Who is Hilda M?

One winter night in Geneva, Switzerland, I was walking to a pub to meet some friends. Walking past the front steps of an apartment building in the Le Prieuré sector, I saw an old mattress, and a painting.

Geneva is one of those cities that existed before the advent of the sanitary alley, one of the hopeful inventions of modern urban planning. The city blocks of most newer cities were laid out with alleys in the rear, where garbage collection could take place out of sight. But in cities without sanitary alleys, it’s a singular experience to wander the streets on trash pickup day, because all sorts of discarded items are placed on the front curb, where they compete with pedestrian space and sometimes cause conversations to be interrupted. As residents of New York City will attest (another city that predated the alley), many a toaster, chair, and couch have been serendipitously acquired by passersby rather than by the municipal collection truck.

But an original painting on canvas? I was only a visitor to Geneva, but I couldn’t resist. On the way back from the pub it was still there. Emboldened against my shame by a couple of drinks, I took it and brought it back with me to my hotel room, only a couple of blocks away. On the way, I passed by a couple of women walking by on the opposite side of the street, and they were giggling. At me? I wondered. Could it be that one of them had discarded it?

Back at the room, I had to find a way to get it out of its frame so I could get it on the plane. The substrate was canvas, stapled to the frame in at least a hundred places by an untrained but determined hand. The only option was to cut it out of its frame and roll it up, like an art thief.

Having arrived as a visitor by plane, it’s a fair bet that one will not possess anything with a sharp edge. That was true. Searching the room, there was nothing up to the task. Finally I used the keys in my pocket to break apart a double-edge shaving cartridge, freeing its two tiny blades, and between the two of them I was able to laboriously cut through the canvas and the paper base. The painting was mine. I left the pieces of wooden frame by the trash can. The maid must have wondered what went on here.

The light had been very poor in the Geneva street, and in the hotel room. On arriving home, I was finally able to unroll my souvenir and view it in the proper light. The medium appeared to be acrylic and tempera on thin cardstock, glued to a stretched canvas (so possibly, there could be another rejected painting lurking on the canvas itself, under the cardstock).

Art is in the eye of the beholder; while its owner felt its beauty was insufficient to retain, the judgment of my eye clearly includes a healthy dose of romance borne of travel to distant places.

Suddenly, in the good light, I noticed that there was a signature. It was painted by a “Hilda M.” in 1995. This provided the information I needed to finally invert the painting to its correct orientation.

After seeing it daily for two years now, I continue to wonder who she is, and what else she has painted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *