Visiting the Musee Rodin in the Wake of World War II

Hôtel Biron

The Musee Rodin at the Hôtel Biron. (Photo by Clelie Mascaret, CC BY-SA 2.0)

For me, the reopening of the Musee Rodin unleashed floods of memories. In April 1946, a month before my nuclear family was to immigrate to the United States, my mother, who was somewhat of a tyrant, surprisingly let me visit Paris. Her reasoning was that once I’d reached America, I might never be able to return to Europe and visit its great sights.

Though I had never been there, the French capital was most familiar. During the lonely years of my illegal existence, I had devoured French roman-fleuves, serial novels that often celebrated Paris, and had familiarized myself with its street names, neighborhoods, monuments and buildings. It was almost like coming home.

Even though I had only three days, the Rodin Museum, at the Hôtel Biron, was at the top of my sightseeing list. Nelly Altorfer, one of my rescuers and mentors, had introduced me to Rodin. Nearly seventy years later, some of the details of my visit have faded, but I remember with perfect clarity the immense impact of the mansion filled with Rodin’s sculptures. Then, as now, white plaster casts and white marble sculptures filled the elegant rooms with their brilliance. More sculptures were in the park-like garden that surrounds the house. In one form or another all of Rodin’s great sculptures were present: The Thinker, Balzac in his flowing robes, The Age of Bronze, the beautifully shaped hands that form The Cathedral, The Gates of Hell, and my very own favorite: The Burghers of Calais.

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke discovered the “for rent” mansion in 1908. He was so impressed that he wrote his friend Rodin the following letter: “You must, dear friend, see the beautiful building to which I moved this morning. Its three bays open to an overgrown, abandoned garden where rabbits jump over trellis [making it] resemble an ancient tapestry.”

Rodin hurried over, was impressed and rented space. Eventually Rodin managed to acquire the mansion from the state, living there until his death. He had arranged for the Hôtel Biron to become a private museum, which until now managed to fund itself and provide shelter for 6000 sculptures and 7000 works on paper. In time the museum aged, but in the last three years it has undergone a $17.8 million renovation.

Rodin had a somewhat late start, but attained fame toward the end of the nineteenth century. Rodin’s sculptures are realistic; they reflect their subjects’ psychological attitudes. They are emotionally satisfying and universally appealing.

The sculptor’s reputation spread across the Atlantic and today the United States is home to many great Rodin collections. (Several original casts are made from the same mold.) In addition to several other independent collections, Gerald and Iris Cantor distributed Rodin sculptures to seventy US museums.

That brief Paris trip was part of my coming of age. From 1942 to 1944, during my illegal existence in occupied Belgium, I had been mostly responsible for myself in a scary world. After the Germans left I returned home, resumed my studies and worked hard to catch up. My mom failed to acknowledge that I had grown up and I chafed against being treated like a child. There were many conflicts.

Three of my fellow students had invited me to share their trip to Paris as delegates to some student organization. I was free. We walked along the Seine and the Grands Boulevards, took pictures of the Île de la Cité from the Pont des Arts, and even attended Le Bal Tabarin, a risque cabaret. We were too poor to afford a table, but were allowed to sit at the bar sipping champagne. The female attendants in the “gender neutral” bathroom were so elegant and poised that I did not dare tip them.

My companions had to return a day early and on my last day in Paris I went to the Louvre and the Musée Rodin, the beginning of a lifelong passion of visiting art exhibitions. I was on my own and loving it. Though my trip had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, it taught me in no uncertain terms that: “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

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Picasso: The Sculptor at Work

Glass of Absinthe by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso. Glass of Absinthe. Paris, spring 1914. (Museum of Modern Art)

Picasso is perhaps the best-known artist of the twentieth century. But throughout his career he also remained, in spirit, a genius of a little boy whose next prank was forever unexpected. This fall, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) devoted its entire fourth floor to approximately 140 sculptures the artist made between 1902 and 1964.

In size, these works range from incised pebbles to a monumental piece that stood outside the Loyalist Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937. (As an aside, it was for this same exhibition that Picasso created Guernica, his most epic work. That huge antiwar masterpiece “lived” at MoMA for 42 years until Spain got rid of its fascist dictatorship.)

Most of Picasso’s sculptures look spontaneous. They are fashioned from a variety of often unusual materials, including wood, plaster, bent metal, and bronze, as well as some objets trouvés.

The early works are somewhat conventional, but that would not remain the case for long. One of the special features of the exhibit is that it reunites, for the first time since their creation in 1914, the six absinthe glasses constructed from an actual liquor glass, a spoon and sugar cube, all cast in bronze and then painted. At first these unusual sculptures were considered banal, but today they are considered one of Cubism’s touchstones.

Many constructions, especially the animals, are humorous. All are inventive. The bull, one of Picasso’s favorite creatures, comes in several very different versions: one made from plywood, branches and ordinary hardware is edgy and transparent; another, fashioned from clay, is round and massive and devoid of details.

In Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, his companion of the 1940s and the mother of Claude and Paloma, provides a rare vision of Picasso’s working methods. While living in Vallauris he gathered inspiring “stuff “ at the local dump. Sometimes the scavenged objects might inspire a sculpture, as they did in the case of the bicycle seat and handlebars that yielded a wonderfully abstract bull’s head.

Sometimes, as in the case of MoMA’s famous goat, the artist searched for parts that might serve his purpose. One morning he found an old wicker basket. “That’s just what I need for the goat’s rib cage,” he told Françoise, who accompanied him pushing an empty baby carriage in which she would transport the treasures to the studio. Picasso used two of his own pottery milk pitchers for the goat’s teats. He remembered that two years earlier he had collected a promising palm frond, and used it for the goat’s face and backbone. “The horns he fashioned from vinestalk,” Françoise wrote, “and the ears were pieces of cardboard filled with plaster.” The legs were cut from the branch of a tree with knobs that would look that bent like joints. When it was all finished it was cast in bronze, and the detail of the objects he used disappeared.

Since many sculptures ended up being cast in bronze, Françoise asked why he did not simply start from scratch. Picasso answered that “there is a good reason for doing it this way…the material itself, the form and texture of those pieces, often give me the key to the whole sculpture.”

Whenever viewing a Picasso show, one wonders how he managed to create as much as he did. Indeed, to me, some of his late paintings seems a bit repetitive, but not the sculptures. This show is just great and worth several visits.

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Leaving Is Dying—A Little

View from the cottage (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

View from the cottage (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

The weather has been horrible, which is just as well. It lessens my sadness at leaving my dream cottage in Maine. Just a few days ago I sat on its deck, savoring the autumn sun and a cup of coffee made from the last of the beans that I brought three months ago from Sahadi’s in Brooklyn. I know how fortunate I am to have two worlds I love. Elsewhere there are migrants seeking shelter, soldiers that drop bombs on civilians, torrents of rain that turn peaceful streets in raging streams, and parents that don’t have enough food for their children. Still, as the French say: “Leaving is dying—a little.”

On a whim my husband and I bought this mere acre of land almost half a century ago. The site, bordering a small lake, was promising, but the “camp” that came with it was derelict. I figured that we could always sell it. Maine, however, captured our heart. One of its skillful builders transformed and enlarged the cottage into a space that easily absorbs our children and grandchildren for a family vacation, but remains cozy when my husband and I are alone.

The cottage sits amidst moss-covered rocks, scraggly pines, and blueberry bushes, enlivened by oversized pots filled with yellow begonias and red fuchsias. Even now in October they still bloom, somehow having miraculously escaped being eaten by voracious deer.

When back in what I consider “my real life,” I’ll miss Maine’s humane, leisurely pace. Just the other day in Maine I went to the local post office, whose counter is not shielded by bulletproof plastic panels. I simply want to check the weight of a stamped envelope that might require more than the current 48-cent standard postage. The letter indeed required an additional 22 cents and I only had 10 cents with me. “Larry,” the clerk yelled, “she is short 10 cents.” Before Larry, the postmaster, could decide on a course of action, the guy behind me proffered the needed twelve cents.

When I returned to my cottage, my phone rang. My Maine family doctor was on the line. “I just wanted to tell you that your blood glucose level is back to normal. So relax.” I searched my memory for the last time a physician called me at home. (It had been my wonderful obstetrician.)


I have been back a mere few days and Maine is a golden memory. Here in Brooklyn I am surrounded by the love of my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. More than that, three times a day Viva, my poodle, and I walk along the Brooklyn Heights promenade.

We share our space with an assortment of young and old, black and white. It is an urban crowd, encumbered by baby carriages, strollers and walkers. I don’t remember seeing any of these in my car-based, Maine world. Scores of dogs rub noses with Viva, and she seems intoxicated by their smell. A young woman with shiny eyes bends down to pet her. “I got married yesterday, over there at the Water Club. See my T-shirt? It says ‘MRS.’ Forgive me, I am a bit off my rocker.” After some pleasantries I wish her good luck.

The sun is about to set, but before it disappears it kisses the waters of New York Harbor. I admire Manhattan’s incredible skyline, Lady Liberty, who so bravely holds up her torch, and the Brooklyn Bridge, which since 1883 has been a symbol of American prowess. How lucky I am to have two beloved worlds.

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Farewell to Babeth, My First True Friend

Elisabeth Wolff

Elisabeth Wolff

“Triste nouvelle,” read my May 22nd e-mail from Francine Bauduin, informing me that my friend Babeth (Elisabeth Wolff) had died. The picture of the old woman that accompanied the loving announcement marked the passage of a lifetime. To me Babeth was still the child I met in 1939 at the Lycée de Forest in Brussels. We were twelve years old and she was my first true friend, probably the best one I ever had. Our deep friendship ended in 1945, and it took me decades get over the loss.

When we met, both of us were newly arrived German Jewish refugees. My nuclear family had come to Belgium in 1938 and though I had to struggle with French and get used to new mores, my life essentially remained intact. Babeth, however, had come to Belgium with the Kindertransport, a program that rescued Jewish children from Nazi Germany and Austria. She had kissed her doctor parents goodbye at the train station in Berlin. Actually she was fortunate. Her foster parents, the Hollenders, treated her as if she was their fourth daughter. Still, Babeth was extremely homesick and welcomed the familiar environment of my house with its familiar food and customs. My mother nicknamed her “Sparrow” because she was so slight and plucky.

Babeth and I became extremely close. Today it is hard for me to conceive how innocent we were. Sex was a big mystery. We studied my parents’ popular medical encyclopedia and eventually figured it out. Babeth became well versed in politics, though her devotion to Communism sowed the seeds of our eventual estrangement. We both admired Eva Hollender, Babeth’s youngest stepsister, who attended the university and led an exciting life filled with dates and political intrigues.

On May 10, 1940, the Nazis invaded Holland and Belgium. Because we were German nationals, the Belgian authorities whisked my father away. Like two million other Belgians, the Hollenders as well as my mom, my sister and I separately fled the Belgian capital. Given life’s incredible coincidences I ran into Babeth as our families were trying to cross the border into France. Neither of us succeeded in reaching Paris, and we all returned to Brussels. Babeth and I spent another two rather normal years in Brussels before Jews were threatened with deportation. We all chose to disappear underground.

I hid in “plain sight,” surviving as a nanny. I missed my friend terribly. One day I ran into Babeth unexpectedly as we both secretly navigated the occupied streets of Brussels. This encounter resulted in a brief exchange of letters. In hers Babeth covertly told me that her oldest stepsister, her stepsister’s husband and their young son had been shipped “east” and had vanished. She also had no news of her own parents. After the liberation of Brussels on September 3, 1944, I could not wait to resume our friendship.

It was not to be. Weeks after the end of the occupation Babeth entered nursing school and was mostly too busy to see me. I suspected that her reluctance was caused by my lack of enthusiasm for her extreme leftist politics, or that she could not bear the fact that my family had escaped the actual flames of the Holocaust while hers had perished.

I bid Babeth farewell before moving to America. After I left she married Jo Boute, a doctor, and they had three children, the same age as mine. Jo and Babeth moved to Jemappe, a former, rather impoverished Belgian coal mining town. Babeth became an obstetric nurse. She always took the side of the disadvantaged. Francine kidded her about discovering countless barricades. I visited in 1964, and Babeth said that she regretted our estrangement, and hoped that perhaps the time had come to resume our friendship. We even considered exchanging our children during vacation time.

During the early post-war years she searched for her parents, eventually meeting someone who had shared her father’s concentration camp experience. She did not share what she learned with anyone, but whatever it was shocked her so much that she instructed her family not to mention the Holocaust.

In 2000 after the publication of my memoir, At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing up on the Edge of the Holocaust, which celebrates our friendship, my husband and I arranged to visit Babeth and her husband. To my horror she had erased the recollection of her life in Germany and of World War II from her memory. She even asked me how we met! Francine, who met her in 1968, confirmed that she was under the impression that the Hollenders were her birth family. I was part of this amnesia.

However, slowly, my visit in 2000, my book, which included photographs of her as a child, and a copy of the letter she had written to me during our underground experience, allowed her to recapture her buried past. She also responded to questions posed by her grandchildren, especially Lucie, who became interested in world history. From then on she contacted me every few months. She even worried when she did not hear from me.

Francine’s Facebook post announcing Babeth’s passing elicited a few responses. One of them recalled Babeth “as a wonderful newborn nurse.” The doctor who cared for her during her last illness was also one of her “beloved babies.”

Her death revived the regret of having had to spend my life without her. I wish that I known Babeth as a fun adult, a fulfilled health professional, a member of her own nuclear family. Now that she is gone I hope to recapture the fierce child and teenager that I loved so much.

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A Spring Ritual: Central Park’s Conservatory Garden

Photo by Suzanne Loebl

Photo by Suzanne Loebl

In 1853, when it was in the planning stage, New York’s Central Park was to provide its mostly impoverished citizenry with an open country experience. It took Vaux and Olmsted twenty years to complete their assignment brilliantly. They carefully created open meadows, ponds, rocky chalets, vistas and made excellent use of the territory’s natural rocky ground. Near the northern end of the park they constructed a traditional glass conservatory. It had to be dismantled in 1934. Eventually, its former location was turned into three enchanting formal gardens.

In spring, each one of these has a magic of its own. The southern-most of the gardens is dedicated to Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of The Secret Garden. This fairy tale relates the story of two children whose loneliness, estrangement and illness dissipate when they find an abandoned garden among the lands that surround the palace that had become their virtual prison. Burnett wrote her popular book after she lost her son to tuberculosis. At the time the author too had found solace in a garden.

Burnett Fountain

Burnett Fountain

A fountain group, consisting of Colin and Mary holding a birdbath, stands at the head of a small water-lily pool. Birds flutter to and from the birdbath. The pool itself is the center of an enclave overflowing with multi-colored tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. Two water-colorists, mothers, fathers, babysitters accompanied by toddlers and baby carriages, picnickers, and older folks with canes fill the benches. The air is perfumed and there is silence as if the visitors wanted to escape the very noisy city. While I was there nobody even used a cellphone.

I progress to the Italianate center garden consisting of a lawn bordered by two allées filled with blooming fruit trees. At the time of my visit, a tent erected for an annual fundraiser covers the area. I continue north and reach a very formal French-style garden. Rows of red and yellow tulips surround a pool centered on another fountain group: Three Dancing Maidens, by the German sculptor Walter Schott. The landscape is more open here, and only a handful of visitors fill the inviting benches.

Untermyer Fountain

Untermyer Fountain

The Three Dancing Maidens are another reminder of New York’s past. At the turn of the 19th century they adorned the gardens at Greystone, Samuel Untermyer’s Yonkers estate. He made his money as a big-time corporate lawyer, but earned fame as one of America’s skilled legal reformers. Sixty gardeners and other personnel maintained its sixty greenhouses, formal Portuguese gardens, columned allées, wooden walkways, an amphitheater, pools and follies. During the 1960s, my family used to explore this “secret” decaying paradise whose mosaic walkways and pools were buried under tons of grass and debris. Once we fought our way down to the lower gate, guarded by a lion and a unicorn rumored to be relatives of those fronting New York’s famous public library on Fifth Avenue. William Welles Bosworth, who designed the gardens of the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, also designed Greystone. Workmen razed the Untermyer mansion in 1948 and the park slumbered, but remained a public park, described by the few in the know as “America’s greatest forgotten garden.” Today one full-time employee is restoring it. (See Eve M. Kahn’s “Reclaiming Wild Ambition Gone to Seed” in The New York Times, July 19, 2012.) It will always be as wild as Central Park’s Conservatory Garden is manicured, but both are part of the free outdoor playgrounds of the New York metropolitan area.

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Sotheby’s 2015 Impressionist and Modern Art Auction: The Joy of a Making-Believe Billionaire

Lot 40 Property from the Collection of Anthony Goldschmidt Claude Monet Le Palais Ducal Signed Claude Monet and dated 1908 (lower left) Oil on canvas 22 ½ by 36 ¼ in. 57 by 92 cm Painted in 1908. Est. $15/20 million Sold for $23,098,000

Lot 40. Property from the Collection of Anthony Goldschmidt. Claude Monet, “Le Palais Ducal.” Oil on canvas. Painted in 1908. Sold for $23,098,000.

Art from the collections of Jerome H. Stone, a Chicago entrepreneur, Lola Sarnoff, the Samuel Goldwyn family, and Anthony Goldschmidt led off Sotheby’s spring auction. The latter included a Monet looted from Jacob Goldschmidt by the Nazis in 1941. It was restituted to his grandson Anthony in 1960. Many items, including Van Gogh’s spectacular L’allée des Alyscamps, however, belonged to one of scores of unidentified sellers. Its $66 million hammer price was the most expensive item of the Sotheby’s evening.

If I were rich I would be an art collector. Going to auction viewings is a perfect fantasy. More realistically, it allows the viewer to experience art that, like Brigadoon, the Scottish village that appears one day every hundred years, briefly emerges from one private collection only to disappear into yet another. And as opposed to the steep prices of museum admission, these events are free.

Money plays an increasingly important role in art. Most of the items Sotheby’s auctioned off this May were acquired at a time when great art was almost affordable. A Matisse bought in 1948 for $13,580 sold for over $6 million! The owner of the top-selling Van Gogh changed hands in 1985 for $11+ million! Astronomically high prices unfortunately do affect the “life” of artwork. Instead of cashing in, owners more commonly used to donate their treasures to museums.

Sotheby’s must have been excited about its 2015 sale. It decorated its elevator doors with facsimiles of some of the best works of its current sales. There were many masterpieces. Jerome H. Stone, a Chicago entrepreneur and the founder of America’s Alzheimer Foundation, bought much of his art in the 1950s. His taste was exquisite. He favored Fernand Léger. La Roue Bleue, from 1920, is a symphony of elements derived from the mechanical world: a portion of a wheel, pipes, buttresses, valves and metal cogs. Two other Légers, versions of the artist’s Pêcheurs (fishermen) series, are more representational. Their soft colors make them lyrical, even though the lines are hard-edged and the fishermen presage those of a Lego set. A version of Albert Giacometti’s Bust of Diego was also an aesthetic and financial winner. The bust is typically elongated. A delicate, almost two-dimensional head, precariously attached to an elongated neck, contrasts with a massive base.

The Goldwyns, father and son, also bought safe modern art, including Henri Matisse’s Anemones et grenades, from 1948. The master colorist arranged delicate red and purple anemones in a vase, ringed by the dark red fruit. A black square filled with an abstraction of a fern-like plant occupies the upper left corner of the picture, a nod to the artist’s penchant for including patterns. The Goldwyns also did well with a 1948 Picasso portrait of Françoise Gilot and several David Hockneys.

