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Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints

Started: 1904

Ended: 1960s

Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints Timeline

Quotes

"The mind flows into the hands and the hands run across the paper. That is the place where my lyrical drawing is established, that is where the cause of painting lies."
Kōshirō Onchi
"Art is not something that can be grasped by the mind, it is understood by the heart. If one goes back to its origin, painting expresses the heart in color and form, and it must not be limited to the world of reflected forms captured by sight."
Kōshirō Onchi
"Like the vastness of space, like a universe unlimited, untold, unattainable, and inscrutable- that is the woodcut."
Shikō Munakata
"The woodcut, unconcerned with good and evil, with ideas, with differences, tells us that it consists of truth alone."
Shikō Munakata
"To me black and white have always been the most beautiful of colors."
Un'ichi Hiratsuka
"To borrow musical terms, a black and white must have a rhythm of line and mass and a harmony of straight lines and curves. One of the great difficulties is to make the white space live.... The handling of white space is different in every one of my pictures."
Un'ichi Hiratsuka

"The virtue of the print lies in the certainty that it comes from a creative process which permits no sham. Unlike brush painting, it permits no wavering of the hand. It is honest."

Kōshirō Onchi

Synopsis

Prior to the 20th century, printmaking in Japan had been largely relegated to the commercial process of ukiyo-e woodblocks in which an artist would work with carvers, printers, and publishers to create highly reproducible works of art glamorizing traditional subjects. With the arrival of the Mejii Period in 1868, Japanese artists became exposed to Western influences, spurring the sōsaku-hanga, or "creative prints,' art movement. Prints were transformed from cheap products made for the masses into original works of high art created by an artist that emphasized his or her individual voice and perspective while incorporating modern techniques and styles. Sōsaku-hanga's emergence was concurrent with Yōga, a painting movement also influenced by Western art ideals. The emergence of both, with their impetus toward creative self-expression, was responsible for establishing the new avant-garde in Japan.

Key Ideas

In contrast to its sister movement shin-hanga, which was an evolved contemporary form of ukiyo-e, sōsaku-hanga artists were solely involved in the printmaking process from design to finished project. They advocated that art should be self-drawn, self-carved, and self-printed.
Although many sōsaku-hanga artists departed from historical Japanese art methods and materials through the introduction of perspective or by adopting from Western movements such as Folk Art, Naturalism, Expressionism, or Abstraction, they did so while still paying homage to decidedly Japanese subjects and traditions.
Sōsaku-hanga's principles contributed to a new intellectual discussion of the "self" that was taking place in the Japanese cultural arena. Its artwork sat side by side with this new discourse in magazines and societies that grew during this time.
With the rebirth of Japan after World War II, sōsaku-hanga became a strong part of the country's economic reconstruction as American patronage aimed to promote a more Democratic art. Much of the movement's prints at this time became more abstract and were viewed as an authentic blend of East and West.
Sōsaku-hanga helped elevate the print from a work seen prior as a cheap advertising tool, or lowly form of artistic output for the commoner, to a valid medium for fine art. This elevation made a major contribution to today's proliferation of artist prints as credible forms of high art.

Most Important Art

Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints Famous Art

Fisherman (1904)

Artist: Kanae Yamamoto
This groundbreaking print shows an aged fisherman, wearing a somewhat worn looking ceremonial robe, as he stands on an elevated spot overlooking the simple huts on the edge of the harbor. The fisherman is seen in profile with his face turned away from the viewer, contemplating the sea as he holds his pipe. The rough gouges of the wood carving create the swirling folds of his robe, the straw pilings on which he stands, the gritty worn feel of the village, and the sea framed by the dark lines of mountains or clouds on the horizon. Retaining the traces left by the chisel, the work is unmistakably modern, in its poignant and expressionistic feeling.

Kanae was originally trained in wood and printing techniques before he began studying Yōga at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts, and this work combines both aspects of his training, as the innovative treatment of the block creates the shadow and depth of a Western-influenced naturalism. The gouges on the surface convey both the harshness and dignity of the fisherman's life.

