The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Category: Painters / Paintings

From “Approaching Reality” by Francisco Calvo Serraller

 

Antonio López García, Sink and Mirror, 1967

Antonio López García, Sink and Mirror, 1967

“[W]e must remember again that the term realism as applied to art was completely uncommon before our time. And we must keep this in mind because the majority of people usually mistake it for traditional figurative painting, as it was interpreted during the extensive historical period in which classicism prevailed, particularly from the beginning of the renaissance, between the 15th and 16th centuries. It is true that the Greeks defined art as the imitation of reality or nature, but they did so in an entirely different sense from the way in which we understand ‘realism’ – a term provocatively used by the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877) in 1855. The Greeks and all those who later emulated their artistic vision flatly rejected an indiscriminate imitation of what is real, as much from the formal perspective as from the symbolic perspective. They proposed a selective imitation, that is, an idealized concept of reality – not simply that which anyone might observe, but rather, the hidden order that sustained it.

Antonio López García, Skinned Rabbit, 1972

Antonio López García, Skinned Rabbit, 1972

The artist was supposed to observe reality and represent it from the perspective of beauty – something that determined which things were suitable to be depicted and, naturally, how to go about doing so. In this way, they implemented a canon, without which art did not produce beauty and likewise, art ceased to be art. For this reason, the art historian Lionello Venturi stated quite accurately that not only was it inappropriate to define traditional art as realist, but that if it were to have been defined as such, then it would be necessary to add the type of imitation of reality intended in each historical period. Significantly, during the 17th century, when the first sketches of an artistic style known at the time as naturalism, and not realism, appeared – a school initiated by Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) and his followers – most contemporary critics did not denounce them for not demonstrating ability or talent, but for not actually being art and for heralding art’s ruin. Those who reacted that way before the devastating naturalist wave generated by the Caravaggisti were not mistaken, because, as was shown later during our time, it was necessary to first put an end to art, or, at least, create a new concept of art in which there are no barriers to directly confronting reality – a different type of art, another art. Or maybe even something other than art, with an identity and meaning we still wonder about today.

Even though we cannot engage in that debate now, for me, something is quite clear: The type of realism without boundaries, which began in the 17th century – and culminated in the 19th century – a culmination that does not signify a true end; but, on the contrary, most of all a beginning – has been the cornerstone of modern art until the present.”
(Francisco Calvo Serraller, “Approaching Reality” in Antonio López García: Paintings and Sculptures, p. 30, 2011)

Antonio López García, Soaked Underwear, 1968

Antonio López García, Soaked Underwear, 1968

For more information on Antonio López García see John Yau’s article in the Brooklyn Rail.

Robert Storr on Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter, January, 1989

Gerhard Richter, January, 1989

The interpretive maze that has grown up around Richter’s oeuvre has at times distracted viewers from the fact that the pictorial maze he has built within that critical outer structure is made not merely of pictures – images subject to the kind of semiotic analysis that would treat them all as essentially the same regardless of their material presence – but of paintings whose meanings can be grasped, if fleetingly and with difficulty, by the fully alert senses in tandem with an agile, rather than dogma-bound, mind. Furthermore, one would have hoped, a dozen years after the 1980’s, that even the most hard-line opponents of painting’s resurgence would concede that there is little left to gain and perhaps something of significance to be lost by continuing to use painting as a rhetorical whipping boy. Painting is no longer the dominant medium it once was. There is no urgent need to topple it from its pedestal when other practices have begun to crowd painting on an equal, or nearly equal footing. Moreover, the new art forms championed at its expense have begun to show their age and accumulate the burdens that come with tradition in any medium. And, insofar as special political and social status was accorded those art forms because they were ignored by the market or otherwise escaped the corrupting effects of commodity capitalism, which had supposedly compromised painting beyond redemption, recent expansion and diversification of the market have deprived them of that virtue.
Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, p.18, 2002

Gerhard Richter, Cloud, 1970

Gerhard Richter, Cloud, 1970

For more on Gerhard Richter: Gerhard Richter; Artsy.net

Window, Brick, Wall, Field

Johannes Vermeer, View on Delft, 1661

Johannes Vermeer, View on Delft, 1661

There are various ways of creating space in a painting such as linear perspective, diminishing size, and occlusion. In the Renaissance tradition, these systems were used to turn the surface of the painting into a ‘window’ or transparent plane through which viewers could perceive the illusion of depth; a space that receded from this plane to a distant horizon which implied a boundless pictorial realm.