With several works for sale, Monet had a big day. The Stone estate included a Nymphéas that fetched $54 million. The previously mentioned Anthony Goldschmidt estate sold the painter’s Palais Ducal. Monet painted it in 1908 in Venice, where he had gone at the urging of the painter John Singer Sargent. Its subject matter is simple: A Moorish style pink palace fronted by water, lit by the Mediterranean sun. There are few details. The three wooden boat-mooring posts that occupy the foreground add depth, and the outline of a gondola floats on the shimmering sea.

Lola Sarnoff’s collection also originated in Germany. Her maternal grandfather started it in Frankfort, and through inheritance and marriage it coalesced with the Dreyfus and von Hirsch collections. The collection safely survived the art holocaust in Switzerland. In 1978 most of the collection was sold, but considerable material remained. I was much taken with the wise-looking ceramic owl by Picasso that contrasted with the artist’s very different sculpture of a bronze cat.

As I left I wished that some of this wonderful art trove would end up in a public collection. Not everyone, however, feels that way. John Quinn (1870-1924), one of America’s great collectors of modern art, stipulated that his beloved collection be sold at auction because he did not want it to stagnate in a museum. Instead he wanted it to provide the pleasure of the chase to other collectors. Nevertheless the art lovers of the time, including Abby Rockefeller and her friends, were so shocked by the loss of the collection that it reinforced their conviction that New York needed a modern art museum. They founded MoMA in 1929. I don’t know how Quinn would feel today, when owning some art has become a status symbol that can only be afforded by billionaires. Fortunately, there is much art to enjoyed by ordinary folks and much of it is quite affordable. All you need is confidence in your own taste, a bit of self-education and a love of art.

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Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

Jacob Lawrence: The Great Migration

(Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

Jacob Lawrence, whose entire epic Migration Series is now on display at MoMA, was wonderfully gifted, hard-working and fortunate. In 1941, Edith Halpert, the owner of the avant-garde Downtown Gallery, went to Harlem to explore the work of then totally ignored African-American artists. During that expedition she came across Lawrence’s Migration of the Negro, a series of narrative paintings illustrating the journey from the agrarian South to the industrialized North. Then as now the tiny images deliver a powerful message.

Lawrence, then only twenty-three, had spent months at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library researching the history of the migration and developing barebones captions for his future paintings. The first caption reads: “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes” (Panel 1). Each one of the sixty captions is poignant: “Child labor and lack of education was one of the reasons for people wishing to leave their homes” (Panel 24). “And the migrants kept coming” (Panel 60). (Text of the original 1941 captions, which were clarified and updated in 1999.)

The sixty paintings that accompany the captions are as fresh today as they were eighty-five years ago. They have the power and charm of the medieval stained glass windows that narrated the Bible to a population that was mostly illiterate. Lawrence’s images are sparse, each displaying only a few colors, people, scenes, or objects. The series begins with a mass of black people waiting for trains to take them to Chicago, New York and St. Louis. There are no details. Lattice panels, separating the crowd from trains, provide the painting with depths. A few dabs of yellow brighten the somber greens, blacks, brown and reds of the migrants.

Panel 5 depicts the upper portion of a locomotive rushing north, silhouetted against a deep blue sky, belching steam and clanging its stridently yellow bell. Lawrence shows us the landscape of the abandoned South, the hardship of the less than welcoming North, the starkness of their new homes, the drama of a funeral. His vocabulary is simple: A bare flight of stairs, the windowless walls of a Chicago slaughterhouse, a slab of meat… Because Lawrence worked simultaneously on all sixty panels, the colors and style of the entire series is coordinated. No wonder that Edith Halpert was impressed.

Surprisingly the art world recognized Lawrence’s genius. Even before his show at the Downtown Gallery, Fortune Magazine published twenty-six images of the Migration Series in its November 1941 issue. Fortune was the first mainstream magazine to pay a major tribute to an African-American artist. The show, as well as the reproduction of the work in the magazine, was a big success, even though the latter had to compete with the bombing of the American fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941. Edith Halpert also managed the sale of the series. Lawrence wanted the series to remain intact; in the end MoMA bought the even-numbered paintings and the Phillips got the odd ones. Each half-series is wonderful, though we are fortunate that sometimes we can view the entire series at once.

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