By eschewing the traditional collaborative process that had been previously established for woodblock prints, and lending the scene a sense of individual artistic expression, this piece launched sôsaku-hanga and also established the movement's divergence from the smoothly finished prints of ukiyo-e and shin-hanga.
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Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints Artworks in Focus:

Beginnings

In 1868, the onset of the Mejii Period in Japan brought about new open trade borders with the West, causing a countrywide rush toward modernity that affected all areas of society. Many Western teachers were imported to impart education in science and art in order to elevate Japan as an equal peer with the rest of the world. Many Japanese artists began to shake up what they viewed as the country's staid art traditions by adopting fresh styles and techniques from Western art movements and marrying them with aesthetics that were still decidedly Japanese toward creating a contemporary lexicon.

This caused a large transformation in the printmaking field, which largely consisted of ukiyo-e, an art form that had become noted for cheap reproduction and catering to the masses, disconnected from fine art. Two new strains would emerge.

Also dubbed the "new ukiyo-e," shin-hanga focused primarily on the traditional subjects of ukiyo-e, including kacho-ga, bird and flower prints, bijin-ga, portraits of beautiful women, landscapes of symbolic places in Japan, and kabuki theatre, which had already been well received in the West, launching the 19th century Japonisme movement among artists and designers. At the same time, shin-hanga prints incorporated Western influences, particularly from Impressionism, and were meant to appeal to a Western audience.

Appealing to Western collectors and drawing upon Western influence were shared by both the sōsaku-hanga and shin-hanga movements, but shin-hanga emphasized many reproductions of a single print, and primarily drew upon Western Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and Naturalism to create smoothly finished prints of traditional subjects. In contrast sōsaku-hanga artists favored the avant-garde in both subject matter and technique, argued against reproduction, and created prints that retained the workings of the artistic process.

Yamamoto Kanae

Yamamoto Kanae's <i>Self-Portrait</i> (1915) exemplifies his approach to Yōga, or Western style, painting.
Yamamoto Kanae's Self-Portrait (1915) exemplifies his approach to Yōga, or Western style, painting.

Originally trained as a wood engraver, Yamamoto Kanae began studying Yōga, or Western style painting, at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1902, in part because the influx of Western print technology had made wood engraving an increasingly untenable profession. Studying under Kuroda Seiki, who was considered "the father of modern Japanese western-style painting," he was introduced to a wide range of Western artists and techniques.

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Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints Overview Continues

In 1904, while still a student, Kanae took a trip to the Chiba Prefecture along the Tone River, where he sketched a fisherman. Returning home he made a woodblock of the sketch, carving one side to be printed in ochre for the broad areas of the image, and the other to be printed in black to create lines and details.

Created by the artist alone, Kanae's Fisherman (1904) was in direct contrast to the popular tradition of shin-hanga, the new woodblock prints of ukiyo-e that had been a collaborative four-step process involving an artist, publisher, woodblock carver, and printer. The resulting print launched the sōsaku-hanga, or creative prints, movement when it was published in Myōjō, a literary and art journal, in 1904. The editor of Myōjō, Hakutei Ishii wrote an accompanying article, calling Fisherman "a revolutionary step" in Japanese art. Ishii would first coin the term sōsaku-hanga in the Bungei hyakka zensho (Encyclopedia of Liberal Arts) (1909).

Sōsaku-hanga sparked new ideas that a work could be driven by an artist's individualism, idealism, and humanism, while still carrying a reverence for traditional Japanese art. It also incorporated an appreciation for Western avant-garde movements and a disregard for reproductive printmaking.

Art curator, Elizabeth Emrich has summarized the difference between the two movements, "While shin-hanga marked both the continuation and transformation of the ukiyo-e tradition during the last years of the Meiji period...the sōsaku-hanga movement, emerging at the same time, drew heavily on Western painting styles within Japan as well as the work of European artists such as Munch, Kandinsky, and Gauguin ... developing new forms of synthesis between modernity and tradition, specifically in the use of Buddhist iconography and calligraphic techniques."

