Art Chronicles: Making Painting

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Turner Contemporary at Margate has an absolutely smashing show on right now. Making Painting, curated by James Hamilton, brings together the work of JMW Turner and the American abstract expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler; Turner making his journey from landscape/seascape painting towards abstraction; Frankenthaler making a similar journey in the latter half of the last century, the best of her work, though at first sight, perhaps, wholly abstract, never quite leaving landscape behind.

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There are three rooms dedicated to the exhibition, well, three and a broad corridor: the final room, the one in which people lingered the longest and in which the liveliest discussions were taking place – parents and young children, it was half-term week – is given over to a terrific selection of Frankenthaler’s most colourful and largest canvasses, brilliant enough to make the head spin.

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By and large, the work of the two painters is kept apart, allowing visitors to find the comparisons for themselves, whereas, in the neat little catalogue, there are a number of explicit pairings, Turner’s Stormy Sea Breaking on a Shore, for instance, alongside Frankenthaler’s Barometer – this last an extraordinary late piece – it was painted in 1992 – which eschews all of the artist’s normal strong colours for a palette of varying whites and greys that, for a long moment, you think could be a hitherto undiscovered piece by Turner himself.

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This show, which runs till May 11th, is not all the gallery has to offer. Juan Munoz’ Conversation Piece III departs on February 26th, to be replaced on March 29th by Edumnd de Waal’s Atmosphere, and Sol LeWitt’s vibrant Wall Drawing #1136 is on display till June 8th.

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Later this year, May to September, there’s a new exhibition, Mondrian and Colour, and, following that, Jeremy Deller’s Venice Biennale show, English Magic.

Art Chronicles: Jeremy Deller

Not content with having his English Magic show from last year’s Venice Biennale beginning a nationwide tour at the William Morris Gallery in east London, Jeremy Deller has a second touring exhibition currently on the road – All That Is Solid Melts Into The Air – a fascinating look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution upon its workers and their culture, with a meaningful sideways glance at the managerial and working practices of large businesses such as Amazon and the widespread use of zero hours contracts.

So we have photographic portraits of women workers from heavy industry in Wales in the 1860s alongside a Double-Dial Longcase Clock that measured productivity as well as working hours, and a copy of the rules set down for people employed in the factory belonging to Thomas Ainsworth and Sons of Preston, which begins thus:

Each person employed in this Factory engages to serve THOMAS AINSWORTH and SONS, and give One Month’s Notice, in writing, previous to leaving his or her employment, such notice to be given in on a Saturday, and on no other day; but the Masters have full power to discharge and Person employed therein without any previous Notice whatsoever.

Much is made of industry’s links with popular culture; a juke box plays sound recordings made in mills and down mines, together with folk songs such as The Blackleg Miner. Connections are drawn between heavy industry and Heavy Metal. Family trees of singers Brian Ferry and Shaun Ryder stretch back fascinatingly through several generations of working men and women. A short film documents the journey of Adrian Street (seen below with his father) from the time he left the Welsh coal mines at fifteen, through his years as a body builder and model to superstar status as a boldly camp professional wrestler.

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As with a great deal of Deller’s work, the exhibition is of a wonderfully ragbag nature, drawing together art and artefacts from many sources into an impressionistic whole. There’s something here to interest most people, young and old, as it’s a shame that Nottingham City Council and whoever is more directly responsible at the Castle haven’t made more of an effort to publicise the show during its time there.

After Nottingham, where it closes on 22nd April, it moves on to the Mead Gallery at the University of Warwick, Coventry, from 3rd May to the 21st June, and then to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle from12th July to the 26th October.

Oh, and that title … it comes, of course, from The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels and published in 1848.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sombre senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

All together now …

Art Chronicles: Footnotes from Amsterdam

1.   Having had our visit to Amsterdam trimmed by one day thanks to the storm, a plan seemed necessary: mornings, museum or gallery; afternoons, wander, pither, shop, nap, as the mood dicates.

2.  Wednesday, the Rijks Museum: having prebooked and printed our etickets and arrived soon after opening, we had the huge central seventeenth century Gallery of Honour almost to ourselves – for the first 30 minutes, at least. Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’, ‘The Love Letter’, ‘The Little Street’ & the marvellous ‘Woman Reading a Letter’; Rembrandt’s self-portaits, ‘The Jewish Bride’ and, with pride of place at the end of the gallery, ‘The Night Watch’. Privileged is how we feel.

