Galleria d’Arte Moderna Milano Diary

Walking through the charming courtyard of the gallery, I noticed that the villa was in Neoclassical style as was the La Scala Theatre, which I had toured a few days earlier. On the other side of the main street was a vast park. In part of the courtyard was a posh, crowded restaurant. The edifice had two facades, one visible to visitors. Statues and reliefs with a mythological theme decorated the facades. The second façade looked out upon Milan’s first English landscape garden.

Founded in 1903, the modern art gallery was initially housed in Milan’s Castle. In 1921 it moved to its current location, the Villa Reale. Built by Leopold Pollack from 1790 to 1796, the building was originally named Villa Belgiojoso and was used as a private residence. Later, when Napoleon’s adopted son lived there, many famous people gathered at the villa, which was notable for its lavish ornamentation. On August 6, 1849, the Pace di Milano treaty was signed there, making Milan part of Austria.

Austrian Field Marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radez, a Czech noble and Chief of General Staff for the Habsburgs during the Napoleonic Wars, even called the villa home for one year in the 1850s. At one point Radetzky was even knighted for his bravery. Johann Straus composed the Radetzky March after him. His troops appreciated his valor and fairness. He died in Milan during 1858.

When the various states merged into the Kingdom of Italy, the building was no longer used. It was nationalized in 1920 and was refurbished so the Modern Art Gallery could open there the following year. Still, the gallery had to wait until 2006 before they could use the entire building for their exhibits. Before that the gallery had shared the building with other institutions.

The permanent collection started on the first floor. The first six spaces covered Neoclassical art. The works of Antonio Canova were represented there. Two rooms were dedicated to portraiture, including the renditions of Francesco Hayez. His Portrait of Matilde Juva Brunea from 1851 was one of the gallery’s masterpieces. A luxurious ballroom and the Parnaso Room with its astounding 1811 fresco had come into being during Napoleon’s era. After gazing at these two luxurious spaces, I continued to peruse artwork from the Romantic, Divisionist and Symbolist periods. There was also a temporary exhibition of Italian designer Joe Columbo’s 20th century furnishings on that floor.

From the Joe Columbo exhibition
From the Joe Columbo exhibition

The second floor housed the Grassi Collection and Vismara Collection. The Grassi Collection covered both Italian and foreign works ranging from the 14th to 20th centuries. Eduard Manet, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh were all represented. Oriental art was on display, too. The Vismara Collection showcased 40 works of art from the 20th century. The paintings and sculptures included creations by  Picasso, Matisse and Renoir.

Some significant paintings on display included Paul Gauguin’s Donne di Tahiti from 1891; Vincent Van Gogh’s Breton Women and Children from 1888; Giuseppe De Nittis’ Breakfast in Posillipo from 1878; Eduard Manet’s Portrait of M. Arnaud from 1875 and Umberto Boccioni’s The Mother from 1907. The sculpture was just as impressive as the paintings. A bust of a madwoman caught my attention. It showed not only unique facial features but also delved into the psychological being of the woman. Via the sculpture, it was possible to see into the woman’s soul.  Other busts were just as revealing. A small statue by Rodin was exquisite, too. A bust of Beethoven was very expressive and innovative.

One bust that captured my attention.

I was thrilled to see so many amazing paintings and sculptures and looked forward to my next stop at another nearby villa, which was devoted to modern art of the 1930s.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

A bust of Beethoven

Gallerie d’Italia of Milan Diary

These three palaces, located on the Piazza della Scala near the Scala Theatre, displayed extraordinary artworks of the 19th and 20th century. In the 19th century sections, I was amazed at the vedutas of Milan Cathedral, the system of canals in Milan called Navigli and the Alpine scenes. I found myself thinking of vedutas I had seen in the Czech Republic, such as the masterful ones at Mělník Chateau near Prague.  

The landscapes from the second half of the 19th century gave me a tranquil feeling. I especially liked the landscape with a magnificent yet mysterious castle perched in the mountains. The painting of the Colosseum reminded me of showing that sight to my parents some years ago, watching them gaze with awe and amazement at the historic monument. That was one of the happiest moments of my life.

The paintings of Milan’s Duomo allowed me to appreciate the exterior and interior of that sight to an even greater extent. I recalled walking down from the roof to the ground floor of the cathedral. I had been worried I would fall because I had nursed a bad leg for nine months not long before my trip.

The bas reliefs of Antonio Canova were delights as well. They were inspired by the works of Homer, Virgil and Plato. I remembered seeing Canova’s works at the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

The Lombard painting of the 19th century showed Milan as a vibrant artistic hub and often told pictorial tales of a rapidly changing society. I saw works by Francesco Hayez and other Romanticist artists. Giovanni Migliara focused on ancient monuments.

Works representing Symbolism, Pointillism and Futurism also made up highlights of this museum’s collections. The historical paintings of fight for the unification of Italy profoundly expressed this political and social movement called the Risorgimento, which led to the formation of the Kingdom of Italy. Genre painting showcased people’s daily lives.

The Divisionism of Neo-Impressionist painting that separates colors into dots played a large role, too. The works falling into the Futurism category centered on technology and modernity, for instance. Often cars, airplanes and the industrial city figured in works of this nature.

A special exhibition displayed the Torlonia Marbles, a very significant private collection of Roman statuary with many busts. I loved how the busts, though dating back many centuries, brought out the character of the person sculpted.

The 20th century was highlighted as well. Five halls housed artwork from the 1950s to 1980s. Abstract art between the 1940s and 1950s stood out, too. The Sixties were emphasized with a focus on signs, words and images. Kinetic art also was displayed.

While I was most impressed by the landscapes and pictures of Milan’s cathedral, I gazed at each and every piece of art with awe and wonderment. This was truly a great museum.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

Bílek Villa Diary

This museum of Art Nouveau artist František Bílek’s works is one of the most underrated art collections in Prague. The many times I have been there it has not been crowded, making it easier to appreciate fully the emotions triggered by Bílek’s sculptures, furniture, drawings, sketches and book illustrations. The symbolism is religious and mystical and seeps into my soul as I am overcome by emotions. Art Nouveau is a style I cherish, too. I am especially drawn to his dynamic wooden sculptures.

František Bílek, born in 1862, initially wanted to become a painter but switched to sculpture because he was colorblind. He would wind up making a name for himself not only for his evocative sculptures but also for his prints, architectural designs, ceramics and books, for instance. A man of many talents, he was very religious, and the works of the Catholic Modernists greatly influenced his works. He later worshipped at a Czechoslovak Hussite Church, inspired by the teachings of Czech martyr Jan Hus who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415.

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Bílek Villa in Chýnov
Bílek grave in Chýnov

I had also visited Bílek’s hometown of Chýnov in south Bohemia, where his villa there housed more of his fascinating creations. It was easy to find his grave in the cemetery there – a huge sculpture marks the spot. Bílek passed away during the Nazi Occupation, in 1941.

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While I waited for the museum to open, I perused the exterior of the building, which was just as intriguing as the inside. It has huge columns that resemble an Egyptian temple as Bílek brings religion to the fore. The irregular shape of the former home also caught my attention. I liked the inscriptions on the side of the building, too. Indeed, Bílek incorporated inscriptions into some of his works. There were several sculptures in the quaint garden.

Jan Amos Comenius from statuary grouping in garden

Dominating the garden was a sculpture that featured Czech national figure Jan Amos Comenius, who contributed greatly to the education system in the Czech lands and had to leave his native land because of threats of persecution on more than one occasion. The sculptural grouping shows the 17th century religious and educational reformer forced to escape his native land. He lived in many countries, including Poland, Transylvania, the Netherlands, Sweden and England. I recalled the play version of his novel The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart at Goose on a String Theatre in Brno many years ago. I remember the stunning performance of Petr Oslzlý as the protagonist.

I noticed the elegant Art Nouveau doors as I waited for the museum to open. Soon, it was time. I entered the first room, my personal favorite. It contained numerous sculptures made of wood. I was always overcome by emotion as I perused all the sculptures.

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I was most impressed with “Astonishment,” which showed an amazed figure looking up to Heaven. I see the figure as being enthralled by what life has to offer, and it brings me back to my first year in Prague, the last quarter of 1991 and 1992, when my hero, the former dissident and playwright Václav Havel, was president of Czechoslovakia. I was learning Czech, which I consider to be a magical language. I also frequented the Czech theatre where Havel had once been resident dramaturg and playwright as I tried to improve my listening comprehension. A theatre major, I was enthralled by the plays, especially by Havel’s The Garden Party. I met Havel at the premiere of one of his plays, which was a big thrill. I had read the English translations of his books in the USA and had done much research on the Velvet Revolution during university. At that time, I yearned to read his books in Czech.