Hakutei Ishii

Hakutei Ishii was also a Yōga painter, who studied with the leaders of the movement, Asai Chū and Kuroda Seiki. Subsequently, he became an active promoter of Western style art in his role as editor of Myōjō (Morning Star) in 1904. With his publication of Kanae's Fisherman, Ishii became a leader of the sōsaku-hanga movement. His close artistic friendship with Kanae led to the two men, along with the artist Tsuruzo Ishii, co-founding Heitan in 1905. The art journal, modeled after European art journals like the Art Nouveau Judgend, published five features of the trio's work along with articles advocating for the new creative possibilities of sōsaku-hanga.

During the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, there was such a demand for prints that more convenient Western printing technologies were widely adopted, and by 1910 the use of woodblocks for commercial printing in Japan had come to an end. In supporting sōsaku-hanga, Ishii was not so much committed to the movement as primarily interested in promoting the continued viability of Japanese prints, as shown in his later return to shin-hanga with his Toyko junikei (Twelve Views of Tokyo), a series he began in 1910.

Shirakaba-ha

This 1912 photograph shows the members of the Shirakaba-ha.
This 1912 photograph shows the members of the Shirakaba-ha.

The Shirakaba-ha society, or White Birch Society, played an important role in promoting the individualism of the artist, and in creating an intellectual environment that supported the sōsaku-hanga movement. Created in 1910 by writers, artists, and critics, many of whom had been students at the Gakushin, or Peer's School, in Tokyo, the group included not only noted novelists like Satomi Ton, Takeo Arishima, and Saneatsu Mushanokōji, but the philosopher and later founder of the mingei, or Folk Art movement, Yanagi Sōetsu.

Wanting to counter the naturalism of the previous generation, Shirakaba-ha emphasized positive themes and idealized individualism. As historian Gennifer Weisenfeld noted, "the members...espoused personal cultivation as a legitimate social goal" in all the arts. As shown by their support of the Atarashiki-mura movement, or "New Village," a utopian village where art and ordinary labor were incorporated into daily life, many of them were influenced by the idealized humanism theories of the Russian writer and thinker, Leo Tolstoy.

In 1910 the society launched Shirakaba, or White Birch, which, published until 1923, became the leading journal of the era. The issues combined literary work with art and essays on aesthetics, and played as Weisenfeld wrote, "a major role in introducing and disseminating information about European art." More than eighty works by Paul Cézanne were featured in various issues, as art historian Alicia Volk noted, "More than any artist it was Cézanne who triggered a new way of thinking about art and expression." Japanese artists like the Yōga painter Ryūsei Kishida were associated with the magazine, as shown by his creation of a number of covers for issues from 1918-1922. The artists associated with the journal and the society were particularly influenced by European avant-garde movements and in 1910 began organizing their first exhibition as well as exhibitions of Western art.

Kōtarō Takamura and Natsume Sōseki

Sculptor Kōtarō Takamura and the novelist Natsume Sōseki established the theoretical basis of sōsaku-hanga. Takamura's A Green Sun (1910) emphasized modern artistic freedom, the right to paint the sun green, as he wrote, "I desire absolute freedom of art. Consequently, I recognize the limitless authority of individuality of the artist." Takamura's essay resembled an artistic manifesto, criticizing what he called a "local approach to color," saying, there seem to be some who "think that nature in Japan has a certain inviolable set of colors peculiar to it," and arguing that he'd "like the artist to forget that he's Japanese. I'd like him to rid himself entirely of the idea that he is reproducing nature in Japan. And I'd like him to express on his canvas the tone of nature as he sees it, freely, indulgently, willfully...as Claude Monet did, painting tree leaves sky-blue."

Natsume Sōseki, the novelist described by art historian Kenjiro Okazaki as "the literary giant known to have founded the basis of modern Japanese literature," was deeply interested in art and architecture. His lecture "The Philosophical Basis of the Art of Literature" (1906), which pointed out that an image, apparently before one's eyes, is a composition created by the brain, became an early influence upon the development of Japanese avant-garde art. In his 1912 essay "Bunten and the Creative Arts," he stated that "art begins with the expression of the self and ends with the expression of the self," lending further impetus to sōsaku-hanga concepts of art and individuality. The novelist is still influential today, as evidenced by the creation of an android made to resemble him to give lectures and readings of his works to contemporary audiences in 2016.