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3. Thursday, the Stedelijk Museum, like it’s companion at the opposite side of Museum Plein, also recently refurbished and extended. We’ve come to see Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde, but first there’s an absolutely wonderful survey of modern painting from its beginnings towards the end of the nineteenth century, through Mondrian – not surprisingly, a lot of excellent Mondrians – and early modernism through CoBrA to abstract expressionism and onwards – except that we don’t get very far onwards, partly due to proximity of the café and a frugal memory of breakfast, partly as I’ve fallen in love with a Jackson Pollock I can’t remember seeing before –  ‘Reflection of the Big Dipper’ – smaller than the majority of his drip-period paintings and featuring an unusually bright blue at its centre, very much a Joan Mitchell blue, in fact (and, co-incidentally, the blue of my daughter’s top, obvious when she stands in front of it, but I digress).

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Restored by our time in the café, we head upstairs to the Malevich, which is nicely mounted and put together, including filmed excerpts from an opera for which he designed the costumes (think, Dr. Who Goes Constructivist), but with some 500 works in all, perhaps a tad too comprehensive. Plus, when we reach the climax of the exhibition, Malevich’s geometric abstract paintings, created some little time before abstraction was created, there’s some dissension in the ranks at how good/pleasurable they are. Not from me. Not, especially, from Sarah.

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4. Thursday evening, dinner at Toscanini’s, an Italian restaurant that comes highly recommended and, for once, all of the recommendations are, if anything, less fulsome than they might be: a large room with an open kitchen at the far end; charming, friendly but not over-fussy staff; the food is magificent. We all agree, some of the best we’ve had anywhere. The mixed antipasti, for instance, instead of being the usual spread of cheeses, hams and salamis sprinkled with rocket, features – as well as some superb cheeses, hams and salamis – small plates of duck salad, tuna with tomatoes, ……. and thyme. And so it goes. My secondi of veal fillet with veal kidneys  and mushrooms is to die for. Superb.

5. Friday morning, FOAM, a museum of photography that never disappoints: on the top floor which holds the library and their new talent room, there is a brilliant exhibition, Handbook to The Stars, by Peter Puklus – who would have thought three wrapped cakes of soap on a bathroom window in Budapest could be so beautiful?

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Peter Puklus: Handbook to the Stars

And the central show this time, quite brilliant, is Lee Friedlander’s America by Car.

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After which we cross the canal to the Museum Van Loon, a house originally built in 1672 for the Van Loon family, who were one of the founders of the Dutch East India Company,  and now host to a contemporary art exhibition, Suspended Histories; each room holds furniture and objects from earlier periods, cleverly interspersed with newly-created works of art which connect with or comment on the house and the family’s history, in particular its links with – and exploitation of – former Dutch colonies.

Art Chronicles : New York to Primrose Hill

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Robert Rauschenberg

Whenever I flirt in my head with the idea of moving back out of London – those property prices, never mind the cost of a good flat white! – something happens to make me cast the idea back out of my mind.

Take yesterday, for instance. Sarah and I had somehow escaped for a few hours from the necessity of doing anything other than simply hanging out, so a quick glance at the internet sent us off on the underground [Bank line to Euston and cross platforms] in search of Saville Row, still a focal point for tailors of taste but also, now, home to two of Hauser & Wirth’s London galleries and the smaller Ordovas gallery exactly opposite.

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Clyfford Still

Hauser & Wirth are showing, here and at Picadilly, a selection of works from the collection of Reinhard Onnasch, whose fascination with American art blossomed when he opened his own gallery in New York shortly after the end of WW2. So what was magnificently on show here in the South Gallery in Saville Row were pieces by artists associated with Pop Art – some lovely little Richard Hamiltons, a marvellous and marvellously balanced two-piece Richard Serra, and a beautiful Rauschenberg combine – then in the North Gallery work from the New York School of the 1950s and 60s, including two fine Clyfford Still’s and two works each by Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Louis and Noland were leading figures in Colourfield painting, a softer-edged second-generation form of abstract expressionism that owed much to the work of Helen Frankenthaler. I’d only seen work by these two artists in reproduction before and it was wonderful to be able to stand in front of the pair of Morris Louis’s canvasses, especially, absorbing their beauty.

