable of the Terry Dintenfass Gallery "through the encouragement of Robert Gwathmey and Philip Evergood, and the following year serves as president of the artists' committee of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1965 he works as artist-in-residence at Brandeis University at the invitation of Mitchell Siporin, an artist with whom he had exhibited at the Downtown Gallery.

In 1974, Lawrence has a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Milton Brown wrote in a catalogue essay that Lawrence was "the first wholly authentic voice of the Black experience in the plastic arts," adding that "he avoided the appearance of sophistication, though his use of 'expressionist' distortion would indicate an awareness of modern art forms."

In 1976, Lawrence is a co-founder of the Rainbow Art Foundation with Romare Bearden, Willem de Kooning and Bill Caldwell to assist young printmarkers and artists whose art is seldom seen including the work of "indians, eskimos, asians, hispanics, and blacks."

Lawrence is exhibited regularly and makes murals for the Joseph R. Addabbo Federal Building in Queens and the Orlando International Airport and the Times Square subway station. In 1990, President Bush awards him the National Medal of Arts. Three years later, Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine observes that Lawrence's Migration series, then on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, is "of far greater power than almost all the acreage of WPA murals that preceded them in the 1930s."

In her catalogue essay, "Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown, Jacob Lawrence and the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-Class Community," Leslie King-Hammond quotes Charles Alston as stating of Lawrence that "there was always something very simple and direct about is approach." She quotes Lawrence that "Our homes were very decorative, full of pattern, like inexpensive throw rugs. It must have had some influence, all this color and everything. Because we were so poor the people used this as a means of brightening their life. I used to do bright patterns after these throw rugs; I got ideas from them, the arabesques, the movement and so on."

"Lawrence's emphasis on Harlem as the primary subject matter in his nonserial paintings of the late 1930's and early 1940s," King-Hammond wrote, "is distinct from the art of many of his colleagues and mentors at the time. Whereas Lawrence drew thematic inspiration from his immediate environment, many other artists crated images that strongly recalled their lives and experiences in the south. Figurative imagery was important to African American artists and their communities who longed for a representation that would honor their likeness. However, the lure of abstraction and the question of modernism charged the intellect of artists like Norman Lewis, whose Umbrella tests abstraction's potential to convey modernist interpretations of African American life. Alston, [Ernest] Crichlow, Lewis, and Lawrence worked closely during the years of the 1930s and acted as mutual catalytic forces on each other's lives and art. From this small sample of images - all produced in Harlem in the 1930s - it is clear that no two artists in Harlem worked in the same style. The diversity of styles and approaches available gave the artists freedom to express themselves individually while having the support and admiration of their peers."

(The catalogue produces lithographs by Alston, Crichlow and Lewis that clearly indicate that those artists are very worthy of more attention and exposure.)

King-Hammond points out that "pivotal to the success of the [Migration] series were the complementary texts that accompanied each panel," adding that "Because looking at art was new to the New Negroes, Lawrence tried, through the text panels, to underscore the message of his art and to validate his viewers' newly found sense of literacy."


"Woman with Veil" by Jacob Lawrence

"Woman with Veil," by Jacob Lawrence, tempera on brown paper, 17 by 13 1/2 inches, 1937, The Walker O. Evans Collection of African American Art

Surprisingly few artists have devoted much of their careers to large narrative series of paintings, meant to be seen as an ensemble, as opposed to a thematic series of independent works. Lawrence is certainly the foremost American artist to have produced several important narrative series and surely he was influenced to an extent by the popularity of the Mexican muralists whose work inspired many artists of the WPA period when large-scale public works required grandiloquent, if not grandiose, visions.

"The sounds and music of the jazz age were not lost on Lawrence as he incorporated the aural elements of rhythms, breaks, and changes into the visual polyphony of Harlem's environment, people and culture. Technically, his work in the medium of gouache became more sophisticated through the assistance of Romare Bearden, who had a studio in the same building and who also shared a love of Harlem and jazz," King-Hammond observed.

In her catalogue essay, "The Education of Jacob Lawrence," Elizabeth Hutton Turner notes that Frank Lloyd Wright once observed that Lawrence "would make a good architect" and that early in his artistic training Lawrence "began making pictures inside card-board shipping cartons." "Lawrence did not keep the boxes, but he has described them. They were, as he said, 'places where I had lived.' He did not conceive of them as replicas - like ships in a bottle. Rather, they were arrangements. He said that he filled the boxes as one would design for the stage, though, in his words, 'I didn't know about theatre at the time.' The idea of people on a platform posing or performing like players would be carried over to such paintings as Lawrence's migrants and builders themes. Lawrence has confirmed that he did indeed discover an analogue to painting while working within the present geometry of the boxes. 'They were just like any two-dimensional painting - only they were three-dimensional,' he said."