Kōshirō Onchi

In 1910 Kōshirō Onchi began studying Yōga painting at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, where the Western artists Wassily Kandinsky, Edvard Munch, and Paul Cézanne particularly influenced him. However, unhappy with the academic environment, he dropped out after a year and turned to book illustration in 1911, encouraged by Japanese artist and poet Takehisa Yumeiji. Book illustration and design afforded him a livelihood and also informed his interests in poetry, Chinese calligraphy, Western typefaces, and printing techniques.

A 1914 leaflet advertising the publication of <i>Tsukuhae</i> shows the influence of Western symbolism in a <i>sōsaku-hanga</i> print.
A 1914 leaflet advertising the publication of Tsukuhae shows the influence of Western symbolism in a sōsaku-hanga print.

In 1913 Kōshirō Onchi became the leading proponent of sōsaku-hanga, lending his innovative artistic vision and theoretical sense to the movement. His first efforts involved inviting his friends and fellow students at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, Fujimori Shizuo and Tanaka Kyokichi, to launch a magazine. Tsukuhae, or Moonglow, was launched to publish poetry and prints in 1913. The trio dubbed themselves Bishoha no sanin or Three Men of the Smile School, parodying the various societies of the official art world, and advocating for the avant-garde potential of the self-created print.

From September 1914 to November 1915, Tsukuhae published the sōsaku-hanga prints of the three founding artists along with the Symbolist and Imagist poems of Hakusyū Kitahara, Sakutarō Hagiwara, Saisei Murou, and Bochō Yamaura. The artists intended to create works that, like the poems, expressed thought and feeling in powerful but non-representational images.

Though the magazine was short-lived, Onchi actively created and promoted sōsaku-hanga journals and societies throughout his life. In 1918, along with Yamamoto Kanae and others, he founded the Creative Print Association, which promoted the work of sōsaku-hanga artists in the following decades. In 1928 with Un'ichi Hiratsuka, Sumio Kawakami, Suwa Kanenori, Henmi Takashi, Fujimori Shizuo, Maekawa Senpan, and Fukazawa Sakuichi, he launched a print project One Hundred New Views of Tokyo (1928-1932). In 1939 he founded the Ichimoku-kai, or First Thursday Society, which included artists like Gen Yamaguchi and Jun'ichirô Sekino who met once a month at his home. During the war years, the First Thursday Society supported emerging sōsaku-hanga artists, both financially and artistically, and also established connections with noted American print collectors like William Hartnett. As a result, following World War II the movement continued with renewed vigor, publishing various portfolios of prints, including Tokyo kaiko zue (1945) and Nihon jozoku sen (1946).

Concepts and Styles

Shin-Hanga and the Overlap with Sōsaku-hanga

Goyō Hashiguchi's <i>Woman at Her Bath</i> (1915) exemplified <i>shin-hanga's</i> continuation of <i>ukiyo-e's</i> collaborative process and traditional subject matter. Here, <i>bijin-ga</i>, portraits of beautiful women, is combined with a Western influenced nude.
Goyō Hashiguchi's Woman at Her Bath (1915) exemplified shin-hanga's continuation of ukiyo-e's collaborative process and traditional subject matter. Here, bijin-ga, portraits of beautiful women, is combined with a Western influenced nude.

Shin-hanga, or new prints, began under the leadership of Shōzaburō Watanabe, a publisher who wanted to create what he called a "creative new print," who assembled a group of Japanese artists and artisans to fulfill this goal. Goyō Hashiguchi's Woman at Her Bath (1915), made under Watanabe's direction, was the first acclaimed work of the new movement. The work characterized shin-hanga's combination of a traditional Japanese subject in a smoothly finished print while reflecting the Western influence of a naturalistic nude. Another contemporaneous influence upon the development of the movement was the work of Takahashi Hiroaki whose works like Spring Passage (1936) were to have great commercial appeal. From the 1920s until World War I, shin-hanga prints, often romanticized images of Japan, were much sought after abroad, as seen by major exhibitions of shin-hanga works in America in the 1930s.