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Morris Louis

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Morris Louis

And as if that weren’t enough, across the street at Ordovas there’s a small show – ten pieces in all – linking the British painter Frank Auerbach with Rembrandt. That Auerbach admired and made drawings from Rembrandt is well-documented, but, for me, looking at the work of the two men displayed here side by side, I just couldn’t see the connection. No matter. Central here are three largish Auerbach landscapes, painted in the 1960s and showing Primrose Hill in different seasons, Spring, Summer, Winter. As a group, they’re very fine, and, of the three, Summer is quite superb. The kind of painting you can look at for hours, forever seeing something new.

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Robert Rauschenberg

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London, thank you.

 

Art Chronicles: Laura Knight

Amongst the reasons the painter Mark Gertler gave to his fellow-artist, Dora Carrington, in an attempt to persuade her to marry him,  number five was “You would have absolute freedom and a nice studio of your own.” Own in italics. Nice try, but no prize. Carrington chose to live with, if not marry, the Bloomsbury aesthete Lytton Strachey instead. [“I would love to explore your mind behind your finely skinned forehead. You seem so wise and very coldly old.”] Carrington’s portrait of Strachey, all brains and fingers, is one of the best pieces in the exhibition of British Artists from the early years of the last century just winding down at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

But back to Gertler and his seemingly not unreasonable offer of artistic autonomy, just to consider, in the art world, how unusual it was. One thinks of Lee Krasner setting her own work aside in order to minister to Jackson Pollock’s macho posturings and artistic needs and only really resuming once he had died. Or Rose Phipps, who married the artist Roger Hilton, twenty years her senior, to be told, ‘There’s only one artist in this family and that’s me.’ It wasn’t until he died, some twenty years later, that – now Rose Hilton – she began painting again.

I was thinking of these matters after a second visit to the excellent exhibition of Laura Knight Portraits currently at the National Portrait Gallery. [Finishing there mid-October, but going on to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in November and Plymouth in March of next year.]

Enrolled as a full-time student at Nottingham School of Art in 1890, at the age of thirteen, Laura soon became aware of Harold Knight, thought of as the School’s most able student, and ‘manoeuvre(d) to place my easel directly behind his, to see exactly how the work should be done.’ The proximity clearly worked in other ways and, after spending several years living and working in a small community of artists in Staithes, North Yorkshire, they were married in 1903.

As far as one can tell, the couple continued to the mutually supportive throughout their married lives. [Harold died, nine years before Laura, in 1961.] And through that long period in which both continued to work and exhibit widely, there seems to have been no doubt that it was Laura who was the more acknowledged – certainly, the more famous – and, to most eyes, the finer, more interesting artist. In 1927 she was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, only the second woman so elected since the Academy’s foundation – Harold became an Associate two years later – and in 1936 she was elected a full Royal Academician, the first woman to be so since 1768.

1768 – says something that, doesn’t it?

Acknowledged and popular with a wider public, partly thanks to reproductions of her work being made readily available in such as the London Evening Standard and The Illustrated London News, Laura Knight was quite keenly aware of the singularity of her position. ‘Even today,’ she wrote in her 1965 autobiography, The Magic of a Line, ‘a female artist is considered more or less a freak, and may either be undervalued or overpraised, and by sole virtue of her rarity and her sex be of better press value.’

(c) John Croft; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This wonderful painting, titled Self Portrait, from early in Knight’s career, is a statement of intent. Placing itself firmly in the line of artists who have portrayed themselves at  a canvas, together with their subjects [Velasquez et al], thus marking herself out, unambiguously, as a working painter [throughout her life, Knight commented on the actual physical work of what she did], it also – daringly, for its time, 1913, showed her with a living and breathing naked model, whereas the norm would have been for women to have worked only from plaster casts and statues. But then, in the words of a much later lyric, the times et cetera …

And it’s one of the interesting things about Knight’s career that, while she eschewed the various tenets of modernism and remained true to realistic representation – and suffering in some critical circles for so doing – her work was always of the moment, perhaps none more so than in the paintings commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee during WW2.

The most famous of these, Ruby Loftus Sewing a Breech Ring, painted over three weeks at the Royal Ordnance Factory, watching the former tobacconist’s assistant performing the highly-skilled task of making a breech ring for the Bofors gun, was widely reproduced as a testament to the skill and importance of women in the war effort.

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And how Knight’s own skill is evident in the painting’s structure, the direction of focus towards the task in hand; the small, recurring moments of light; the sheen on the machine bottom left of the canvas, the folds and texture of the blue overall; the lime green of the hair net and red of the shirt. A fabulous work by an artist at her best.

