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from the September 2020 issue

Life Is a Pose

Peruvian writer Julio Villanueva Chang profiles Lima’s oldest life drawing model in this short essay.

Rodolfo Muñoz del Río has spent the better part of his life in the nude. Butt-naked. For the past half-century, students at Lima’s Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes have gazed upon him not as a human being, but as a configuration of shadows and proportions: a drawing condemned to sit still for seven to twelve hours a day. A sixty-six-year-old drawing whose greatest feat has been a heroic attempt to do nothing: no blinking, no scratching—an effort to become indifferent to flies, to boredom, to the cold. But this spirit of poise and discretion has settled uneasily into the exhibitionism of his flesh. That’s because the living drawing is also an advertisement for himself: a body that brags of its powers of elasticity, a Narcissus angling for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. For Muñoz, life is a pose.

Perhaps the saddest event of his life was the theft of the best among the countless portraits that generations of art students have painted of him over fifty years. It was taken from his tiny room in Quinta Heeren, Barrios Altos, along with his full-body mirror, such that Muñoz can no longer gaze at his whole self. His only consolation is that now he doesn’t have to look at his feet, which he dislikes because they are too large for the slightness of a body sketched vertically. To his great relief, Francis Bacon wrote that “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,” but the truth is that Muñoz del Río has also ceased to admire the pectorals, thighs, and shanks that back in the fifties won him third place in the Mr. Perú contest. In those days, he was a Hercules who saw himself in every movie.

In his spare time he wears clothes. He begins the morning as a doodle, a preliminary sketch that changes position every five minutes; then, after he stays put for three quarters of an hour, he becomes an anatomical study. The model lies like a just-fallen Adam, a man perpetually striving to get up. Some apprentices begin with his legs, others start with the head, others still with the navel, but all of them end up reproducing the platonic ideal of Muñoz. The Greeks perfected the nude so that men could feel godlike, but our mortal eyes cannot bear to gaze directly at divinity. The students look at Muñoz del Río with the oblique curiosity of passersby staring at a man who’s been hit by a car.

Time has yet to make a dent in the man who might be the world’s most senior model—and the same goes for shame. “Nature is naked the moment one reaches for it,” he says, almost as if reciting. “You pick a flower and it’s already naked.” Why would he go against nature? Clothes have identified human beings as homo sapiens since time immemorial—this is why nakedness is often seen as a sign of poverty or madness. But the nude is also an art form invented by the Greeks in the fifth century BC. For them, nakedness ceased to be shameful or ridiculous and became instead something of a religious cult. Rodolfo Muñoz del Río is the most Grecian of the descendants of the Incas, and yet his mother died under the impression that he was a professor at Bellas Artes.

Like every model, he clothes his truth: until a few years ago, his sisters believed that he taught drawing and painting. And while Muñoz del Río bared his anatomy in three hundred different poses, the guard at the school’s gate was trained to say: “Wait a minute, I’ll go fetch the professor,” thus buying the model brother enough time to dress like he was heading to the North Pole and come out to greet his relatives with open arms. “The only modesty I had left was with my family,” the model, fully dressed, admits today. The deceit lasted until his nephews saw his shameless appearance on the television program Ocurrió así, where he proudly came out as one of the world’s oldest art models. Not a stripper or a pornographer, but a professional in the service of the art-making masses.

Despite all that, Muñoz del Río insists that he isn’t in love with his body: “Those who are in love with it are the ones who draw my body more beautiful than it really is,” he parries with a toothless smile. And it’s true: as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz writes, portraits are nothing but colorful deceit. Faced with the body of a nude model, the artist’s instinct is to improve rather than to imitate. Artists are unbothered by the wrinkles, the flaccid flesh, and the tremulous figures of veteran models. This is especially true of portraits of Muñoz del Rio’s dignified maturity, which after fifty years have come to resemble a reverse Dorian Gray: The older the man grows, the younger he looks on the canvas. “Art completes what nature cannot bring to a finish,” says Aristotle. “The artist gives us knowledge of nature’s unrealized end.” Muñoz del Río, then, is a medium that allows us to know beauty without reserve—Narcissus’s down-and-out cousin.

The model gets ready to shed his modesty with the clothes he’ll leave on a chair. He has just finished an oil portrait session at Bellas Artes, and yet here he begins to undress in public again, as naturally as if he were peeling a fruit. At the Corriente Alterna Art Institute, where he works afternoons, there are no folding screens to hide behind nor bathrobes in which to emerge onstage—nor, for that matter, innocent glances. Every theatrical representation begins from the premise that there’s someone who wants to look at what someone else wants to show. The model gets rid of his shoes first, revealing his oversize feet. The pants fall next, followed by the shirt and the socks. Finally he takes off his underwear and reclines onto the black sheet that covers the platform, becoming an unmoving spectacle.

A student turns on the spotlight. Under it, Rodolfo Muñoz del Río begins to feel like the star of the drawing class. At first the only sound is the movement of charcoal over drawing paper, which turns the model into a sequence of scratches on a blank page. His pose resembles that of a man trying to get up. Nobody cares what’s going through his mind. In such moments he often remembers the chance events that transformed his life into a pose. When he was seven years old in Barrios Altos, he would often accompany his father to buy bread in the morning. On the way to get this childhood breakfast, he would pass the walls of the Santa Clara church, where he would see statues of naked, muscular men. He would say: “Dad, I have to be like that gentleman.” But then his father would disappoint him: “No, you have to study like your siblings.” Arriving home, the son would eat his bread like a statue.

Then, in 1947, a teenage Muñoz del Río saw an ad soliciting the services of a librarian on the door of the Escuela de Bellas Artes. His father had died seven years earlier—it was high time he find a job. Some people had formed a line in the school’s back courtyard, and it was there that the headmaster commanded: “Young lad, get undressed.” The line in question wasn’t for aspiring librarians, but for modeling candidates. That was the day Rodolfo Muñoz del Río, who had been a gymnast in Catholic school, first bared himself in public.

Ever since, the model has never stopped playing somebody else. His first character was a skinny clown; then, marching in a motionless parade, came the wizard Sabú, the historical Cahuide, and the impeccable painter Victor Humareda. He knows well that he isn’t just the oldest model—he’s also the best. His debt to childhood gymnastics is unpayable: younger models simply cannot hold his circus contortionist’s poses. His debt to Bellas Artes, where he studied for three years, saved him from the fate of a mere mannequin: students ask him for advice on their paintings of him. Muñoz del Río claims he isn’t single: he is married to art.

If the man has never dressed up as a woman, it's because nobody asked. “It wouldn’t be hard for me,” he says defiantly. His body can handle anything—and not just on paper. There’s even a sculpture to prove it: in El Ángel cemetery, an angel descended from heaven holds up the model’s bronze body. “They can’t wait to see me dead,” the model said with his half-smile when they asked him to pose for the mausoleum. “But I will never die, because all over the world there are paintings and sculptures of me.” Then someone turns off the spotlight and the drawing class is over. Rodolfo Muñoz del Río gets up from the black sheet with the elegance of one immortal, looks at his watch, and knows that his last pose will be the one death brings him.

Rodolfo Muñoz del Río continues to model at eighty-nine.

“La vida es una pose,” from Mariposas y murciélagos. © 1999 by Julio Villanueva Chang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Nicolás Medina Mora. All rights reserved.

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