Among the most noted shin-hanga artists were Hiroshi Yoshida and Kawase Hasui, both particularly known for their landscapes rendered with a kind of painterly naturalism. As art curator Roni Neuer wrote, "Yoshida is, for the early 20th Century, one of the top two artists that did landscape prints. Yoshida and Hasui Kawase revitalized the traditional Japanese landscape print." Hasui portrayed the Japanese landscape and its features and drew upon the ukiyo-e works of Utagawa Hiroshige. Yoshida traveled the world, beginning in the early 1920s, and made prints of the noted landscapes of North America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia, which were globally popular. Yet Yoshida is also an example of the sometimes blurred lines between the shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga movements, as he is considered to be a leader of the shin-hanga movement, he also created his own printing shop to oversee each step in the process.

Abstraction

This double image shows the two sides of the woodblock, carved by Kōshirō Onchi and stained with the colors of his printing, to create <i>Light Time</i> (1915).
This double image shows the two sides of the woodblock, carved by Kōshirō Onchi and stained with the colors of his printing, to create Light Time (1915).

Sōsaku-hanga played a pioneering role in abstraction in Japanese art, particularly through the work of Kōshirō Onchi. His Light Time (1915) is considered to be the first truly abstract Japanese work. However, it was primarily in the late 1930's that abstraction became a leading tendency in sōsaku-hanga, as a new generation of artists like Gen Yamaguchi, Yoshida Masaji, and Shinagawa Takum were influenced by Onchi both in creating abstract works and exploring innovative techniques, as seen in Yamaguichi's Composition (1966). As Masaji wrote, "it was Onchi after the war, who gave me the impetus to do abstract work.... As I listened to him I found that he expressed many ideas I had long felt, and this gave me the confidence I needed."

Mingei

A number of sōsaku-hanga artists became part of the mingei, or the Folk Art movement launched in 1926 by Sōetsu Yanagi, a philosopher and one of the founding members of the Shirakaba-ha society. Yanagi's interest in art began in Korea in 1916 when he began to study and collect folk art objects, particularly ceramics. Yanagi defined mingei as the "hand-crafted art of ordinary people," and his advocacy led to both the creation of the Korean Folk Crafts Museum in 1921 and the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in 1936. Serizawa Keisuke, a Japanese designer of textiles, became an artistic leader of the movement. He developed the katazome, or stencil dyeing, technique that allowed the inclusion of an uncolored area within a pattern that could then be hand colored, for which he was named in 1956 a Living National Treasure of Japan. He influenced a number of noted artists including Yoshitoshi Mori, Watanabe Sadao, and Shikō Munakata. Mori and Watanabe modified the katazome technique for fabric into the kappazuri, or stencil printing, technique for their sōsaku-hanga work.

Shikō Munakata began his career making sumizuri-e, or black ink only prints, starting in 1926. But his unique contribution to sōsaku-hanga began in 1935 when he met Yanagi Sōetsu, the founder of mingei, and subsequently became associated with the movement. Yanagi Sōetsu felt that mingei reflected the deep values of Japanese art and culture by honoring the medium's materiality with bold and spontaneous expression, devoid of self-consciousness.

Associated with mingei and also a devout Buddhist, Shikō Munakata developed a practice that valued the materiality of the wood that involved carving with spontaneous boldness, usually without preliminary sketches. As he said, "The mind goes and the tool walks alone." In contrast to Onchi who felt sōsaku-hanga was an expression of the self; Munakata felt that art was an expression of nature's reality and beauty, residing in the woodblock itself. He said, "the essence of hanga lies in the fact that one must give in to the ways of the board ... there is a power in the board, and one cannot force the tool against that power." His Ten Great Disciples of the Buddha (1939), a series of black and white prints carved out of magnolia blocks, exemplified his approach.