"Tie Rack" by Jacob Lawrence
"Tie Rack," by Jacob Lawrence, egg tempera on hardboard, 29 3/4 by 19 1/4 inches, 1951, The Thompson Collection

"In creating his earliest cycles," Turner wrote, "Lawrence first wrote captions and completed sketches (sometimes as many as ten to twenty) for each scene. Lawrence's first question, in fact, when he met [José Clemente] Orozco making a mural in New York in 1940 was, 'Where's your sketch, where's your detail?' Orozco told Lawrence that he did not need one. By 1941 Lawrence would eliminate the separate step of sketching on paper by drawing directly on his same-sized gessoed panels of hardboard. He created rhythms of horizontal and vertical panels as he laid out the narrative sequence. As [Diego] Rivera said, 'The subject is to the painter what the rails are to a locomotive.' Set down like a track on his studio floor, the thirty to sixty panels of a given cycle could be seen together and, most important, painted all at once. Lawrence painted color by color, building up pattern and, in so doing, buttressing dark to light. His choice of colors - black and burnt umber moving to cadmium orange and yellow - achieves an overall decorative unity and consistency in The Migration of the Negro series, for example. Conceived as image and word, the poetry of Lawrence's cycles emerges from the repetition of certain shapes. The enlarged single spike or nail, the links of chains, o lattice, the hand and hammer serve as refrains in the lives, the decisions, the struggle of African Americans in the face of injustice."

In her essay, "The Critical Context of Jacob Lawrence's Early Works, 1938-1952," Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins provides the following commentary:

"Lawrence began his career during the waning years of the Harlem Renaissance, an outgrowth of modernism, when primitivism was current in the minds of an intellectual world that also included blacks. Harlem, and its performers and artists who utilized and visually portrayed black folk idioms, was perceived as exotic. Cabaret acts featuring black performers who performed a black popular repertoire and even sacred songs were sought as entertainment, in this country and abroad, for largely white audiences. Second only to American Indians, black people were valued in the white American consciousness and culture only for their so-called primitive qualities. Although Lawrence was too young to be considered an artist of the Harlem Renaissance, he and many black artists of the time were met by a critical reception that perpetuated such ideas. They faced a dilemma as they concentrated on presenting their new modern black communities and especially nationalistic folk themes. If not modern - and they could not be that completely in the eyes of white modernists - the Negroness expressed in their literature and art was perceived as primitive by their white audiences. For members of an art world that delved into the primitive only as voyeurs, Lawrence perfectly fit the white notion of a black artist. He was not privileged but poor; he was not light-skinned like his mentors but very black; he was not university-trained but was characterized as self-taught. Writing about The Migration of the Negro series in the New York Sun in 1941, Henry McBride remarked, 'there is little in Lawrence's work that departs from this saga of sadness. Its appeal lies in the fact that in his emotional reactions to it he has really gone native - has preserved the Negro's instinct for rhythm and love for crude brilliant colors which he handles with unfailing decorative felicity.' When he produced the Tubman and Douglass series, these heroes were not yet well known outside African American communities. His introduction of these characters into art thus also introduced them to many Americans, and it called for a bold style. In the Tubman paintings, for instance, Lawrence shows Tubman's strength through her physical stature: broad, square shoulders, large blocklike hands, and arms that work like machines. The artist often stretched this figure beyond the confines of the frame, expanding the viewer's scope. Lawrence used this abstract pictorial device in other works, especially those that focused on manual labor, such as the gouache on paper The Shoemaker. When The Life of John Brown was first exhibited in 1945, Lawrence's work - often compared to cartoon and poster work - was viewed as stylistically similar to that of such other American artists as Milton Avery. With this series critics began to cast a more critical eye on Lawrence's compositional designs."

Following his stay at Hillside Hospital, critics noted that Lawrence's work became more sophisticated and subtle with a more varied palette.

In his catalogue essay, "Harmonizer of Chaos, Jacob Lawrence at Midcentury," Richard J. Powell minimizes Lawrence's hospitalization and analyzes his evolving styles.

"No longer wedded to pictorial storytelling or sequential visual narration, by the 1950s Lawrence had introduced into his work a heightened compositional dynamism, bold geometries, and thematic ambiguity. This shift is important, for it removed him from the social realist painters and their emphasis on sociopolitical redress in art and, instead, pushed him closer to the abstractionists and their preoccupations with intellectual interiority and open-ended interpretations. Not abstract by any stretch of the imagination nor part of the roster of 'modernist' art masterpieces as formulated by the critic Clement Greenberg, Lawrence's new paintings - figurative and anecdotal, but also decorative and frenetic - put him in league with many other midcentury American artist and intellectuals. These writers (e. g., William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg), musicians (e.g., Ornette Coleman and John Cage), and visual artists (e.g., Larry Rivers and Jasper Johns) often sought refuge in intentionally vague, indeterminate art vocabularies: devices and languages that, although unresponsive to the particulars of a social reality, performed on the fringes of contemporary life and employed elements of abstraction as a way, ironically, of restoring some semblance of meaning and order to a decidedly disaffected body politic. Although it is more the custom to view Jacob Lawrence's art as essentially humanitarian and stylistically conservative, a closer look at work he produced during the 1950s reveals abrupt stylistic departures from earlier formulas, subtle yet stinging observations about life, and a compositional armature that defied the standard, representational conventions."