Painters that we today consider modernist, took this space apart and turned it inside out, slowly compressing the illusion of a space ‘behind’ the window of the picture plane until it was co-extensive with the literal surface of the painting. The most extreme examples of this tendency are monochromes – paintings that have either done away with most of the markers of illusionistic space or reduced them to such subtle nuances and variation that they are barely visible.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1917

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1917

Monochrome paintings tend to be “non-objective” (i.e. not deriving from a preexisting source in the objective world) and so they occupy actual space, like sculpture, rather than presenting a pictorial illusion of space. However, there are differences in the way different monochrome paintings engage actual space. The sixties and seventies produced many painters for whom this was an issue, and I have found it useful to compare four that have had a particular impact on my thinking about painting.

Robert Ryman, Archive, 1979

Robert Ryman, Archive, 1979

In my previous post I wrote about Robert Ryman’s white paintings, which he refers to as ‘realist’, in the sense that they are real objects and not illusionistic pictures of a ‘real’ subject or using naturalistic techniques. Instead, he uses a combination of material elements: paint simply as a material, the support and its specific relationship to the wall, the context of actual light falling on the surface. The experience of these elements together is the content of his work. They sit on the wall with the subtle obstinance of a brick.

Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959

Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959

Frank Stella’s early paintings used monochrome palettes (e.g. the “black” or “aluminum” paintings) and industrial paint to reinforce the literal qualities of the painting surface. This reductive strategy was summed up with his pithy statement, “what you see is what you see”, a deflation of the expressionist rhetoric of the earlier generation of New York School painting. The stripes in these early pieces were a reiteration of the framing edge of the painting, emphasizing their lack of pictorial depth. As the edges of the paintings became more convoluted (the so-called shaped canvases) and the stretcher frames deeper (sometimes 4 – 6 inches) they became more like objects or impassive adjuncts to the wall.

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

Ad Reinhardt was a contemporary of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and was at first seen to be allied with the colour field wing of post-war American abstraction. However, his view of art was deeply ascetic, and he claimed that his black monochromes were “simply the last paintings that could be painted”. His vision was that of a monk seeking perfection through endless repetition of form. It was also aligned in many ways with the “end of painting” strain of modernism that I referred to in an earlier post.

Brice Marden, The Seasons, 1974 - 75

Brice Marden, The Seasons, 1974 – 75

Brice Marden’s monochromes seem to align more closely to the objective world. The colours, the proportions, the waxy skins of the paintings all have correlates in concrete reality. So, even though they also have the object quality of other monochromes, they also reveal more traditional, symbolic layers of meaning.

All four of these painters have been very important to my work and my thinking over the years, even though they are in many ways conceptually incompatible with each other. They highlight for me the fundamental differences that accrue in the meaning of a work through different conceptions of how it functions spatially, even when they have superficially similar visual qualities. The reduction in these works represent both a minimum threshold of what might be construed as a painting, and an opening onto an expansive field of possibilities.

Anti-gravity

Robert Ryman, Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

Robert Ryman, Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

I have always been attracted to paintings that seem to ask basic questions about their own functions or conditions. Not in the sense of a closed self-reference, but as an exploration of what paint does in a given situation. For instance, how does one get a painting or object on a wall?

Robert Ryman, detail of the edge of a painting against a wall where it has been attached with tape

Robert Ryman, detail of the edge of a painting against a wall where it has been attached with tape

Robert Ryman’s work has been very instrumental in this regard and the book Used Paint, by Susan P. Hudson, has allowed me to re-visit some of my early interests in these questions. The idea of used paint implies that the material has been transferred from one resting place to another, but not necessarily “transformed”.

