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Painting "El café de nadie" by Ramón Alva de la Canal

The Rape of Rubens' Woman

(El rapto de la mujer de Rubens)


Germán List Arzubide

There is nothing more pleasant than to spend an afternoon at one of Europe's great museums. In particular at those called galleries. The love the Europeans have for painting is a sure sign of civilization. On any Sunday afternoon one can see whole families, little ones and elders alike, dressed in their best festivity attire meandering through the great salons listening to the lectures of the guides and enjoying fervently the contemplation of one and another masterpiece.
On that particular Sunday that I will now try to reconstruct from memory, I was visiting the Munich Museum. We had formed a small group led by an exquisitely beautiful woman that knew all and each of the paintings' worth and that of the maestros who painted them. Thus, we started our sojourn through the salons of extreme high ceilings on whose walls hung canvasses of universal acclaim.
I am an admirer of Rubens, John Paul Rubens. His work has an energetic vitality that delights and exalts my soul.
Hence, I found myself in front of his painting entitled "The Rape of Luecipo's Daughters". Whoever has seen it at least once will never forget the experience. It depicts two stalwart warriors abducting by force and hoisting upon their steeds two ravishingly beautiful and, as is the case with Rubens, corpulent young women who struggle against their abductors even as their swooning bodies spur on the two impetuous brigands.
I marveled and stared at the painting drawn in by the carnal figures of femininity and the balance of composition in which all seems to flow with a rhythm, harmony and colorful cadence. I was transfigured feeling the magic of genius float about me. It was as if heavenly music emanated an intoxicating atmosphere of aesthetic delight.
Deep in rapture, I heard someone speak beside me and, startled back from revelry, I turned in the direction of the voice and discovered a very strange looking gentleman next to me who seemed to have escaped from an "El Greco" canvass. He was tall, thin, dressed in black with a drawn face in whose pallid continence feverish eyes were accentuated. He pointed to the woman the Roman soldier had managed to lift in his arms and said to me with a voice that seemed to come from far away:
"I see you are quite taken with my woman."
"Your woman?"
"Yes, sir, my woman. You think I am mad, do you? No, sir. That woman is mine. And don't think that I am jealous of you contemplating her like that, naked, showing off her splendid beauty. It is my pride and, in a certain way, my satisfaction. Everyone stares at her. Some even lust after her. But only I can possess her and I don't care who finds solace in her rotund nudity."
I found myself at a lost for words in front of this man who agitated the air with his hands that looked like the hands of the nobles in El Greco's "The Funeral of The Count of Orgaz", which I had just seen in Toledo. The gentleman smiled as if satisfied and continued:
"Contemplate her, satisfy your admiration and then come with me for a bit of coffee at the restaurant. I'll tell you how I came to steal that woman, snatching her from the arms of her assailant. She, as you can see, is not very happy with the fact that she is being abducted. It seems as if she is pleading for someone to help. I noticed and came to her rescue. But come, follow me. You can have a cup of coffee and learn something that surely will interest you. Come on."
I followed him obeying an obscure, strange and morbid curiosity. We arrived at the small nearly empty restaurant. The man out of an "el Greco" painting ordered coffee and began his tale.
"I insist that you think I am mad. Is this not so?"
I assured him that I would listen to his story of love with the woman in the Rubens painting and hold my judgment until after he had finished.
" Well fine, listen to me then. I am a resident of this old august city. Like most of its citizens we are all heirs to that artist King Louis I. I love, above all else, the arts, especially music and painting. That is not to say I turn a deaf ear to poetry and the other spiritual manifestations..."
He threw his magnificent medieval head back and seemed to loose himself in a rapture. He then sipped his coffee and continued.
"One day, better yet, one evening like this one, a Sunday, I paid a return visit to the gallery with the desire to admire the Rubens painting -my favorite. More than at any other time, I was lost in contemplation when the first long shadows of the evening began to darken the great room. Then, I noticed that the woman in the painting was staring at me, anxiously imploring me to free her from that barbarian who was stealing her. Do you follow me? Do you not find this factual?"