Powell analyses several specific paintings and notes that Lawrence's work begins to convey "an existential blackness that was incidentially 'colored'" rather than blatant "heralding race consciousness." Powell also observes that Lawrence begins to "compose in a manner similar to that of many abstract painters [and] one stylistic stream of painterly abstraction - specifically the investigation of anthropomorphic, glyphic, and 'all-over' forms - was of growing fascination to him."

"In the Garden" by Jacob Lawrence
"In the Garden," by Jacob Lawrence, casein tempera on paper, 22 3/16 by 30 1/16 inches, 1950, private collection

Powell provides the following commentary on "In the Garden," shown above, a 1950 casein tempera on paper, 22 3/16 by 30 1/16 inches, which is in a private collection and one of the most striking works in the exhibition:

"Couched within the painting's humanistic themes are swaying and bending plant stems, flying saucer-like blossoms, arabesque vegetation, and miniscule insects buzzing overhead and crawling underfoot, which collectively contribute to a discordant mood and the emotionally charged subject. More than just establishing In the Garden's outdoor setting, these organic elements, rendered with equal measures of verisimilitude and license, impart a primordial energy and life force that, ironically, counters the painting's 'work therapy' subject and an assumed drudge-like and/or institutional subtext. As with the works of many abstract artists, Lawrence's painted and drawn lines - at times undulating, or other times staccato - can be interpreted not solely in terms of what they represent but, rather, in terms of their implied dynamism and space/time expressivity; concepts that, in the context of the narrational concerns of the hospital pictures, shift the painting's emotional terrain from depression and convalescence to spiritedness and performance."

This painting is one of Lawrence's masterpieces and is worthy of Homer, Van Gogh, Brueghel, Crivelli, Kirchner and Botticelli. Its persective is low and looking slightly upwards. Its precision is delicate but its composition is very strong and compressed. It is flooded with sunlit air. It is mysterious and strenuous. It is an exuberant nexus of man and nature, toil and celebration.


"Slums" by Jacob Lawrence

"Slums," by Jacob Lawrence, casein tempera on paper, 25 by 21 1/2 inches, Collection of Elizabeth Marsteller Gordon, San Francisco

Powell also discusses another remarkable Lawrence painting of the same year, "Slums," shown above, a 25-by-21 1/2-inch casein tempera on paper in the collection of Elizabeth Marsteller Gordon of San Francisco:

"In both a contrastive and a comparative way, Lawrence magnified the actions of flies, cockroaches, and other vermin, while simultaneously minimizing the painting's subject: crowded and substandard urban housing. The ultimate visual effects are an amazing blend of social documentary squalor, an almost surrealistic inversion of realistic scale and proportion and, most important, compositional overtures to diminutive, calligraphic- and grid-informed abstractions. Lawrence's decision in Slums to deemphasize human suffering and underscore the almost incidental presence of foraging insects denied spectators the assurances of relying on a classic, social realist 'art script.' Instead, Slums (like In the Garden) draws one's imagination away from reality and its attendant social agenda to a highly animated pictorial maelstrom that, though still grounded in figuration and signification, resonates with abstract, value-free conceptualizations and an art of linear tracings, visionary markings, and arresting colors."

"Slums" is compartmentalized horror. While it is brilliantly conceived, it is not as superbly finished as "In the Garden." It is, nonetheless, a wonderful work.

"Vaudeville" by Jacob Lawrence
"Vaudeville," by Jacob Lawrence, egg tempera on hardboard, 29 3/8 by 19 15/16 inches, 1951, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966

Lawrence would soon shift his focus to performances as subject matter and then in 1956 he completed another major cycle entitled "Struggle From the History of the American People." These works are markedly dynamic and forceful. No. 23 in the series, shown below, entitled "if we fail, let us fail like men, and expire together in one common struggle-Henry Clay, 1813," is quite astounding. The 16-by-12-inch egg tempera and on hardboard, collection of Dr. Kenneth Clark, is a stunning abstraction.

"Struggle...From the History of the American People, No. 23..."
"Struggle...From the History of the American People, No. 23:...if we fail, let us fail likemen, and expire together in one common struggle...- Henry Clay, 1813," by Jacob Lawrence, egg tempera on hardboard, 16 by 12 inches, 1956, Collection of Dr. Kenneth Clark

Powell provides the following commentary on this work:

"Although the explicit narrative in Struggle painting No. 23 was America's military shortcomings during the war of 1812 (specifically, the high death toll that resulted from an 1813 clash with the British on Lake Erie), Lawrence's jagged 'building blocks' and accents in black, white, gray, and red construct a pictorial space that, like paintings by the noted abstractionists Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, can be interpreted as portraying something social and/or behavioral (i.e., aggression, confrontation, and resignation). The implicit narrative here is the universal, uphill 'battle' with life, and the inevitable feelings of personal entrapment and loss that all human beings experience."

This is a great painting.

Jacob Lawrence maintained that he was not a "protest" painter but a depictor of scenes. He had ambitious visions and experimented considerably with his styles over the decades. Some of the works in the series are a bit clumsy, but most likely intentionally so and always strong and there is little ambiguity about his sympathy for his subjects.

This is a splendid show and an excellent catalogue.

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