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Artists Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley

British Illustrator and Author

Movements: Art Nouveau, Aesthetic Art, Decadent Movement

Born: August 21, 1872 - Brighton, Sussex, England

Died: March 16, 1898 - Menton, France

Quotes

"An entirely new method of drawing and composition, words fail to describe the quality of the workmanship, the subjects were quite mad and a little indecent. Strange hermaphroditic figures wandering about in Pierrot costumes, or modern dress, quite a new world of my own creation."
Aubrey Beardsley
"I have one aim - the grotesque. If I'm not grotesque I am nothing."
Aubrey Beardsley
"They were extremely fantastic in conception, but perfectly severe in execution."
Aubrey Beardsley
"Strange as it may seem I really draw folks as I see them. Surely it is not my fault that they fall into certain lines and angles."
Aubrey Beardsley
"Beauty is the most difficult of things."
Beardsley, quoted by WB Yeats
"The only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance."
Oscar Wilde about Beardsley
"The most startling appearance in these early nineties was certainly Aubrey Beardsley. I know no one in the whole history of art who made such an impression."
Frank Harris
"There is something macabre and tragic in the fact that one who added another terror to life should have died at the age of a flower."
Oscar Wilde
"The thin, isolated black lines which sweep so voluptuously across the white in some of Beardsley's most famous drawings are a tribute to the process block, which no other illustrator of the 1890s exploited quite so tellingly."
Anthony Clayton
"One of the most exalted results on penmanship in the history of art."
Brian Reade
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"People hate to see their darting vices depicted [but] vice is terrible and it should be depicted."

Synopsis

Aubrey Beardsley's artistic career was remarkably impactful for its brevity. In the seven years he was able to draw and write before succumbing to tuberculosis, Beardsley developed a reputation as one of the most controversial artists of his time. The linear elegance of his designs coupled with the artist's bizarre sense of humor and fascination with the grotesque and taboo simultaneously intrigued and repelled his Victorian audience. His illustrations comprised characteristics of Aestheticism, Decadence, Symbolism, and, most apparently, Art Nouveau. Beardsley's block prints allowed his work to be easily reproduced and widely circulated. The diabolic beauty of his work and its overwhelming presence in English publishing houses meant that Beardsley quickly became the most influential draftsman of his time.

Key Ideas

More than mere illustrations, Beardsley's images captured the mood of the accompanying text, while aggressively critiquing repressive Victorian concepts of sexuality, beauty, gender roles, and consumerism.
Beardsley's poster art and essay, "The Art of the Hoarding" (1894) changed how the public thought about art and advertising. The two, according to the artist, were not mutually exclusive. His theatre posters manifested his theory and helped revolutionize poster production in Europe and America.
Beardsley borrowed aspects from various artistic movements and adapted them to suit his own purposes. He appropriated the Decadent themes of decay, death, and eroticism to shock viewers out of their complacency; while his delicately interlacing forms and sinuous arabesque lines make his work important in marking the visual shift from the Aesthetic movement to the modern Art Nouveau style.
In addition to his illustrations, Beardsley also composed poems and prose. His later writings were as Decadent as his pictures. Beardsley is best known for Under the Hill, an unfinished erotic novel about Venus and Tannhauser, for which he created the text as well as the accompanying illustrations.

Most Important Art

How Sir Tristram Drank of the Love Drink (1893-4)
Produced for Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, this illustration was one of many that helped tell the author's interpretation of the story of King Arthur, so beloved by the Pre-Raphaelites. The image refers to Tristram and Isolde's doomed love story, which predates and likely influenced the romantic tale of Lancelot and Guinevere. Beardsley depicts the couple as androgynous figures separated by a decorative pillar that bifurcates the composition. The flowers within the picture framing and adorning its border seem ready to burst, suggesting fertile ripeness or perhaps foretelling the blossoming of something more sinister.