Look at the details of Christ’s disheveled hair.

Everything was new, and the world seemed full of possibilities. To me Havel symbolized hope. I felt this sense of hope in my personal life as I made new friends and started writing for a weekly English language newspaper, interviewing former dissidents and other fascinating Czech personalities.

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Grief

Another sculpture that deeply affected me was called “Grief.” I could feel the sorrow seep through my body as I stared at the female figure clearly devastated by death. It brought to mind moments of sadness when I had felt a deep pit in my stomach. Gazing at the statue, I let myself experience the sadness, not trying to stave off the painful emotions.

A charcoal drawing that spoke to me was “The Blind,” portraying a blind man leading a blind woman, perhaps on a path to knowledge. (I apologize for not having a picture of this one. The reflection of light on the glass didn’t allow for a decent photo.) The blind man is clearly upset that he cannot see as evidenced by his hand gesture. While they cannot see, they have an inner vision that is necessary to develop as one goes through life, experiencing trials and tribulations. It made me think of the many times I had made mistakes and how I learned from them. I also had learned not to be niave and not to trust everyone or take everyone at their word.

I also marveled at Bílek’s massive furniture, created with light and dark wood. Much of the furniture sported religious motifs as a desk even resembled an altar. I also saw family portraits that reminded me that the villa had once been a home. It gave the place an intimate quality. I wondered what kind of conversations had taken place in that villa when the Bílek family resided there. What had they worried about? What had made them happy?

After a while, I left, feeling so much stronger mentally. This was a museum I could visit often and still be greatly affected by the works of art.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

The First Republic Art Exhibition Diary

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Josef Čapek, The Sailor

A long-term temporary exhibition, the First Republic art exhibition in Prague’s Trade Fair Palace showcases mostly Czechoslovak paintings and sculpture from 1918 to 1938, when Czechoslovakia was a democratic state under the guidance of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, and Masaryk, who had been living in exile, was welcomed back into the Czech lands with much celebration and fanfare. The Munich Agreement, signed in September of 1938, proved a dark and dismal event in Czechoslovakia’s history, as the country ceded its German-minority Sudetenland to Hitler’s Third Reich. On March 15, 1939, the Nazis would march into Prague, and Hitler would set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, starting a horrific chapter in Czech and Central European history.

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Josef Čapek

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Myslbek

The exhibition examines the flourishing of art in the various cultural centers of Czechoslovakia, first and foremost in Prague but also in Brno, the capital of Moravia. In Slovakia the cultural hubs were located in Bratislava and eastern Košice. Zarkarpattia was a section of Czechoslovakia from 1920 to 1938, and its city of Užhorod was the setting of some intriguing exhibitions. The exhibition not only features Czech art but also Czech-German production and Slovak artistic endeavors.

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Antonín Slavíček, House in Kameničky, 1904

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Adolf Hoffmeister, Bridge, 1922

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Bohumil Kubišta, Quarry in Braník, 1910-11

Some of the Czech and Slovak artists whose works shine in the exhibition are Antonin Slavíček, Max Švabinský, Josef Čapek, Václav Špála, Jan Zrzavý, Jan Preisler, Ľudovít Fulla, Martin Benka, Bohumil Kubišta and Josef Šíma as well as Toyen and Jindřich Štyrský. The German and Austrian artists represented include August Bromse, Max Pechstein and Oskar Kokoschka, a favorite of mine.

Sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Paul Cezanne, House in Aix, 1885-87

French art from the 19th and 20th century is also on display as the Mánes Association in Prague held an important exhibition of French art at the Municipal House during 1923. The dynamic renditions of Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, Rodin, Rousseau and others are in the limelight, too. The paintings of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso explore Cubist tendencies.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Green Wheat Field, 1889

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Henri Rousseau, Self-Portrait – Me. Portrait – Landscape, 1890

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Paul Cezanne

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Georges Seurat, Harbor in Honfleur, 1886

I was particularly impressed by the works of a Czech artistic group called the Obstinates, established at the Municipal House. It included artists who spent World War I in Prague. I liked to eat chicken with potatoes at the Art Nouveau Municipal House, and I sometimes would imagine what it had been like for those artists to discuss their ideas and theories of art there. Three of my favorite Czech painters belonged to this group of avant-garde art that had traits of Cubism and Expressionism: Josef Čapek, Špála and Zrzavý. The Municipal House at that time was one of the most prominent exhibition spaces. It still houses art exhibitions and nowadays also includes a concert hall.

On right: Jan Zrzavý, Lady in the Loge, 1918

I also tried to imagine the avant-garde Devětsil group having its first exhibition during 1922 at the Union of Fine Arts in the Rudolfinum, now the main concert house for the Czech Philharmonic. I have attended many concerts there, even seeing my favorite violinist Joshua Bell on its stage twice. I wondered what it had been like to see the works of Karel Teige, Adolf Hoffmeister and Štyrský in that majestic building during 1922 and 1923.

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Jindřich Štyrský, The Puppeteer, 1921

My favorite painting in the exhibition was called “Woman with a Cat” by František Zdeněk Eberl. I am a cat fanatic, and the woman in the painting is holding her cat on her shoulder so lovingly. You can sense that the cat is an important part of her family just as my Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová is for me. (My cat is named after President Masaryk’s wife, the First Republic’s First Lady of Czechoslovakia.)

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František Zdeněk Eberl, Woman with a Cat, around 1929

The exhibition also highlighted the importance of the Mánes Association of Fine Artists, which had been established by Prague students in 1887. It had many functions, organizing exhibitions and lectures as well as editing magazines, for instance.

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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Village Square, 1920

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Václav Špála

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Vincenc Beneš, Behind the Mill in Písek, 1928

There were African art relics in the exhibition as well. I thought of Josef Čapek, who had been greatly influenced by African art. The exhibition informed museumgoers that Emil Filla’s paintings had been on display with African art at the Mánes in 1935. Filla had a strong interest in non-European art and was an avid supporter of the surrealist trends in Czechoslovakia.

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Another significant exhibition space during that era was the Dr. Feigl Gallery. Hugo Feigl made quite a name for himself as a private gallery owner. The exhibitions he put together did not only display Czech art but also highlighted Czech-German, Jewish and artists from around the world. He did not only organize exhibitions at his own gallery. One art show that interested me was Feigl’s exhibition of German and Austrian artists who had come to Prague as refugees, fleeing Hitler as the dictator amassed more and more power. Oskar Kokoschka, one of my favorite painters, was a refugee who had made his home in Prague. I loved his view of the Charles Bridge and his view of Prague on display. They captured the magical spell of Prague using avant-garde techniques.

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Oskar Kokoschka, Prague – View from Kramář’s Villa, 1934-35

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Oskar Kokoschka, Prague – Charles Bridge, 1934

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August Bromse, Descent from the Cross, before 1922

In 1937, Feigl even organized a daring exhibition of German Expressionist works from a German collection of which the Nazis were by no means fans. This exhibition encouraged people to protest against an exhibition in Munich, one that glorified the Nazi regime with its display of Nazi-approved art.

Václav Špála, By the River – Vltava near Červená, 1927, sculpture by Otto Gutfreund

I was also enthralled by the exhibitions that had taken place in Brno, Zlín and Bratislava. I had poignant memories of all three places. I had helped out at the first international theatre festival organized by the Theatre on a String in Brno many years ago. People in Brno had been so friendly, and my Czech really improved thanks to my time spent there. I had also visited some villas in Brno and knew the city’s sights well.

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Max Švabinský, In the Land of Peace, 1922

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Otto Gutfreund, Business, 1923

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I had spent several days of one vacation in Zlín, where I had toured the fascinating Báťa shoe museum, which probably featured every kind of shoe imaginable. More than a decade ago, I had visited Bratislava once a month to help take care of my favorite Slovak writer’s grave. I had also visited the Slovak National Theatre, learning Slovak in part thanks to its performances. I loved the Slovak language and felt at peace hearing people around me speak it. I also felt this way when I heard Czech. I especially liked the works of Slovak painter Ľudovít Fulla. His use of bright colors, in his work “Balloons” for example, gave his paintings a dynamism and vitality that was unforgettable.

