Kiki de Montparnasse, Muse of A Thousand Faces — Part I

Kiki de Montparnasse by Catel & Bocquet
Kiki de Montparnasse
by Catel & Bocquet

There are many reasons why I love my public library and high on the list is its world language section. Over the years, regularly browsing the French stacks, I’ve often noticed the book Kiki de Montparnasse, by Catel Muller and José-Louis Bocquet. For whatever reason, the cover blurb never managed to spark my interest. However, earlier this year, I ran across the book in a list of recommended bandes dessinées. Remembering our library’s copy, I promptly submitted a request. After reading this colorful biography, I’m extremely glad I did. Kiki, the “Queen of Montparnasse”, was a much-loved, feminine force in Paris during les années folles, or roaring 1920s. Coco Channel is probably the only female figure from that decade, who was as well known as Kiki. Yet before this summer, I was woefully unaware of the fanciful cabaret singer, painter, author, and coveted muse of dozens of acclaimed artists.

The best books are those that lead me to the Internet, hunting for further information on the featured subject. Catel’s illustrations of 1920s Paris, Kiki, and her contemporaries are wonderfully descriptive. Bocquet, a lauded biographer, does a superb job of adding dialogue to fill in the details. Their book has received many prizes including Le Prix du public Cultura, a sort of people’s choice award, at the 2008 Angoulême International Comics Festival. Nevertheless, the book left me with unanswered questions and I have spent many hours online—sometimes searching in vain—hoping to discover more about the mesmerizing Kiki. I’ve decided to divide a bit of what I’ve learned into two separate posts. Below is Part One.

Scene from Kiki de Montparnasse
Scene from Kiki de Montparnasse by Catel & Bocquet

The Humble Beginnings of Alice Prin

Born Alice Ernestine Prin in Châtillon-sur-Seine in 1901, Kiki grew up in extreme poverty. Her father’s identity is uncertain. Her mother moved to Paris when Alice was quite small, leaving her under the care of her grandmother who worked as a laundress. Among the grandmother’s other charges were a number of cousins who were either orphaned or abandoned. Not surprisingly, Alice had little structure as a child. By the age of 12, she was dancing on tabletops for money and developing a taste for alcohol.

Around that time, Alice’s mother brought her to Paris and enrolled her in school. When that didn’t go smoothly, she found a job for Alice working in a bakery where the young teen also lived. The work was exhausting and the baker proved to be a punishing taskmaster. Alice began to clandestinely pose as an artist’s model to earn money. When her mother found out, she cut all ties with Alice who was left to survive on her own at the age of 16.

There weren’t a lot of desirable options for poor, uneducated females in the early part of the 20th century. Alice seems to have considered prostitution but luckily she was living in Montparnasse, a happening neighborhood south of the Seine, which was a hotbed for artists and writers. During this extraordinarily creative period, young people longed to erase the horrors of World War I. Bars and brasseries throughout Montparnasse were crowded with party-goers, and the charismatic and carefree Alice fit right in.

Alice soon caught the eye of Russian painter Chaim Soutine and began sitting for him. Not long after, she posed for Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, and French artist Maurice Utrillo. Around 1918, she fell in love with the Polish painter Maurice Mendjisky who gave her the nickname Aliki, which is Greek for Alice. Over time, the sobriquet morphed into Kiki, the name she used until her death. Kiki and Mendjisky lived together until 1922 when Mendjisky felt his artistry would flourish only by relocating to the south of France. Conversely, Kiki’s popularity was beginning to skyrocket and she refused to leave her beloved Montparnasse.

Friends and Lovers

Other artists for whom Kiki posed early on include Jean Cocteau, Moïse Kisling, and Tsuguharu Foujita. The latter became a life long friend. When they first met, Foujita was a struggling artist, newly arrived in Paris from Tokyo. One day, when Kiki was supposed to be sitting for the Japanese prodigy, she instead convinced Foujita to let her paint him. She sold the drawing later that day to a respected art trader who regularly dealt in works from artists such as Picasso and Brancusi. A fountain of generosity, Kiki immediately spent the money on a sumptuous meal for herself and her friends. You can find a copy of this notable work online. I wanted to include it in my post, but I’d need to pay $70 to do so.

Most models ended up sleeping with the artists that they posed for and Kiki was no exception. These women received very little remuneration—often since the artists for whom they worked were also on the verge of financial ruin. Kiki was a free spirit, trying to survive in a man’s world. Her propensity for partying didn’t help her pocketbook, but she managed to get by, singing and telling jokes in many of the cabarets where she liked to hang out with her bohemian friends.

In 1922, Foujita had his first big success when he sold a painting of Kiki at an exhibition at Le Grand Palais. Titled Nu couché à la toile de Jouy, the painting sold for 8,000 francs. Foujita shared the proceeds with Kiki—a nearly unheard of gesture at that time.

American Photographer Man Ray

1922 also marked the year that Kiki met and moved in with the American photographer Man Ray. Ray was an equally talented painter and sculptor. When he initially proposed that Kiki sit for his camera, she refused, saying that she only trusted painters to turn her defects into qualities. Ray countered, explaining that he painted with his camera. The argument was enough for Kiki and the results are iconic. Over the next seven years, Kiki appeared in multitudes of Ray’s photographs, some of which were pornographic. Ray applied deep shades of makeup to Kiki’s mouth, eyes, and eyebrows, resculpting her face to suit his personal image of the perfect muse.

The couple is said to have been deeply in love, but their relationship was undeniably tumultuous. Ray featured Kiki in several of his films, although her name is glaringly absent from the credits. Surrealism was taking the art world by storm and Man Ray is recognized as perhaps the first photographer to embody its spirit on film. One of his most famous images is a photo of Kiki, Le Violon d’Ingres. Kiki’s nude back, painted with f-holes, faces the camera. Her body’s natural curves mimic that of a stringed instrument.

Anglophones have questioned Man Ray’s choice of title, Le Violon d’Ingres. They argue that Kiki was more like the cello—full-bodied and lustrous—than the petite and high-pitched violin. Francophones, however, will recognize the play on words. Using the term, violon d’ingres, is a highbrow way of referring to one’s hobby. Like many of the artists that Kiki posed for, Man Ray was a zealous workaholic. His work came before all else. Whether or not he viewed his relationship with Kiki as a hobby is unclear, but the caption certainly provides insight into the underlying misogyny of the day. The couple separated in 1929.

To be continued…

My retelling of Kiki’s life resumes next week when I’ll talk about her many accomplishments, premature death, and the exploitation of her name and image that continues to this day. I’ll also include many more images of Kiki, including works by Pablo Gargallo, Alexander Calder, Amedeo Modigliani, and a disputed Picasso.

Other resources

Mug credit: Sue Bennett-Williams

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

6 Comments

  1. merci beaucoup, thank you for this post. I knew of Kiki via the man Ray picture.
    Didn’t know she painted too.
    Nice blog you have.
    Je reviendrai. (As Mac Arthur said when he was kicked out by the Japanese)
    (Pardon my “humour noir”, je ne suis pas “sortable”.

  2. just wonderful, carol!
    i never heard of her. beautifully researched and fascinating to read.
    thank you

  3. Emma @ Words And Peace

    fascinant, je ne connaissais pas ce livre. Merci Carol d’avoir laissé un commentaire sutr mon blog https://wordsandpeace. J’essaie toujours de faire de même, et je pense que c’est la première fois que je viens vous voir, alors je me suis inscrite !

    • Enchantée Emma. Est-ce que vous avez entendu parlé de Kiki avant d’avoir lu mon poste? Je m’interroge sur sa popularité en France. Jusqu’ici, je n’ai pas trouvé un(e) Français(e) qui l’a connue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.