Later Developments

By the 1960's sōsaku-hanga as a vital movement had declined, in part due to the deaths of noted leaders like Onchi, but also due to the development of new international movements like Fluxus, the Gutai movement, and the new Japanese avant-garde. The printmaking that followed often explored Western techniques or combined that influence with both shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga approaches.

Sōsaku-hanga's emphasis on avant-garde work and the exploration of technique was a primary influence on kindai hanga, modern or contemporary prints. The use of mixed media and innovative printing techniques by artists like Onchi and Munakata encouraged an attitude of openness to Western printing techniques as seen in the silk screening work of later Japanese artists like Sekine Yoshio, and Sawada Tetsurô. Onchi's exploration of photography influenced Taniguchi Shigeru, and, at the same time, his exploration of mixed media influenced later artists like Tetsuya Noda. Amano Kazumi in the 1960s was strongly inspired by his teacher Munakata Shikô. In the 1980s, both Hamaguchi Yozo and Hamanishi Katsunori drew upon sōsaku-hanga in making their mezzotint prints. The Scottish artist Paul Binnie and the Canadian David Bull have combined the influence of both shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga in their work, as seen in Binnie's focus upon kabuki characters derived from ukiyo-e.

Sōsaku-hanga also influenced artists like Saburō Hasegawa, part of the Gutai movement and colleague of John Cage, in the development of what he called his "Multi-Block" prints, where he would randomly place carved blocks to create varying pictorial surfaces, or what he called "environments." Some scholars feel that Cage's use of graphic notation was influenced and inspired by Hasegawa's multi-blocks.

Of the individual artists who were part of the sôsaku-hanga movement, the most influential was Kôshirô Onchi, as he influenced several generations of artists, including Un'ichi Hiratsuka, Jun'ichiro Sekino, Gen Yamaguchi, Rikio Takahashi, Haku Maki, and Masaj Yoshida. As the artist Yamaguichi Gen said of the artist after his death, "Onchi was a vital artist...He was the embodiment of modern hanga in Japan and our ambassador to the rest of the world."


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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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Useful Resources on Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Koshiro Onchi, 1891-1955: Woodcuts

By Koshiro Onchi

Onchi Koshiro: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, January 13 - February 28, 2016

By Tohru Matusmoto and Koshiro Onchi, et al.

Hanga: Japanese Creative Prints

By Chiaki Ajioka, Noriko Kuwahara, and Junko Nishiyama

Japan's modern prints - Sosaku Hanga Recomended resource

By Oliver Statler and Margaret Gentles

Yoshitoshi Mori (1898 - 1992) Recomended resource

Ronin Gallery online book
January 19, 2016

Shiko Munakata and the Disciples of Buddha Recomended resource

Ronin Gallery online book
Mar 5, 2017

A Green Sun

By Kōtarō Takamura
1910

Un'ichi Hiratsuka website

Japan's Modern Prints - Sōsaku Hanga

By Art Institute of Chicago

How Japan's Master Printer Merged Modern Graphic Art and Buddhism: A new exhibition at Ronin Gallery examines Shiko Munakata's interest in Buddhist history. Recomended resource

By DJ Pangburn
Vice.com
March 3, 2017

Japanese Woodblock Artist Un'ichi Hiratsuka Dies at 102

Washington Post
December 6, 1997

Holy Shit, These Japanese Woodblock Prints of Famous World Landmarks Are Incredible

By Beverly Brian
The landscape prints of world-traveling printmaker Hiroshi Yoshida are on view at Ronin Gallery.
January 27, 2017

Kendall Brown: Japanese Prints Renewed Recomended resource

Bowdoin College lecture by professor Kendall Brown

Hiratsuka Un'ichi

Ancient Art Podcast 27

The Shin Hanga Movement in America: The Pivotal Role of Indianapolis

Lecture by Kendall Brown

Shiko Munakata Recomended resource

Talk by Allison Agsten, Hammer Museum

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