On right: Ľudovít Fulla, Balloons, 1930

Košice and Užhorod were featured as artistic centers, too. I had spent a lot of time in Košice during my travels to Slovakia as some of my ancestors had been from that region, and I had also used Košice as a starting point to visit other places in east Slovakia, such as Humenné and the Vihorlat. I had never been to Užhorod, which Czechoslovakia had begun to modernize during the early days of the country’s existence. I was surprised that architect Josef Gočár had designed some functionalist buildings there. I often walked by some of Gočár’s architectural achievements in the Baba quarter of functionalist individual family homes.

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Anton Jaszusch, Landscape, 1920-24

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Pablo Picasso, Still Life with a Goblet, 1922

The exhibition also informed me that between 1933 and 1938, about 10,000 refugees from Germany and Austria had officially made their way to Czechoslovakia while the number of unofficial refugees was about the same. Many significant artists came to Czechoslovakia to flee Hitler’s hold on Germany and Austria.

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Caricature of Hitler, John Heartfield, Adolf the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk, 1932

I was surprised to discover that as early as 1934 an exhibition of caricatures and humor protested Hitler’s ascent to power. It took place at the Mánes Association of Fine Artists. The caricatures were not limited to Hitler and even included some of the “good guys.” For instance, artists also poked fun at Masaryk. I was very moved by Josef Čapek’s versions of the painting “Fire,” showing a person unable to escape the dancing flames, artworks providing a stark warning about the danger of Hitler’s ideology and reign. The caricature of Hitler was chilling. Hitler’s head was perched atop a chest x-ray. His spine was made up of coins. His heart was shaped like a swastika.

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A sculpture commenting on the Munich Agreement of 1938

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Josef Čapek, Fire, 1938

The exhibition ended with those works commenting Hitler’s control of the region, specifically on the Munich Agreement of 1938. While those paintings and the sculpture profoundly affected me, I preferred to concentrate on the avant-garde creations that had been featured in an artistically flourishing democratic Czechoslovakia, when artists boldly experimented with their artistic visions, during an era that I had always wanted to visit if I could go back in time. I would have loved to experience the atmosphere of the country when democracy was fresh, the state new and full of promise. Little did anyone know at its inception that the First Republic would not last long and that such a chilling chapter would follow.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Furniture set from First Republic, Jan Vaněk

Bode Museum Diary

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Inaugurated in 1904 as the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, the building was designed by Ernst Eberhard von Ihne, and construction lasted seven years. In 1956, the museum got its current name, in honor of the first director, William Bode, whose trademark was showcasing a variety of artworks – sculpture, painting, coins, medals, crafts. Indeed, what I liked best about the Bode was the variety – the sculptures, paintings and crafts all mixed together, sometimes even in one room. The collections were full of surprises that made me enthusiastic about each work I came across.

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I especially liked the sculpture collection. The medieval sculptures moved me the most. The large triptychs were overwhelmingly beautiful. Byzantine art played a major role in the collections. The art from Ravenna reminded me of my trip there as I had been dazzled by mastery of the works there. One of the largest collections of sculpture in the world, the pieces date from early medieval times to the late 18th century. Donatello, Lorenzo Bernini, Giovanni Pisano – they were just a few of the creators represented in this unbelievable array of artistry. Architectural sculpture included a Romanesque tribune from Germany. Glazed terracotta was also on display as were small sculptural works from bronze, alabaster and ivory. I also saw mosaic icons and artifacts from Egypt. The museum itself was a work of art with fireplaces and rich decoration hailing from the Italian Renaissance.

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I was intrigued by one display in particular. I learned that the artworks from this museum had been stored in a bunker in Berlin-Firedrichshain during World War II, but a fire broke out in May of 1945, destroying many of the sculptures. I imagined furious flames engulfing so many precious works of art and thought how formidable the collection would have been with even more dazzling sculptures. It was a great loss, for sure.

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I was in awe as I took in all the artifacts from Roman sarcophagi to silver sculpture to Byzantine works from Italy and Turkey to German Late Gothic sculptures. The mixture of different kinds of art from various periods gave the museum a dynamic quality and unique character.

Tracy Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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