Vermeer & Music: The Art of Love & Leisure at The National Gallery

In June I spent an evening in the National Gallery with my drawing class sitting sketching in the room displaying three Vermeer paintings of women with musical instruments.  A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal are part of the gallery’s permanent collection, while The Guitar Player is on temporary loan from Kenwood House while that building is under repair.

On that evening, we sat on our folding stools and focussed on the composition of the painting we had chosen to study, and in the process focussed very much on the shapes and the geometry of each work.  In the couple of hours we were there other visitors peered over our shoulders and spent time looking at the paintings, but there was no overwhelming crush; when there are so many other things to look at too, the general visitor scans the walls and pauses rarely.

For this special exhibition, Vermeer and Music, the curators have moved these three paintings to the basement rooms of the Sainsbury Wing and have built a small show around them.  It includes musical instruments as well as paintings of musical subjects by Dutch painters working at the same time as Vermeer in the ‘Golden Age’.

At first I was pleasantly surprised at the low cost of the ticket, only £3.50 with my Art Fund Pass, but when I realised that the paintings, with only a couple of exceptions, are already in the National Gallery Collection, or owned by the Queen, and the instruments have come from one of the London colleges of music, it dawned on me that although not always together in one building, most of the pieces on display are usually available to see free of charge somewhere in London.

I usually don’t pay the additional money for an audio guide to exhibitions, but as we weren’t able to go on one of the days when there are live recitals of contemporary music on ancient instruments, on this occasion I did pay the extra.  And it was worth it because it meant I could hear what the instruments would have sounded like.

I have read newspaper reviews in which the art critics have been less than complimentary about the ‘art’ element of the exhibition, because of the focus more on the social and musical components of the works on display.  But for me, having spent that evening looking so intently at the geometry of the paintings, it was fascinating to hear about the fashions of the dresses and the importance of the displays of wealth, of the carpet on the tables and the paintings on the walls, and that not all of the young woman were as demure as we might think think them.  A musician also spoke about the way the models’ hands were positioned on the instruments; that this person was clearly an accomplished player for the angle of her hand, and she was about to play this or that type of note.  But then again, it’s always the story of a thing that attracts me.

There are instruments from the period on display; ornately carved and painted harpsichords and virginals, as well as lutes and guitars.  Other than the very fact of their survival, it was interesting to see inside the harpsichords, at their construction and the  angles of the strings, and to learn that the reason we can see them at such different heights in the various paintings is that they didn’t have legs, but were instead placed on tables or stands to suit the owner.

I enjoyed it, and would recommend it for the insight into social history of the time, but I do think we should be alert to this apparent sleight of hand to get us to pay for things which are usually free of charge.

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Mexico A Revolution in Art 1910-1940 at the Royal Academy

2013-07-09 11.40.13This exhibition on Mexican art currently showing in the upper galleries of the Royal Academy is a bit puzzling, not least for the low ratio of Mexican artists represented.

I’m not at all knowledgeable about Mexican art,.  What I do know is a mishmash of basically unconnected things gleaned from my experience of visiting Diego Rivera’s and Frida Kahlo’s houses in Mexico City, and seeing some of the Rivera murals in the Palacia Nacional there, twenty years ago or so.  In truth, I only visited these places because the guide books recommended them as the things to do in the City.  Throw into the mix the vague history of Trotsky being assassinated with an  icepick in the back, a teenage reading of Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, and more recently Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna and you’ve pretty much covered what I know about Mexico in the early 20th century.

I’m not really any the wiser after having been around this exhibition.  It seems that one of the main problems with curating a show about important Mexican art from the period is that most of it is in the form of large murals which are still in situ in public buildings in the country.  In fact the Revolutionary government specifically commissioned major murals depicting the history making it the cornerstone of Mexican art in the period.

In the absence of this key element, this exhibition instead focuses on the art of artists from other countries who happened to pitch up in Mexico during this period, which is a different story.  From the evidence on the walls it seems that quite a few people did pass through at various times.  Some went on purpose, drawn by the idea of communist and revolutionary ideals, the desire to see what Rivera and his fellow muralists were doing, and to enjoy a bit of sunshine; others just happened there by accident, waiting for a US visa to be renewed or, like Trotsky, not welcome in other countries.

I think I needed a bit more explanation to properly understand how the work of all the artists on show really fit together, if they do at all.  According to Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard the catalogue accompanying the show provided an interesting hypothesis, but that seems a bit of a cheat, if none of it was evident from the works on display.

I was struck by the similarity between a number of the works by Mexican artists to the tourist paintings that I saw everywhere when I visited the country. The bold colours, stylised images have become the cliché of their art, and I’d like to have understood if these really were revolutionary early in the 20th century.

 Many of the most striking images were photographs, stark images of the war, sombrero wearing men brandishing rifles, carefuly composed groups standing over dead bodies.  It was hard to elicit exactly what we were looking at, trying to remember the name of the painting it reminded me of.  (Turns out after a bit of research to be a muddle in my memory of Goya’s Third of May 1808 and Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian)

What with worrying about that, and talking about how impressed I had been by the Rivera murals in Mexico City, the exhibition definitely provoked conversation and discussion, unfortunately it was more about the things the show failed to explain or illuminate rather than those that it did.

And don’t go expecting to see much by Kahlo, there is but a single tiny miniature.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at Tate Britain

2013-06-25 09.57.11This is going to be a very popular exhibition; even on members’ preview day, when you can usually enjoy a new Tate exhibition in a pleasantly scattered crowd, there were throngs of people generally getting in my way and I had to wait my turn to look closely at some of the canvases.  They even had the queue control ropes up outside the show, and a gift shop replete to over flowing with flat caps, tweed scarves and all manner of printed memorabilia.  They are girding themselves for a rush.

The curating of the exhibition focusses on Lowry’s depiction of city life in Lancashire in the decades from the 1920s; they are exclusively landscapes, so in a way, I saw precisely what I expected to see.  Re-imagined cityscapes peopled with figures in hats and coats, sharp angles and outlines, chimneys puffing smoke and great factories looming over the lines of back to back houses.

We arrived not long after the doors opened, so to avoid the crush in the first couple of rooms we walked through and started looking in Room 3, before returning to the first two rooms at the end.  It turns out that this was not at all a bad way to experience the show, as Room 1 is a sort of Greatest Hits, or a little bit of a taster menu for the works that are to come, a touch of this and one of that, and Room 2 provides a look at canvases from artists who may have influenced him.  I’m not sure that he was well served by either of these.

In the groupings in the later rooms of ‘Incident and Accident’, ‘Ruined Landscape’, ‘The Social Life of Labour Britain’ and ‘Industrial Landscapes’, I did feel that we became embroiled a little in a game of spot the difference.  ‘These are all using the same grey/brown muted palate, but look this one’s got some green in it; there’s three women with red hats in this one, but look  there’s no women at all depicted in ‘The Royal Exchange’, although he still did drop in a couple of dogs.’

But after looking for a while it was possible to discern more subtle differences in approaches to the depiction of the scenes, and to see that while the roads and pavements might always be depicted as a sort of shining white, by varying his marks, it was possible to tell that one painting is of a snowy day; and to marvel at the amount of detail that he included in all of the pictures, of people overshadowed by the buildings around them, or crowded around a football game forming a perfect rectangle.  They are pictures of people in a still recognisable landscape which is perhaps why he continues to be so popular.

So did I learn anything new?  I’m not sure I had realised just how productive he was, clearly verging on the obsessive, but I still think I would have liked to see more pieces that challenged my pre-existing knowledge of him.  Having said that, and maybe because of my own current preoccupation with learning to draw, I did find the few pencil and conte drawings that are on display really interesting as they did show both an interest in draftmanship as well as a much more impressionistic impulse.

Alternative Guide to the Universe at The Hayward Gallery

2013-06-17 13.28.08The Alternative Guide to the Universe, currently on at The Hayward Gallery will, I suspect, evoke different reactions in those who have an education in art from those who don’t.  I’m only guessing how the cognoscenti approach it from reading various reviews in the the press, whereas, as I fall squarely within the second category, I can tell you exactly how this naive viewer looked at it.

It appeared to me to be indistinguishable from any other art exhibition I’ve ever seen: some things engaged me, I wanted to look more closely at them, to see the detail, the marks and the colours, and I wanted to know more about the story of the person who had created them; other pieces didn’t engage me at all and I walked on by without needing to know anything more.

So much for the concept of ‘Outsider Art’ then.  It’s a concept that’s important for the people who know about ‘art’ and talk about ‘intention’ and ‘context’, and who therefore refer to the people whose work is represented in this eclectic exhibition as ‘untrained’.  If the person who made the piece had no artistic training or intent, can it be ‘art’?

I don’t have the answer to that question, other than to observe that many of the pieces in this show made me stop and look and think, they were fascinating and without any practical purpose other than to express what was in the mind’s eye of the person who made it…….which sounds a bit like art to me.

Many of the people whose work is on show existed in the hinterland of society, some in menial jobs, or in living in institutions, but what seems to have characterised them all was an obsessive desire to create something to communicate their ideas.  There is one who saw patterns in numbers, so made patterns out of numbers  so complicated that they will only be deciphered when a computer sufficiently large is developed in the future, another drew intricate diagrams and made mathematical models proving his theory that there is no such thing as gravity.  One man made anatomically accurate models of pubescent children, dressed them, gave them emotional facial expressions and then photographed them looking alarmingly real.  He had apparently learned to sew specifically for the purpose of making their clothes.

If it all sounds a little mad, is it any more so than systematically destroying all your belongings in a shop front, or embroidering the names of everyone you’ve ever slept with  into a tent, or dressing up and photographing yourself in automatic photo booths?  Can we always tell the difference between the ‘outsider’ and a member of the Royal Academy?  I certainly can’t.

My particular favourites were the models made by Bodys Isek Kingelez, intricate designs for impossible buildings; shaped like butterflies and Chinese temples, shapes which might fit well along side the creations on the Las Vegas Strip, all constructed from offcut cardboard and discarded bits and pieces; and the ink drawings of Marcel Storr, imaginings and diagrams for the rebuilding of Paris after the nuclear was the artist believed was coming.  They marks on the paper are so dense and detailed, and covered in luminous ink, each work glows with a golden light, part temple part dystopian cityscape.  They were beautiful as well as fascinating.

It’s well worth a visit.  There’s a robot and the alphabet reshaped as skateboards too.

Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume at Tate Britain

2013-06-05 14.44.33Oh Lordy, this was another one of those art exhibitions that I have wandered around thinking that everyone else must know something I don’t.

For a start, it’s not even one exhibition; it’s two in parallel, but for which only one ticket is required.  There is a communicating door between the two show spaces, but we were told not to use it by one of the Tate custodians.  Instead we had to go from one show to the other via the main lobby area, and subsequently suppress a desire to tell those people who did manage to sneak through the forbidden door that they should count themselves lucky not to have been caught.

We went around the Hume rooms first.  Most are large pieces, flat colour on sheets of shining metal.  I couldn’t work out what it was I was meant to be looking at.  Nasty colour combinations with the same sheen and finish as the bonnet of a recently polished car.  Some pieces, like Tulips and The Whole World have raised textured areas, underneath the gloss paint.

Since visiting the exhibition, I’ve read the newspaper reviews to try to understand why these things warranted a show at the Tate, because the show itself gave me no clue.  The reviews of Hume are mixed, but many are glowing about the enigmatic works and the use of colour in them.  Few of these words corresponded to my experience.

The Patrick Caulfield rooms were more interesting.  The style, areas of flat colour, strong black outlined shapes, has become familiar through its adoption by advertising graphic designers, so I think it would have been helpful to me to have had more information about his historical context, to get over that rather decorative first impression.

The black lines play with perspective, so that each painting takes a few moments to understand, and they are focussed on the banal places we inhabit: cinema foyers, bars and restaurants.  Each place is portrayed after all the people have left, abandoning unwanted remnants behind them.  There’s quite a lot of 1970s wallpaper in backgrounds and the common tropes of still lives in the foreground; so there are Matisse’s goldfish in After Lunch, and Picasso’s bull’s head in Hemingway Never Ate Here.  

I did enjoy the bold colours in these paintings, and could appreciate the great skill employed in creating the smooth surface, by largely eliminating the idea of the gestural brush stroke; making it even more noticeable when in, After Lunch the landscape view seen through the window (or painted on the back wall) of the restaurant, is rendered in a more realistic fashion, challenging, I suppose, our way of looking at painted representations of the world.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve resolved that I should probably revisit the Caulfield to see if I can get more out of it on a second attempt, because I know I’ll be back at Tate Britain to spend more time with Simon Starling‘s current installation in the main central hallway.  Images of past exhibitions are shown on large screens while around you ambient sound is broadcast, the murmuring suserating  of large spaces, and the echo of footsteps from the past.

One mystery remains: how does Tate decide where to exhibit modern British artists?  Why was Hirst at Tate Modern, while Hume is at Tate Britain?

The Cloud Leopard

I have recently started following the Sequins and Cherry Blossom blog which talks about Japanese related events in London, and it was thanks to a post there a couple of weeks ago that I heard about the exhibition of Kusama works at the Victoria Miro gallery.  Since seeing the Kusama show at the Tate early last year, I’ve thought a lot about her work, especially the compulsive covering of surfaces with dots, and the endless repetition evident all of her work.

The remarkable thing about the new work on display, is that it is all about love and happiness, and it’s a life affirming message from someone in her 80s who has had a life not without difficulties.  There are bright sculptures, made of stuffed material shapes, painted in contrasting tones with the signature dots and eyes; their pointy edges and spottiness made me smile.  They did, as the gallery notes suggested, look as if they had jumped out of the accompanying canvases, making their forms three dimensional and dancing across the floor.

2013-05-20 08.48.20From there, maintaining the Japanese flavour, we headed down to Craft Central in Clerkenwell to see The Cloud Leopard by Nahoko Kojima.  It is an incredibly intricate piece of work.  Cut from a single sheet of black paper and suspended from the ceiling it gives an extraordinary impression of a big cat creeping across the air.  From some angles the lines from which it is suspended are invisible, and it looks like it is floating.  How the artist managed to work on a two dimensional sheet of paper, which when suspended creates a coherent three dimensional shame is a wonder.

The artist apparently currently has a life size polar bear as her work in progress to be revealed later this year.  I shall certainly be looking out for it.

The morning’s outings were complete with a lunchtime concert of chamber works from three members of the Bach family and Telemann, at St Anne’s Lutheran church in Gresham St in the City.  As it was my first experience of a lunchtime concert like this, I hadn’t realised that it was all right to sit and eat your lunch while you listen, so I sat, feeling a touch peckish, watching other people eat sandwiches and salads out of boxes while we listened to the music.  The Ten Commandments on panels behind the musicians reminded me not to covet my neighbour’s lunch, however.  I had thought there would be more City types in suits, but the audience looked to be mainly comprised of retired people, or others like me who had wandered in on a day off.

Another low cost day of entertainment in the city.

For Free in the City

2013-05-15 15.46.45Continuing my project to try out new and, where possible, inexpensive or free, things in London, to challenge that assumption that everything here is expensive, I spent a day this week in the City.  Were it not for the rather nice lunch I had(!), I could say that the day cost me nothing other than the public transport fares.

I started out at the Museum in the Bank of England.  Until I visited the Sir John Soane Museum last year, I hadn’t known that there even was a museum at the Bank, but then subsequently on walks along Threadneedle St towards the Tube station, I’d noticed a sign on a wooden stand by one of the grand doors indicating that the entrance to the Museum was around the corner (in Bartholomew St), and each time I would remind myself that I’d like to visit.

Inside, a chronological history of the Bank leads you through the evolution of the building, from small beginnings on Threadneedle Street, through the building of the Soane edifice, to its subsequent remodelling in the 20th century.  I was entranced by some drawings of the construction work in the 1930s, such detail and precision in pen and ink drawings, showing the huge hole in the centre of the exterior walls which seem to be the only remaining sections of the Soane design.  Digging big holes in the City is clearly not a new phenomenon.

The Royal charters signed by King William and Mary are there too; huge scrolls filled with elaborate and densely packed writing, which at first was impossible to decipher, both for its arcane language and ancient script.  We debated for a few minutes whether it was in Latin, until some of the words came into focus as English.

I had a go at lifting up a gold bar (secured within a perspex box and observed by no less than four security cameras), and examining all the security features of a £50 note under a brightly lit magnifier.  And in between, absorbed the history and evolution of the bank from a purely commercial enterprise with an initial capital of £1.2m to its current role as effectively one of the organs of State. There was also a fair amount of pointing at old bank notes, with exclamations of  ‘I remember them’ together with the realisation that there was a £20 note in circulation in the 1970s and very early 80s that we had never seen, such a large amount of money was it at the time.

There were interactive displays explaining inflation to children, and a booklet to explain Quantitative Easing to everyone else.  I took one, because, if I’m completely honest I don’t really understand it, and, after reading the booklet, I’m still not sure I do….

From the Bank, via the aforementioned lunch, we made our way to the Guildhall Art Gallery, to discover that in fact it is called ‘The Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre’.  If I’d spent any time thinking about it I suppose  should have known that there would be art in the City; after all where there is wealth, art usually follows, but my assumption would have been that it was all kept behind closed doors in private collections.

The Guildhall apparently has a very large collection dating back to the 15th century, only a small part of which can be displayed at any one time. As a collection it must truly reflect changing tastes and fashions of the wealthy burghers of London over the intervening centuries.  In amongst the pieces currently on display there were things from both the Victorian and mid twentieth century which were not at all to my taste by artists the curators must clearly be hoping will come back into fashion soon.

A temporary exhibition highlighted the depth in the collection of Portraiture, which was fascinating, including Tudor ladies in the finest of laces, each strand and twist of which was painstakingly replicated on canvas, as well as a Holbein of Henry VIII.  And there was a nice synchronicity in that the lady custodian  pointed us in the direction of two full length portraits of our old friends William and Mary, grantors of the Charter to the Bank of England, which have been in the Guildhall collection since they were painted at the end of the 17th century.

And I mustn’t forget the Roman Amphitheatre; in truth, a few remains of stone walls and two glass cases of artefacts, but displayed very effectively in a darkened basement of the Gallery, atmospherically lit to give the opportunity to appreciate some of the scale it might have been.

The day began with me feeling rather ignorant that I’d not known it was possible to visit these places, and I finished it feeling a little better educated; and you can’t say fairer than that.

The Estorick Collection

2013-05-08 11.03.45I discovered the Estorick Collection thanks to the information accompanying my recent subscription for an Art Pass.  And then, when I saw where it was, just off Highbury Corner, I couldn’t believe that I’d never noticed it before.  It comprises a collection of modern Italian art, with Futurists works as its core.  On the day we visited it was in a changeover period between special exhibitions, so we were only able to see four of the galleries.

It’s a small collection, but well displayed in the rooms of a tall thing Georgian House in Canonbury Square.  We had the place pretty much to ourselves, with plenty of time to look at the works and to discuss them, and then to launch into those conversations about random connections between otherwise unconnected things that always seem to be inspired by looking at art.

What with the paintings, a nice cafe and a small courtyard sheltered by the surrounding trees, it’s a good place to spend a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

2013-05-08 12.57.43After our taste of European culture we went for a walk along the towpath of the Regent’s Canal.  Walking the length of the canal at some point is on my list of things to do when the weather and my energy levels permit, but this week we settled for a stroll of half a mile or so from the point the canal emerges from the Islington Tunnel along towards Hackney.

With the overhanging trees, the lunchtime runners and the cyclists ringing their bells to announce their presence, we might have been somewhere far from inner city London.  What is it about a body of water which improves an environment?  Were it not for the water it would be like walking along a road in an industrial estate, but with it, there it was possible at times to imagine we were in the countryside.

We were in search of lunch at the Towpath cafe, and we were rewarded, by being able to sit outside to eat, even if it was a little breezy, overlooking the newly built blocks of flats which now jostle along the banks of the canal alongside the remnants of the light industrial buildings which predate them by decades.  On the way back, we stopped at another cafe for a cup of tea.  It’s all very civilised and I can recommend it as a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 at the Courtauld

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, is a small, tightly focussed exhibition, showing a number of canvases all produced by Picasso in 1901.

The use of the word ‘becoming’ in the title of the show seems entirely appropriate, and in the canvases on show it is possible to see him assimilating the influences of the late Impressionists and Post Impressionists, trying out their subject matter and colour palette, and then moving on to something new and distinctly ‘Picasso’.  It shows a period of tremendous productivity, during which he apparently churned out paintings at an incredible daily rate; almost as if he was processing all the contemporary influences as rapidly as he could to get into his own stride.

Ironically it was the brighter earlier more derivative works which were popular and sold from his first major show at a large Parisian gallery.  The later more distinctive pieces didn’t sell, and by the end of the year, he had to return to Spain, nearly destitute.

The two self portraits show that evolution very clearly.  In the first Yo – Picasso, a young face with bold eyes stares out directly at us, a  frilly bright orange scarf throws light across the canvas, and suggests a dandy at work.  The later one, in a more muted and limited palette shows a much more melancholy lined face, still staring out, but expecting a little less immediate admiration from us, as if some of his confidence had been knocked, at least temporarily.  A couple of portrayals of a mother and her children also show a growing pessimism: in the first, the mother and baby are idealised and bright, while the second, in which a toddler drags on one hand with another baby hanging over her shoulder, suggests that it’s no longer so much fun when the number of children increases.

The accompanying literature suggests that the move towards the muted blue tones of the work he was about to embark upon, was inspired by the suicide of one of his close friends, and there are a couple of canvases relating directly to imaginings of his dead friend’s funeral and subsequent journey to heaven which I suspect are of interest only because of the period in which they were produced and their blue colour.

It’s a fascinating exhibition, delivering its lesson on the period of productivity in the artist’s life and so succinctly, so I emerged feeling better educated and with plenty of time left for a coffee.

PS, I am astonished to report that this is post number 800.

Man Ray Portraits at The National Portrait Gallery

2013-04-13 10.36.56The question at the back of my mind going around the May Ray exhibition of Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery was whether or not I could learn something new by seeing the photographs in a gallery setting, when so many of them are already so familiar;  so well known, how does one gain any perspective on them?

I know the work is important, that he was innovative and experimental, because I’ve read about him, but without knowing all of the history of the development of photography, can I look at the work on the walls of the gallery and see that?

Having been to see The Bride and the Bachelors exhibition at the Barbican, which explored the influence of Duchamp on the generation of American artists who came after him, it felt appropriate, given Duchamp’s and Man Ray’s friendship and collaborations to see this show too.  And it may have been that thought process that meant that I was expecting to see something surreal and strange in the photographs.  I wasn’t disappointed per se that there was little overt evidence of his relationship with Surrealism, but it did make me think about the nature of his photographic portraiture.

Many of the great and good of the artistic and literary world of the first half of the 20th century are represented in the exhibition, and, it was not always clear to me which had been taken because of a commercial commission, and which as snapshots of his social circle.  Well connected as he was, it seems unlikely that they were all his friends.  It is also evident, that, in comparison to the more retiring Duchamp, Man Ray embraced the celebrity high profile lifestyle.

While many of the close head portraits are startlingly well lit, bright faces and dark eyes shining out from a light background, when the photograph was of a person in a wider shot, sitting in a room or lounging on a sofa, the surroundings looked remarkably ordinary (with the exception of the late photographs of Catherine Deneuve whom he surrounded with clutter to enhance her luminous stillness).

One of the pieces that will stick in my memory is the surrealists chessboard, a collection of portraits of artists including Picasso, Magritte and Dali, everyone of them with neat hair and a collar and tie, and looking the antithesis of revolutionary.

I have a still unanswered question about the choice of the size of print on display in the exhibition.  Who decided how large the prints should be, or are these original ones made by Man Ray himself; and if they are, how did he decide how big or small to make them?  Because some are quite tiny.  In some instances it is the smallness which drew me in, necessitating close looking, making the image seem confined and restricted drawing the eye inwards, in others I couldn’t help but feel that the huge enlargements used in the publicity posters for the show had more of an impact.

The vast majority of the portraits are black and white, but towards the end of the exhibition there are some miniature coloured ones, small, like enamel miniatures at the centre of black mounts which dominate the images, making them puzzling and curiously hard to look at.

Have you seen the show?  What did you think?

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