Part of the reason why art can often be so intimidating is the constant name-dropping and the unrelenting attempts to place each and every artwork within a given temporal, spatial and cultural framework. People should be able to enjoy art without thinking of the movement it belongs to, the various influences exerted over the artist or about the historical context that spurred it. Alas, this is not one of those posts. This time we’ll actually have to brush off our art history books to better understand Spanish artist Julio Romero de Torres.
Well-connected, well-traveled and part of the various artistic and intellectual circles of his time, de Torres embraced a Symbolist painting style that emphasized the mysterious and the occult, best exemplified by Mystical and Profane Love. Famed writer and close friend of the artist, Ramón María del Valle-Inclán described the art piece like this:
“…In this commendable painting Mystical and Profane Love, there are two female figures with a vague resemblance to each other, full of excitement and mystery, sort of like the perfume of two roses where one is diabolic and the other divine. The rose of fire and blood and the other of chastity and pain. And this similarity of such deep emotion seems to want to tell us the common origin of one love and the other and that the two who are going to join hands are two sisters. That tomb which appears in the distance between them tells us, in the crystalline and silent peace of the background, that oneself will be its end.”
The first thing one might notice about Mystical and Profane Love (also known as Sacred Love, Profane Love) is a strong déjà vu feeling. Of course, that could have something to do with the fact that de Torres was influenced by the great masters of the Renaissance and Baroque. The subject itself is borrowed from Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, a painting which depicts two women, alike in their features, sitting on a carved Ancient Roman sarcophagus turned into a water trough, with a Cupid-like figure between them. One of them is dressed in white, like a bride, while the other one is nude, except for a white cloth covering her pubis and a fiery red mantle draped over her left shoulder. Titian’s painting itself has been the cause of debate over the centuries, as to its true meaning and symbolism. Even after all this time, we still don’t know for sure which one of the two women represents the sacred and which one the profane. One common interpretation used to be that the clothed woman was a courtesan, while the naked one was Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Since then, the view has shifted, and we intuit that the nudity alludes to carnal love, although no one can say that with absolute certainty.
But let’s go back to de Torres’ painting. The figure on the left is dressed like a widow or a nun, all in black, the shape of her body and the details of her clothes getting lost in the darkness around her. Even her hair is covered by a dark veil. In stark contrast, her counterpart is wearing a very fashionable white outfit that accentuates her full breasts and rounded stomach – her womanhood. Her head is left uncovered. Unlike Titian’s Venus, she wears a mauve mantle – less passionate than Venus’ red cloak, but it suggests luxury and a certain decadence, nonetheless. There is also a difference in countenance, a cheeky smile appearing on the face of the woman on the right. The mystical love is thus represented by the spirituality, grief and gravity of the figure in black and the profane love by the hints of vanity, worldliness and sexuality that we get from the figure in white.
Now, if you’re still experiencing that déjà vu and Titian didn’t quite explain it, have a look at this famous Jan van Eyck and tell me what you think.
Based on the way in which they stand and almost join hands, the two figures in de Torres’ painting look surprisingly similar to the married couple in The Arnolfini Portrait. Just notice how the woman in black holds her hand in a gesture of benediction like Giovanni Arnolfini, the wealthy Italian merchant who van Eyck depicted. I also find it interesting how both Arnolfini’s wife and the woman in white appear to have their stomachs emphasized through clothing and stance. One common misconception is that Arnolfini’s wife was pregnant when the double portrait was painted. That is an understandable assumption, due to her puffed up dress and the way she holds her hand on her belly, but it can simply be chalked up to the fashion of those days. Somewhat similarly, de Torres’ profane lady has her left hand resting against her lower abdomen, while holding the mantle that wraps around her hips. It’s quite a subtle way to bring forward her femininity.
De Torres took Titian’s subject of Sacred and Profane Love and amplified its mystery. The dark color palette and the cemetery setting give an ominous feeling. Death is all around us. And just like in Titian’s painting, there is a barely distinguishable sarcophagus right behind the two women. Farther back, someone is kneeling in front of a coffin. Meanwhile, in the background, we can see how the elements reflect the mystical and the profane: an empty lawn and a dark grove on the left; trees laden with ripe fruit on the right. The cemetery walls are also closing in around the women, forming a circle. Love, grief, spirituality and death are tightly intertwined, woven together by the inexplicable mystery of life.