When I was an undergraduate I had an extended critique with four of my advisors (ranging in their own practice from material formalist to psychological expressionist) about how my work (abstract, spray-paint on mylar) related or didn’t relate to the wall. My solution was to velcro the “skins” of paint to masonite boards spray-painted with contrasting colours, which acted as frames. These were attached to the wall by screws that were hidden by the mylar.

These frames were subject to much debate about how bad a solution they were. Not debate actually – it was clear that the solution was bad, merely the degree and the corrective were debated. After that grueling two hours I never made assumptions about the wall and painting again.

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970

On the other hand, it is sometimes too easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating these issues. A friend of mine snorted when I told him about the critique. He asked, “did you try anti-gravity?”

An interesting video on Robert Ryman:
http://www.art21.org/videos/segment-robert-ryman-in-paradox

A Letter to Ross Feld by Philip Guston

Philip Guston, Entrance, 1979

Philip Guston, Entrance, 1979

I think that because of teaching – having a ‘career’ – being in the ‘real’ world, with dopey minds, who can only ‘argue for more’ or ‘bargain for less’ as you say – that this makes it easier for me to become infected with the linear thinking found in universities – and  elsewhere too. I begin to wobble – wonder if I am reaching for the invisible too much – and in tottering like this, I am prone to settle for ‘less’. And luckily for me, ‘less’ sticks in my stomach like a sour thing until my ‘ideal’, that I’ve always had but lose momentarily (could be that one should – needs – to have it slip away – in order to regain it) the ‘shimmering’ – ‘the dazzling gift’. I think you are writing about the generous law that exists in art. A law which can never be given but only found anew each time in the making of the work. It is a law, too, which allows your forms (characters) to spin away, take off, as if they have their own lives to lead – unexpected too – as if you cannot completely control it all. I wonder why we seek this generous law, as I call it. For we do not know how it governs – and under what special conditions it comes into being. I don’t think we are permitted to know other than temporarily. A disappearance act. The only problem is how to keep away from the minds that close in and itch (God knows why) to define it.
(Philip Guston in a letter to Ross Feld, Nov. 13, 1978, Guston in Time: remembering Philip Guston, p. 149)

Philip Guston, Moon, 1979

Philip Guston, Moon, 1979

Abstraction

Sean Scully in his studio

Sean Scully in his studio

Abstraction has been a point of departure in my work since the early part of my undergraduate training. Before becoming a student I was committed to what I thought of as realism; namely fantasy illustrations and comic books. At the time I equated “realism” with “detail”, for example, how realistically did the chain mail reflect light, how much detail was presented in the veins and muscular striations of superhero x. I was completely unaware of the abstraction involved in the way the human body (among other things) was represented on the covers of fantasy novels and in comic books – instead, I thought of these distortions as primarily related to the artist’s “style”. At the same time, I was hostile to, or rather ignorant of, modern art and thought that famous abstract artists like Picasso and Jackson Pollock simply didn’t know how to draw.

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921

When I started my training and began to learn about art history in concert with taking up painting for the first time, it took about a year to get over this prejudice. Eventually, I began to understand that modern abstraction was a choice, that it derived from certain historical conditions, that it was, in part, a reaction to 19th century academic norms, and that it involved a notion of honesty: to the materials of painting, to a fragmented and disorienting experience of modernity, and to the viewer of the painting. I came to see the illusionistic window of realism as a kind of deceit, and the emphasis on surface and material in abstraction as a forthright statement of fact.

Sean Scully, Gabriel, 1993

Sean Scully, Gabriel, 1993

My understanding of abstraction has continued to evolve, and I no longer see representation and abstraction as oppositional terms. In fact, in the last couple of years, I have developed work in both veins simultaneously. For me, this is not a question of hybridity or eclecticism, but of specificity. Each point on the continuum of representation and abstraction offers certain possibilities and forecloses others, and each choice for each painting is made in relation to those options.

Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002

Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002

The tradition that my work is based in, and the work of artists whom I find indispensable, definitely relies on abstraction. However, one of the drawbacks of abstraction is the tendency for its discourses to invoke notions of purity. It is not my purpose here to re-hash or counter these arguments, but simply to point out that purity of any sort in painting is a losing proposition. Further, I am dubious of the moral stance that is often taken up in relation to the refusals entailed by so-called non-objective art.

Although I admire the non-objective work of artists like Piet Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, to name only two examples, the artists that have really fed my thinking about painting (both abstract and representational) have proposed a more problematic relationship to the question of making paintings in general. The problem with purity is that it doesn’t allow for the messy, ambiguous contradictions of concrete existence.

Ross Bleckner, History of the Heart, 1996

Ross Bleckner, History of the Heart, 1996

For me, paintings have nothing to do with utopias, ideals, essences or other tropes of purity. They have to do with lived experience.  The processes and materials of painting are means to an end, specifically that of inquiring after some aspect of real life. It is therefore irrelevant whether a painting is more or less abstract, except to the extent that its relative position on the continuum allows that inquiry to unfold.

Ross Bleckner, Inheritance, 2003

Ross Bleckner, Inheritance, 2003

Realism

Untitled (study for The Pit), 2006

Realism has been on my mind in the last year or so. I have been fighting with myself in my journal about whether or not some notion of realism is at stake in my practice. I have produced long justifications for why it doesn’t matter to me, but if that were really the case I suspect it wouldn’t come up as an issue. Because I use photographic sources, people often mistake my work as “realist”. In fact, I use photographic sources more like “found”, all-over compositions than as a reference for how things “really” look. The conflation of photography and realism poses an obstacle to understanding both terms, as evidenced by the common usage of “photo-realism” as proof of technical skill in painting (and drawing), regardless of whether the image derives from a photo.

The notion of realism is complicated by photography. Although it is true that photos normally “look like” the things in the real world that the grains of silver salt or pixels of a photograph conspire to represent, it is a mistake to assume that the function of the photograph is mimetic (or imitative). For me, this would imply a specific type of intentionality which is absent from the mechanisms of photography. Photography is literally “light writing”, an “emanation” of light, as Roland Barthes says, reflected from an object and captured on a receptive ground. The authority of photographic representation is premised on it being a mechanical recording of the object/person/place pictured, without the need for the intervention of an author. Photographs don’t imitate so much as re-present, or reproduce. This is why we have passport photos instead of passport paintings. In other words, the realism of photography is not in any way dependent on the skill of the photographer, the way that it is for hand-made images.

Of course, photographs are made by photographers, whose subjectivity provides the impetus for the photo to begin with, and who do intervene on all sorts of levels in the construction of the image. The point is that photographs don’t imitate the appearances of reality; these appearances are byproducts of a mechanical and chemical (or digital) process. Conceivably, photos could be made to imitate the style of other photos (for example, the followers of Ansel Adams, or the appropriations by Sherrie Levine of Walker Evans’ prints) but not to imitate reality. Their fidelity to “actual” appearance is a condition of the medium that must be consciously manipulated to be overcome (see for example, the work of Aaron Siskind, Man Ray, or Jeff Wall).

Jeff Wall, Flooded Grave, 1998–2000

In painting, by contrast, realism (or illusionism, naturalism or verisimilitude) is utterly arbitrary and dependent on convention. This is obvious from the way that the level of realistic representation can shift easily from artist to artist, from work to work, century to century. Even the meaning of the term realism is contingent on the context in which it is used: is Courbet more real than Velazquez? Lucian Freud more real than Caravaggio?

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598

The academic tradition of realism depended on the ability of the artist: to mobilize the various conventions of mimetic technique such as shading, perspective and correct anatomy; to produce a formal arrangement that gave the illusion of three dimensional reality; and which “corrected” nature toward an abstracted ideal. Realistic rendering as a guarantee of skill and quality, and as a request from the artist to viewer for admiration of that skill, comes, in large part, from this tradition.

