Already, this is not accurately titled. It is a memoir in a way, in that it stretches back in my experience more than thirty years. In fact, the beginnings of this story possibly go back much earlier, perhaps to the 1930s.
In that there is a continuing narrative in what follows, this then is not a memoir, but a developing discovery.
It is about a painting. It is large, unframed, and in the words of an art dealer, “utterly unfinished.” It still bears the charcoal lines where the canvas is bare and where pigment has not been brushed. Even so, it is beautiful, showing the lovely lines of a young woman’s face as she sits pensively by an open window, beyond which are structures. These are unfinished buildings, images nonetheless discernible as cubist. And the colors are mostly blues.
Heldner, I am told, knew Picasso well when they lived in Paris, often having morning coffee together.
I found this canvas a long time ago, when Merle and I were at a preview of an art auction. I had observed this unfinished work with interest, regardless of its flaws already told of. In addition, it was dirty. Still, I liked it immediately.
I told Merle, who was to attend the auction the next day, to buy this piece if it was affordable. In those days, not too much was so, but its expected low cost was not my motivation. I liked the painting.
I recall the details of the auction, even though I was not there. When Merle came home with our purchase, I had her tell me the whole story. She told of the auctioneer, wrestling with a minimum bid of fifteen dollars and attempting to elicit more interest from potential purchasers. He asked his assistants what they knew of this offering. They replied that they knew little, that it was found in an attic, and that they thought it was a Knute Heldner but that they were not sure.
No one else was interested. Merle walked away with it for its opening bid of fifteen dollars.
Once acquired, it received careful removal of caked dust and a stain on the lower right-hand corner. Having made a simple frame, I hung it on a wall where it remains a focal point and has invited my continued admiration.
Over time, I have been aware of the paintings of Knute Heldner, observing them occasionally at museum and gallery openings. I saw little resemblance to authenticated Heldners, however, most being nice Louisiana scenes not showing the talent that elsewhere, in another time, had caused this artist to be listed among the twelve finest living artists. Compared to his best work, the pictures of local swamp scenes and the like may have been what artists on the square call their “potboilers,” those items which pay the rent.
A chance meeting at a New Orleans Museum of Art opening in recent times increased my lingering curiosity when Ms. Judith Bonner told me that she was familiar with a few Heldners having some cubist influence. Ms. Bonner, an art expert and as I recall, the curator of that show, invited me to show her photos of my possible Heldner. This I did, and as best as I can recall, her words echoed the previous description of it being “utterly unfinished.” She did show me one of Heldner’s with definite cubist influence, but of course was not able to make a judgment of similarity from my photographs.
Neither her Heldner nor my acquisition is of the potboiler type. The lovely young model was probably someone the artist knew, perhaps loved. The window opens to another world, maybe one that the artist still dreamed of from another era, another place.
I often studied this painting on visits to Merle’s. It was on one such occasion when our daughter, Nicole, was in town, and I was in conversation with her. She was seated just below the painting, and I opposite, when I exclaimed, “She’s blind! She’s blind.” Startled, Nicole asked what I was talking about. I explained that for the first time I thought I understood why the young girl’s left hand is so unfinished, so straight and unnatural as compared to her right, which is more or less finished but already perfect. Also, she seems to be looking into space: not out the window, not at the book. Her blue eyes are unblinking, her reddish hair unbrushed. Her blouse is unbuttoned, suggesting she is a bit untidy.
I think that with her left hand she is reading braille.
Altogether, the painting reveals a very young woman, very much alone.
The window and its frame, if standing alone, are obviously cubist, as are the buildings mentioned above. The latter are tall and square but windowless. Their colors are shades of blue. While roofed in red orange, they are otherwise nondescript, but they must have been put there for a reason.
Recently, I visited an exhibit at The Historic New Orleans Collection, and saw another Heldner. I bought the book with a photo of that piece, Duluth: Canal, Boat, and Bridge.
Upon examining the scene visible through the window in the painting, my eyes were drawn away to the photograph of Heldner’s known work. If they do not represent the same structures, at least the composition is undeniable: several tall buildings on the left, a group on the right, the two sides balanced and separated by a dark space. In the Heldner piece, the latter is the bridge; in the unfinished work, it is a dark blue-green splash of paint, maybe intended later to be foliage.
It is the groupings of buildings and their common cubist shapes that make me wonder whether Heldner painted my piece here in New Orleans while thinking of Minnesota, the locus of Duluth….
Not a great deal of Heldner biography is available to me, and I have searched for any connection to a blind model or friend. Of course, I have found none; otherwise, I would not be speculating as to the origins of a work still in progress even after all the years in an attic’s darkness.
One bit of irony did present itself in a bio on AskART: “Although nearly blind, Heldner continued to paint until his death at age 77.”