Art Chronicles: Caroline Walker

I was fortunate enough to come across the work of the painter Caroline Walker in 2009, shortly after she had finished her post-graduate studies at the Royal College of Art. In amongst all the conceptual artists, video makers and abstractionists, her figurative work, assured and painterly – and consciously looking back, it seemed to me, to the interiors of Sickert and the Camden Town school – made her stand out.

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In the relatively short time since then she has progressed to become one of the foremost young figurative painters currently working. In addition to solo shows in New York, Bucharest and Milan, as well as at Marlborough Fine Art in London, she has participated in a number of prestigious group shows, including Some Domestic Incidents, an exhibition of British painting chosen for the Prague Biennale in 2011, and Nightfall: New Tendencies in Figurative Painting which was first shown at the MODEM Centre for Modern and Contemporary Arts, Debrecen, Hungary, before moving to the Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague.

In a recent interview, Walker speaks of being taken by her parents to galleries in Scotland when still a child, and being particularly struck by James Gurthrie’s ‘A Hind’s Daughter’, ostensibly a straightforward rural scene in the 19th century realist manner, showing a girl standing in a field of cabbages, but for, in Caroline’s words, “the knife she’s holding in her hand and the way she’s looking out at the viewer [which] give it a more troubling atmosphere.”

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“I think,” she goes on to say, “it’s that quality of making the familiar unfamiliar that I try to create in my own paintings.” And certainly, you can see several of her later preoccupations in this painting: the ambiguity of the central female figure; the relationship between the artist and his/her model; the narrativity that surrounds the moment; the nature of the viewer’s (voyeuristic) look or gaze.

With those burgeoning ideas in mind, it’s not difficult to see how struck she would be by the exhibition of Walter Sickert’s Camden Town Nudes which she visited at the Courtauld Gallery when doing research for her MA at the Royal College, which was based around the female gaze in contemporary painting.

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Based around the murder of a prostitute in an impoverished Camden Town bedroom, Sickert’s paintings seem to relish the sexual and narrative ambiguities that Walker’s work would be interested to explore, along with the positioning of the artist towards his model – and his subject. “It made me think,” she said, “about what the relationship between artist and subject meant to a viewer and how it changed our feelings towards an image. Would the paintings still have been so threatening if they had been painted by a woman?”

With their dark interiors and their use of a single, often unclothed model, Walker’s earlier paintings seek to pose (and partly answer) those questions, acknowledging Sickert’s influence while moving towards a style and a way of treating the subject that was increasingly, and recognisably, her own. The narrative and voyeuristic aspects of the paintings take on more and more, it seems to me, aspects of one of her other inspirations, that of cinema – Hitchcock, of course, coming readily to mind.

More recently, as was shown magnificently in a recent show at the PM Gallery in London, In Every Dream Home, Walker has moved quite deliberately from small and confined, dark interiors to larger canvases, shot through with light and colour – open-plan Modernist buildings in which the shimmering surfaces of pools or mirrored glass reflect and refract the images of small groups or pairs of women whose relationship to one another – and to the space they inhabit – is never clear, ever-changing.

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As Walker explains, her working method in these paintings was first to find the right building as a setting, then to source suitable props and costumes, and to hire actors rather than models and ask them to enact certain scenarios which she has storyboarded; she then takes large numbers of photographs on which the final paintings are based. The result is to increase the complexity of the relationships within the paintings, constantly second-footing the viewer and calling his/her understanding into question.

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There are moments here when, perhaps inevitably, given the presence of the swimming pools, the Californian canvasses of David Hockney seem to be referenced; others where – in a backward glance to Sickert – the image of two figures laying alone but untouching in an anonymous bedroom, conjures up the loneliness and quiet desperation of Edward Hopper.

With In Every Dream Home, Caroline Walker and the curator, Matt Price, created a – literally – brilliant show in the near-perfect surroundings of the Pitzhanger Gallery, and one can only wait and wonder in expectation of where Walker’s vision will next take her.

Art Chronicles: George Bellows

I meant to write about the excellent – and surprising – show of American painter George Bellows’ work at the Royal Academy, but the moment came and went and now the show is due to finish this coming weekend.

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So this is just to urge anyone within reach of London and interested in art or painting or American culture to go and see the exhibition while you can.