William Bouguereau, Admiration, 1897

The realism of Caravaggio or Courbet by contrast, was based on a refusal to idealize in order to produce works that were more closely related to an empirical experience of the world. These ideas are a prelude to modern concepts of documentary photography.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50

The empirical tradition is one that I have always felt a strong affinity with. The realism that I value has more to do with an un-idealized truth-telling than skillful rendering of appearances. My internal conflict on the question of realism in my own work has to do with my nagging doubts about how often it actually measures up to the truth, or how easily it falls for ingratiating tricks.

Reluctance Part II

FINA 3311_w/12 (in progress)

I have recently completed a large painting, FINA 3311_w/12. This painting is based on a snapshot that I took of my 3rd year painting class last semester and I undertook the work as a pedagogical experiment. I had assigned a portrait project where each class member had to paint a portrait of one of their colleagues. This had various functions, but primarily I was interested in students rooting their paintings within an immediate context that didn’t involve  internet plundering or a reliance on pop culture. [I don’t have anything against these strategies as such, I was simply distressed at what I saw as a somewhat lazy, default practice among the students]. As part of this assignment I proposed that I would paint a portrait of the whole class.

Edouard Manet, Young Lady in 1866, 1866

Portraiture has played almost no role in my own practice, although there are many portraits that I admire (Manet’s Young Lady in 1866, being a prime example). Figures generally appear in my work as a by-product of their appearance in source photos. The problem, for me, comes down to questions of likeness: to what extent does portraiture depend on a recognizable likeness? and to what extent is it a strictly imitative or mimetic practice?

FINA 331_w/12 (detail)

In making this painting there was a an interesting tension between the tedious process of producing a likeness and the pleasure in making it come off in a surprising way. Engaging in an “exercise” gave a certain kind of permission to relinquish expectations and see what happens. As always when I finish a painting, I am ambivalent about this work: parts of it are painfully illustrative, others bear the look of too much effort to get it “right”; but, there are little moments that I think are not too bad and others that seem to suggest future possibilities.

I think that this work fails as a painting. As a whole it doesn’t move beyond a fairly mundane description of appearances, even though there are certain passages that do. As a pedagogical exercise it fares somewhat better, in that it has created a kind of dialogue with students as a fellow producer tackling the same problem, with relatively similar kinds of uneven results. Likewise there are some things that I have learned about how I paint that I am not necessarily thrilled about. For instance, I am all too susceptible to the “reality effect” of the photo source, where I find myself aping the source material instead of making a painting. This is particularly troublesome as I am deeply reluctant to admit that “realism” has any bearing on my work.

FINA 3311_w/12, 2012

On the other hand, the process of making this painting has brought to light new possibilities and challenges for my practice. Painting my students left me with the sense that certain kinds of feelings are omitted from my work because I rarely use the literal aspects of my life as direct subject matter. Can the daily life that a person lives be pictured without images of the people and settings that make up that life? If not, is one obliged to either include these or avoid claims for the work relating to that life?

The failure of this work serves as both a warning and a tantalizing promise.

Doubt and Faith in Painting

Willem De Kooning, Woman and Bicycle, 1952-53

[I]f you pick up some paint with your brush and make somebody’s nose with it, this is rather ridiculous when you think of it, theoretically or philosophically. It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear I have to follow my desires.     (Willem De Kooning, p. 197, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art)

Over my painting wall, I have inscribed a dedication: Align means with true desires. Clarifying my true desires is a complicated task, as my thoughts and feelings are most often hopelessly tangled and opaque. In my studio journal, which forms the basis for the entries in this blog, I have been attempting to question as many of my preconceptions as I can identify and to investigate the possibilities of opposing or ignored viewpoints.

This process has caused as much confusion and vacillation as anything else. However, one outcome has been a determination to trust my intuition and a willingness to hope that these doubts might be productive, and not simply the result of a lack of conviction. In this tug-of-war, doubt and faith can play mutually correcting roles.

Art historian Richard Shiff describes doubt and belief as two extremes on a continuum – doubt is a degree of belief while belief is also a form of doubt. Following Charles Sanders Pierce, Shiff states “If belief and doubt belong to the same experiential category, then a doubt is a weak belief; we feel doubt when belief is weak. Reciprocally – but oddly – a belief is a strong doubt: When the doubted fact gains degrees of acknowledgment, it becomes a belief” (Doubt, p. 25).  Ideally, my practice exists near the middle of the continuum, holding doubt and belief in magnetic tension.

