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."
"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
" 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
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
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
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
-Translated by Ben Tarver with permission from Germán
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