Although the book was considered only moderately successful at the time, it has since been dubbed Beardsley's first masterpiece and is credited with popularizing his unique early style that blended a simplified interpretation of textile designer William Morris's medieval floral patterns, Pre-Raphaelite romance, and the darker Decadent themes of sex and death. This drawing is not only an early example of the intersection of the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau; it was also a social critique. Beardsley's androgynous figures challenged established Victorian gender roles and traditional concepts of sexuality. His illustrations for Le Morte D'Arthur were the last created in his early style and were followed by his mature work in which the influence of the Japanese aesthetic is more evident.
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Biography

Childhood

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was an artistic and musical prodigy from an early age. Born to a father who preferred to squander his inheritance rather than adopt a trade, Beardsley's creative prowess helped stave off complete destitution. At age 12 he and his older sister Mabel (who would later become an actress) performed musical duets in a public concert. A witty child with a wicked sense of humour, Beardsley drew caricatures of his grammar school teachers and by age 14 had published his first poem, "The Valiant," as well as a series of sketches titled "The Jubilee Cricket Analysis" in the school's magazine, Past and Present.

From childhood Beardsley's life expectancy was short and uncertain. At the age of seven he contracted tuberculosis, a disease then known as "consumption" because sufferers appeared to waste away. Beardsley's fragile health meant that he was somewhat frail as a boy and often found himself confined to his bed, unable to attend school or play with his peers. The impact of this disease on the artist's childhood was no doubt on his mind when as an adult he created Self-portrait in Bed (1894). The ink drawing depicts a small child nearly swallowed up by the enormous bed that he occupies. An inscription in French at the top left reads: "By the gods not all monsters are in Africa." The quote is as much a reference to his lifelong struggle with tuberculosis as it is indicative of his fascination with the grotesque and macabre.

Beardsley worked briefly as a clerk for an insurance agency after grammar school, all the while developing a portfolio of Pre-Raphaelites-inspired drawings. In 1891, at age 19, Beardsley accompanied his sister to the studio of painter and illustrator Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Although the siblings were initially denied admittance, Burne-Jones's interest was piqued when he noticed Mabel's striking red hair. Beardsley soon built up the courage to show the artist his portfolio. Deeply impressed by the youth's obvious talent and imagination, Burne-Jones recommended Beardsley to the Westminster School of Art. There, Beardsley received instruction from painter Frederick Brown. A consumptive relapse shortly thereafter meant that from then on Beardsley lived on a knife's edge, relishing in a lust for life even as he faced the prospect of an early death.

Early Training

Aubrey Beardsley Biography

Sir Edward Burne-Jones was not the only one to notice Beardsley. Within a year of enrolling in art school, the young artist received an offer from publisher Joseph Dent to illustrate Sir Thomas Malory's epic, Le Morte D'Arthur (1893). Impressed by the artist's ability, Dent also observed that Beardsley was "a strange boy" and probably "not long for this world." Despite his apparent frailty, Beardsley produced over 300 illustrations within a short time frame. The resulting work blends the classical poses and complex compositions found in Pre-Raphaelite art and the decorative patterning, flat two-dimensionality, and erotica of Japanese Ukiyo-ye prints with a Decadent fixation on death and decay.

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Aubrey Beardsley Biography Continues

His illustrations for Le Morte D'Arthur made Beardsley famous and led to his introduction to Oscar Wilde, a provocative author and important figure in the Decadent and Aesthetic movements in England. Deeply influenced by the French Decadent theory of art outlined by Theophile Gautier and exemplified in Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), Wilde was an outspoken critic of repressive Victorian sensibilities and supported the Aesthetic notion of "art for art's sake." His philosophical novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) plays on these ideas by telling a story about a man, Dorian, who sells his soul for eternal beauty and immortality, but falls into depravity. Wilde, who acknowledged the controversial novel had an autobiographical component, lived his art. His decadent lifestyle and homosexuality shocked prudish Victorian society.

Beardsley's own sexuality is uncertain, but nonetheless aroused feverish public speculation, including accusations of homosexuality, transvestitism, and incest with his sister. A meticulous dresser, Beardsley's neatly pressed morning jacket, fine gloves, and patent leather pumps only fueled rumors, as did his association with Wilde. Punch magazine dubbed Beardsley "Daubrey Wierdsley" and "Awfully Weirdly." The artist's relationship with Wilde, though it initially bolstered his career, quickly became tumultuous and, ultimately cost Beardsley his position as art editor for The Yellow Book, an important Decadent magazine, in 1895.