I have been trying to both follow and interrogate my instincts; on one hand to allow feeling and energy to be available to the work, on the other to consciously move towards the kinds of choices I would normally avoid. Doubt must be applied to assumptions, pronouncements, assertions, ideas, authorities, habits, discourses, histories; faith to materials, experience, desires, feelings, intuitions. Doubt can function to challenge established categories, belief to foster a trust in tacit, non-verbal knowledge, often in spite of what rational logic dictates.

Shiff, in his book Doubt:

 There are nevertheless times to doubt what the categories and the procedures designed to serve them indicate we should believe, and there are times to believe – to trust to intuition and feeling – what the same patterns of rationality may indicate we should doubt. To believe and to doubt with neither more nor less than a beneficial quotient of self-doubt becomes a useful psychological skill, an intuitive self-discipline. (pp. 18-19)

This intuitive self-discipline is of great use in the studio, but like any discipline requires vigilance to maintain. Balancing doubt must be a certain degree of faith in the absurd activity of painting itself.

Jan Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of Painting, c. 1665

In Daniel Arasse’s book Vermeer: Faith in Painting, he says of the artist’s work:

The ‘real world’ of Vermeer’s pictures is the world the pictures themselves inhabit, a world of painting; and painting was, for him, an exact and specific activity. In refusing to be ruled by social or commercial aspirations, Vermeer was able to use his paintings as a workplace, his laboratory for constant pictorial research. The meticulousness of this work is above all the expression of a need that is personal, individual and intimate. (p.16)

Arasse later relates Vermeer’s understanding of his painting practice to his decision to convert to Catholicism. “Undoubtedly the Catholic approach to the painted image endows it with spiritual prestige and the certainty of a ‘real presence’ that Calvinists rejected.”

He continues:

This conception of the virtual power of the painted image to become truly present could well be the spiritual frame that aroused and empowered the choices and artistic ambitions of Vermeer.

If it were for love, amoris causa, that Vermer converted, it was a particularly complex love, which combined love of the charitable indulgence of the Catholic God, love of the desirable Catherina Boles, and, just as profoundly, love for painting, which for the Catholic church was not surrounded by suspicion, which was on the contrary, invested with an exceptional and mysterious aura. Perhaps it was his own religion of painting that had also intimately led Vermeer to conversion.” (p.83)

Doubt and faith in painting are inextricably entwined. Vermeer’s faith in painting was pitched against Calvinist iconoclasm and suspicion of the “idolatrous cult of painted images” (Arasse, p.83). This iconoclasm is not doubt, but rather an extreme certainty in one religious belief that is in conflict with competing beliefs. Vermeer’s defense of his painting was an immersion in the practice, his “workplace, his laboratory of constant pictorial research”, an entrenchment of faith against suspicion.

Vermeer’s faith is not necessarily available to us today, with our own postmodern version of iconoclasm and suspicion of the cult of painting running rampant. Unlike seventeenth century Holland, there are few counter discourses to offer shelter. Likewise, doubt in painting is not unfounded, but possibly inevitable, once certain supporting structures and discourses have given way. As my advisor in grad school used to say, “you can’t be a virgin again”.

Some final words from Joseph Pieper:

[A person] who has attained a certain stage of critical consciousness cannot exempt [themselves] from thinking through opposing arguments raised by both “philosophers” and “heretics”. [They] must confront them … Ultimately, the only possible opposition the believer can offer to [their] own rational arguments is defensive; [they] cannot attack, [they] can only hold firm. (Faith, Hope, Love, pp. 72 -73)

Jan Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657

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Ben Reeves Although I am sure I haven’t seen the end of snow this year, the sun is shining today and it’s hard to repress that glimmer of optimism that spring is not far off. Last year at around this time, my friend Ben Reeves visited Sackville and brought a gift for my then one […]

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