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Michael Carlson has written about it insightfully and comprehensively on his blog.

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The Royal Academy website has a nice introduction and a link to a good video.

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Art Chronicles: Saloua Raouda Choucair

Barely known in this country, little known one suspects outside her native Lebanon, the artist Salouda Raouda Choucair is the subject of a new exhibition at Tate Modern, a small – just four rooms – but altogether delightful show which concentrates on her abstract paintings – mostly gouache on paper – and the wood or stone sculptures she concentrated on making from the mid-1950s onwards. Now in her nineties, but no longer making new work, this is Choucair’s first major retrospective in this country and may, indeed, be one of very few outside Lebanon itself.

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Influenced both by western modernism – between 1948 and 1952 she was in Paris, where she worked in Leger’s studio and from where she travelled to Marseilles to visit a modernist housing project designed by Le Corbusier – and, predominantly, by the curve and line of much Islamic art, Choucair’s abstract paintings are quite beautiful, their geometric patterns lit up and softened by an exquisite use of colour. There are similarities, in a number of the pieces, to the work being produced by Ben Nicholson at a similar time, and one work in particular is so reminiscent of a David Bomberg that I had to look twice to make sure I hadn’t been confused.

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The sculptures, many of them very much architecturally based, are impressive for the use of basic materials – several of the wooden pieces, in particular, just cry out to be touched – and the intricacies of their sequential form.

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All in all, it’s a very pleasing and welcome show and thanks are due to Tate for introduced me to the work of an artist of whom I’d previously been ignorant.

 

 

Art Chronicles: Manet at the RA

What did the chap in the Guardian say, reviewing the Manet: Portraying Life show currently at the Royal Academy? Paraphrasing slightly, great artist, not a great show.

On the button.

Compared the exhibition I was fortunate enough to see at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2011 – Manet: The Man who Invented Modernity – what’s on offer at the RA is pretty small beer. Two or three marvellous and significant works aside, there’s too much that’s second rate, too many works that went unseen in the artist’s lifetime (often with good reason) and simply too much missing.

There is the 1868 painting, The Luncheon, in which, as my friend Irving put it (and I hope I’m paraphrasing him correctly) the young man at the centre of the picture seems to on his way out of the canvas, stepping forward with well-defined assurance into the newly forming modern world, leaving pale shadows of the past in his wake.

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And, matching if not surpassing it, there’s The Railway from 1873, steam and smoke from this new invention with the capacity to take people away, away, away to other cities, other countries, other worlds, and there are the two female figures, separated from it by railings, excluded, the mother looking away, consoling herself, perhaps, with the puppy in her lap, the novel she is reading; the daughter holding on to (shaking?) the railings, interested, eager, impatient. What a fine time my youngest daughter, who has just finished reading The Woman’s Room, would have decoding all this!

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Also of interest and worth lingering over is Manet’s 1869 portrait of his friend, the novelist Emile Zola, the man surrounded by some of the various signs and signifiers that cemented their relationship, including a reproduction of Olympia, perhaps Manet’s most famous painting, the one that ‘shocked a nation’.

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Of the other portraits on show, there are two of the painter, Berthe Morisot, whom Manet painted no fewer than 11 times between 1868 and 1874; of these, the picture of her with  bouquet of violets is the best known – and beautifully achieved –  the most interesting is the later Berthe Morisot in a Veil, adventurous and forward-looking in its scumbled, partly unfinished state, as if the speed and surface of the canvas were a metaphor for her state of mourning.

But whether this relatively small number of pieces represents good value for money at £15 a throw (£14 for old gimmers like me) is a matter for your taste and pocket.

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Photography: A Question of Colour

I’ve written, briefly, before about the current photography show at Somerset House, Cartier Bresson: A Question of Colour, which I revisited yesterday, when it looked, if possible, even better than before. The Bresson pictures – black and white shots taken in America very much under the influence of Walker Evans and never shown in this country before- are well worth going to see in themselves, but its the colour photographs arranged around them which, time after time, took my breath away. Helen Levitt. Ernst Haas. Saul Leiter. Trente Parke. Harry Gruyaer. Magnificent!

The show closes on Sunday, 27th January. If you’re in London and have got an hour to spare, get down there while you can. I doubt if you’ll regret it. Oh, and did I say? It’s free.

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Helen Levitt

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Ernest Haas

BELGIUM.

Harry Gruyaer

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Saul Leiter

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Trente Park