In 1894, Beardsley, having just met the notorious author, commenced illustrating the English translation of Wilde's Salomé (1894). The resulting work reached new heights of public offence with its erotic, ghoulish, deformed figures, phallic candles, femme fatales, and blood-drinking flowers. Many images were condemned as obscene, or bore no relation to the text. And yet they had such a diabolic beauty that the egotist Wilde began to worry that they might outshine his work. In particular Wilde criticized the Japanese aesthetic in Beardsley's work, which he considered contrary to the Byzantine character of Salomé. The decorative embroidery on Salomé's gown in The Peacock Skirt as well as intricate interlacing floral patterns throughout the book were largely inspired by Whistler's Peacock Room, which Beardsley so greatly admired. Offended by Wilde's critique, Beardsley mocked Wilde in playful caricatures such as Oscar Wilde at Work (1895), which shows the author plagiarizing the Bible, Swinburne, and French Verbs. Wilde retaliated by publically declaring that he had "invented Aubrey Beardsley" - a preposterous claim noted by journalists.

Victorian society was (not surprisingly) appalled by Salomé. The Art Journal described Beardsley's work as, "terrible in its weirdness and suggestions of horror and wickedness." Seemingly untroubled by his critics and perhaps playing on their anxiety, Beardsley described his imaginative, theatrical, and macabre work as populated by "subjects [which] were quite mad and a little indecent. Strange hermaphroditic figures wandering about in period costumes, quite a new world of my own creation."

Beardsley's talent extended beyond book illustrations to poster designs and magazine editing. In keeping with his interest in theatre, the artist created a poster for the Avenue Theatre that featured the play A Comedy of Sighs (1894). At the time, the world was on the cusp of an advertising revolution. Recognizing this, Beardsley observed in his essay, "The Art of the Hoarding" (1894) that if advertisements were to be unavoidable in modern life, they should be beautiful. The artist foresaw "London... resplendent with advertisements, and, against a leaden sky, sky-signs will trace their formal arabesque. Beauty has laid siege to the city, and telegraph wires shall no longer be the sole joy of our aesthetic perceptions."

Other examples of the beautifully rendered advertisements Beardsley produced could be found in magazines, including The Yellow Book, for which he briefly served as art editor. The quarterly publication featured essays by such giants as H. G. Wells, William Butler Yeats, and Henry James. It mocked Victorian society for censoring sex in art and literature. This sexually repressive Victorian attitude came from both rational (syphilis was rampant) and irrational reasons (they thought masturbation caused physical disorders). In his work for The Yellow Book, Beardsley revealed his adherence to Pre-Raphaelite notions of repressed desire and directly challenged Victorian morals by obscuring the line between art and obscenity.

Mature Period

Aubrey Beardsley Photo

The Yellow Book was a sell-out, despite being damned by the press as "repulsive" and "insolent." Its name intentionally called to mind yellow paper bound French decadent novels deplored by conservative Victorians. If this blatant association was not enough, within a year of its initial publication, Beardsley, then its art editor, became engulfed in the explosive public scandal of the Oscar Wilde rent boy/libel trials of 1895. The press reported that Wilde, upon being arrested for indecency and sodomy, was led away with a "yellow book" under his arm - a reference to his notorious character Dorian Gray. The public, however, believed the text to be Beardsley's journal of the same name. Public outrage convinced The Yellow Book publisher John Lane to fire Beardsley. Thus, by age 22, the young artist had lost his income and, it seemed, his career and reputation. Perversely, perhaps enjoying his newfound notoriety, Beardsley promptly moved into the very suite in Geneux's Private Hotel that had been named in Wilde's trial.

Beardsley was not unemployed for long. A leading distributor of erotica, Leonard Smithers collaborated with Beardsley to found a rival magazine, The Savoy, in 1896. Smithers also hired the artist to illustrate Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1896). Unfortunately, that year Beardsley's tuberculosis returned with violent haemorrhaging, so that he was often too ill to create. The work he could achieve was beautifully elegant and intricate. Gone were the jet-black swaths and blank spaces. Now grey tonal variations and delicately rendered details characterized his work. Beardsley's new style was also more explicitly pornographic. He portrayed female sexuality, phalluses, and female masturbation, for example, in Aristophanes' Lysistrata (1896) at a time when women were not believed to experience sexual desire.

Pope's The Rape of the Lock was beautifully bound in turquoise cloth and gold. On seeing it James McNeill Whistler, who had rejected earlier attempts by Beardsley to cultivate a friendship, reduced Beardsley to tears by telling him, "Aubrey, I have made a very great mistake - you are a very great artist." Despite Whistler's accolades, Beardsley's work for Smithers, particularly Lysistrata, was deemed offensive. The publisher was accused of ruining Beardsley's morals and sacrificing his health. But Beardsley would not succumb to his ailment that quickly. Health permitting, Beardsley very much enjoyed the social scene and traveling. During their 1896 trip to Paris, for example, he, Smithers, and the poet Ernest Dowson visited Gabriel de Lautrec in Montmartre and there indulged in a night of hashish and dance halls. When the wine and revelry subsided, the sober Beardsley experienced a change of heart and converted to Roman Catholicism. He promptly wrote to Smithers begging him to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and other obscene works "by all that is holy." Smithers, however, did not comply with his wishes and went on to publish Beardsley's collected work in A Book of Fifty Drawings (1897).

Late Period

Aubrey Beardsley Portrait

The last years of Beardsley's life was spent trying to complete illustrations for Theophile Gautier's Madame Maupin and Ben Jonson's Volpone. Facing death, the artist wanted to leave behind a beautiful and worthy legacy. In a final collaboration with Smithers, the artist managed to create his own book, Under the Hill, for which he wrote the text as well as designed its illustrations. Early portions of this erotic story about Venus and Tannhauser appeared in issues of The Savoy (1896) in a slightly watered-down form. It was not until 1907 that Smithers published the entire manuscript which had been left unfinished at the time of Beardsley's death nearly a decade earlier.

His health deteriorating, Beardsley took up residence on the French Riviera in 1896. Letters to friends show his decline to an inevitable and terrible death. Sometimes he wrote despairingly, "I am literally crying with vexation," and other times in vain hope, "that the end is less near than it seems." In one of his last letters he expressed his regret to die when "such splendid things I had planned." Aubrey Beardsley died at the age of 25 in Menton, France. Like Dorian Gray, he would remain young forever.


Legacy

The Decadent movement, and the Aesthetic movement from which it emerged, paved the way for modern art. Beardsley's work possesses the decorative qualities of Aestheticism as well as the pessimistic hedonism and macabre humor of the Decadents. As such, Dada painter George Grosz noted in 1946 that Beardsley influenced "practically every modern designer after 1900." The artist's designs were particularly important to the development of Art Nouveau. Some other important artists who took note of Beardsley are Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and artists of the Glasgow School, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The theatrical beauty of Beardsley's designs were used in the Hollywood production of Salomé in 1921 and Leon Bakst's sets for the Ballets Russes.

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Beardsley's work has been regularly re-appreciated in Art Nouveau revivals, particularly during the 1960s in Peter Max's cartoons for the Beatles' film Yellow Submarine. He was also included in the collage on the Beatles Sgt Pepper album, which suggests his significance as a major influence on the musical group. Beardsley's work continues to shock audiences today. Most recently, in 2007 Beardsley's Cinesias entreating Myrrhina to coition from Lysistrata was exhibited at London's Barbican with access limited to viewers 18 years and older.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Aubrey Beardsley
Interactive chart with Aubrey Beardsley's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

William Morris
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Friends

Oscar Wilde
James Whistler

Movements

Decadent Movement
Aesthetic Art
The Pre-Raphaelites
Art Nouveau
Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley
Years Worked: 1891 - 1898

Artists

Wassily Kandinsky
Pablo Picasso
Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Friends

Oscar Wilde

Movements

Art Nouveau
Symbolism



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Useful Resources on Aubrey Beardsley

Books
Articles
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography

By Matthew Sturgis

Aubrey Beardsley

By Stephen Calloway

The Best of Aubrey Beardsley

By Kenneth Clark

Beardsley and Victorian Sexual Politics

By Linda Gertner Zatlin

More Interesting Books about Aubrey Beardsley
Sex and Sexuality in the 19th Century

By Jan Marsh
Victoria and Albert Museum Blog

Illustrating Wilde: An Examination of Aubrey Beardsley's interpretation of Salomé

By Yelena Primorac
Victorian Web
27 April, 2009

Aubrey Beardsley's Macabre Illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe

Open Culture
September, 2015

Aubrey Beardsley's Illustrations for The Rape of the Lock

Reading University Blog
July, 2013

More Interesting Articles about Aubrey Beardsley
transcripts
Aubrey Beardsley's Under the Hill

Online Text

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jen Farren

Edited and revised by Sandy McCain

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Farren
Edited and revised by Sandy McCain
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Aesthetic Art
Aesthetic Art
Aesthetic Art
The Aesthetic Movement emerged first in Britain in the late-nineteenth century. Inspired by a rejection of previous styles in both the fine and decorative arts, its adherents were committed to the pursuit of beauty and the doctrine of 'art for art's sake'. Believing that art had declined in an era of utility and rationalism, they claimed that art deserved to be judged on its own terms alone.
TheArtStory: Aesthetic Art
Decadent Movement
Decadent Movement
Decadent Movement
The Decadent Movement began in the late nineteenth century, influenced by Romanticism, Symbolism, and Aestheticism, both artists and writers explored this movement in their works. Many scholars say that Decadence was a transition between Romanticism and Modernism.
Decadent Movement
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism is an artistic and literary movement that first emerged in France in the 1880s. In the visual arts it is often considered part of Post-Impressionism. It is characterized by an emphasis on the mystical, romantic and expressive, and often by the use of symbolic figures.
TheArtStory: Symbolism
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau was a movement that swept through the decorative arts and architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Generating enthusiasts throughout Europe, it was aimed at modernizing design and escaping the eclectic historical styles that had previously been popular. It drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms with more angular contours.
TheArtStory: Art Nouveau
The Pre-Raphaelites
The Pre-Raphaelites
The Pre-Raphaelites
The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English painters whose goal was to reform art by rejecting the classical influences of Raphael, to return to a more mediaval approach to the arts. Romanticism was a great influence on this group and they were interested honest depictions of nature.
TheArtStory: The Pre-Raphaelites
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was a nineteenth-century Irish poet and playwright, and is widely considered one of the modern era's most influential writers, celebrated for his dry wit, irony and flamboyant character. Commonly associated with the Aesthetic Movement of writing and philosophy, Wilde's greatest works include the The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which proved to be his final play before passing 1900.
Oscar Wilde
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Pierre Baudelaire was a French poet and art critic during the mid-nineteenth century. His poetry depicted the harsh realities of urban poverty in nineteenth-century Paris, and often focused on the flanuer (one who wanders the city to experience it). The Baudelarian idea of the flaneur is a lasting legacy of the modern era.
Charles Baudelaire
James Whistler
James Whistler
James Whistler
James Whistler was a nineteenth-century American expatriate artist. Educated in France and later based in London, Whistler was a famous proponent of art-for-art's-sake, and an esteemed practictioner of tonal harmony in his canvases, often characterized by his masterful use of blacks and greys, as seen in his most famous work, Whistler's Mother (1871). Whistler was also known as an American Impressionist, and in 1874 he famously turned down an invitation from Degas to exhibit his work with the French Impressionists.
TheArtStory: James Whistler
Dada
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory: Dada
George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz was a German Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit artist. He was enamored of America and highly critical of Weimar society. Grosz immigrated to the United States just as Hitler came to power and opened a private art school in Des Moines.
TheArtStory: George Grosz
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory: Wassily Kandinsky
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory: Pablo Picasso
Glasgow School
Glasgow School
Glasgow School
The Glasgow School was a group of artists and designers who created the signature Glasgow Style of art that formed during the economic boom of the end nineteenth century. The Glasgow Style was a mix of Japonisme, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the Celtic Revival. This school was also notable because many of its most prominent members were women.
Glasgow School
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an Scottish architect, designer, sculptor and decorative artist, associated with the Arts & Crafts Movement, but is best known as the United Kingdom's greatest proponent of Art Nouveau. However, unlike many of his Art Nouveau contemporaries in the field of architecture, Mackintosh preferred simple design and economy of form as opposed to ornate decoration. Mackintosh was also a founding member of the Glasgow School movement and the so-called "Glasgow style" of architecture.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
William Morris
William Morris
William Morris
William Morris was an English textile designer, writer, and social activist who was associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris not only made great contributions to British textile works but also is considered to be one of the fathers of the modern fantasy genre.
William Morris
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a Post-Impressionist artist who depicted the dancers, prostitutes, drinkers, and other characters of fin-de-siecle Paris. He is known for his paintings, his caricatures of friends, and his well-designed posters for Parisian dance halls.
TheArtStory: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
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