I had to reassure him that everything he was telling me I found absolutely interesting and that I was paying close attention to his every word. Satisfied, he continued.
"I saw very clearly that she was demanding my assistance and throwing caution aside I approached the painting, looked the warrior in the eye, reached out my hands and wrestled from his clutches the woman who fell into my arms. I had little to do but to take my cape and wrap it around her thus, leaving her would-be raptor astonished at my audacity as I marched myself and my precious charge to the door of the museum and on to my home. And that's the way it was the first time she became mine. I mean to say, is mine. There you have it. Do you believe me? Is this not possible?
An incredulous smile stole across my face but I quickly gave in to him. I told him that I found it all completely plausible and I congratulated him on his good fortune. The strange person thanked me for my kind words and even invited me to witness his abduction, going so far as to offer me his help in stealing the other woman in the painting who, he assured me, also hated her assailant.
I thanked him for his invitation and excused myself for not being able to accompany him on his adventure since the hotel at which I was staying, I was sure, would not let me take a naked woman to my room, even at night.
We said good-bye and the gentleman who reminded me so much of a figure out of an El Greco painting held out to me one of his unbelievable hands. Then he withdrew exclaiming: "It is Sunday and night approaches. Please forgive that I should leave you alone, a woman awaits me ..."
I thought no more of his tale and returned to my hotel with a desire to dine, take a stroll down one of the crowded avenues of the city and hence return and rest. And that is what I proceeded to do.
Have you, dear reader, ever experienced walking through a dense multitude in which one feels himself a complete stranger? That uneasiness of being alone, completely alone in the middle of a vast throng of people walking, laughing and conversing while you amble about as if lost in a densely populated desert without anyone even knowing you exist. That is how I strolled that night of immense solitude when suddenly, while crossing one of the bridges over the Isar that flows towards Rogenhuasen, I caught a glimpse of my "el Greco" man. It was he, yes, impossible to mistake him by his somber aspect and great height. And, lo! My heart began to beat violently. He was taking by the arm a somewhat corpulent woman, tall like himself whom I recognized as the "Rubens woman"! There was not a doubt in my mind. I had contemplated her on numerous occasions and this trip to Munich was precisely to gaze upon her once more.
Dumb with astonishment, I saw the couple approach me. The "el Greco" man recognized me and when they passed, he tilted his head as a silent greeting and mild admonishment against my directing any words to them. And thus they passed. I was petrified, out of breadth and wrapped in a cloud of incomprehension; doubting my own eyes, not knowing whether I was dreaming or not.
That night I waited anxiously to see the new day arrive and run to the museum to inspect the painting. When at last I arrived at the museum, a sign told me that the museum would be closed all day due to it being a Monday. I had no other choice but to pass twenty-four hours more of expectancy walking through all the neighborhoods searching for my "el Greco" man. A futile search and another night of fever endured.
At last, on Tuesday, I ran to the gallery. I entered in such a haste that the doorman was alarmed and began to follow me. I ran through the first salon, then the second with the doorman in tow until reaching the Rubens salon . I almost fainted, the painting was missing. In its place was a sign explaining that the painting was on loan to Venice for some international Rubens exposition ...
I let myself collapse on the bench in front of the blank wall and listened, without understanding a word, to the doorman's explanation for the missing painting. They had taken her away. Her! And what about the "el Greco" man? Had he gone to Venice? Could he wait for the painting's return?
What I wanted, and the reason for my anxiety, was for him to disclose to me the secret for stealing a woman from a canvass. He could have his Rubens' woman. My fervent desire was to go to the Prado Museum in Madrid and elope with Goya's "Naked Maja", the only true love in my life.
-Translated by Ben Tarver with permission from Germán List Arzubide.

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