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The Incredible Journey of Kiki de Montparnasse

  • Man Ray - Kiki de Montparnasse, 1926
  • Man Ray - Noire et blanche, 1926
  • Kees van Dongen - Portrait of a woman with a cigarette (Kiki de Montparnasse), ca. 1922, Moise Kisling - Kiki de Montparnasse, 1924
  • Man Ray - Kiki de Montparnasse, 1925, Man Ray - Kiki de Montparnasse, 1922
  • Pablo Gargallo - Kiki de Montparnasse, 1928
February 11, 2018
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

Hemingway once wrote that she “dominated the era of Montparnasse more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.” Whether cast in bronze or worked in oil, her face and body were immortalized in works by, among others, Fernand Léger, Maurice Utrillo and Man Ray, with whom she had a long and complex relationship. When she died, the Japanese-French painter Tsuguharu Foujita proclaimed that, with her, the glorious days of Montparnasse were buried forever.

Kiki de Montparnasse, a model, literary muse, nightclub singer, actress, memoirist, and painter who was described as “remarkably good looking” by Peggy Guggenheim in 1928, was indeed a persona with an irresistible magnetism that influenced the trajectory of Paris’s roaring 1920s in a myriad of ways. 

Born Alice Ernestine Prin, she was hailed the Queen of Montparnasse, the position she maintained up until her untimely death at the age of 53.

A symbol of bohemian and creative Paris, she is known for maintaining her positive attitude even during difficult times. She is often quoted saying “all I need is an onion, a bit of bread, and a bottle of red [wine]; and I will always find somebody to offer me that.”

Kiki at luncheon party, 1920s
Kiki at luncheon party, 1920s, embracing Tsuguharu Foujita, via Wikimedia Commons

Existence Both Extraordinary and Clichéd

The life of Kiki de Montparnasse had a picaresque quality. It incorporates what amounts to a who’s who of the early-century French art movements, Picasso, Cocteau, and piles of painters, writers, Dadaists, and more. Born in poverty in 1901 in Châtillon-sur-Seine, she died not much better off in 1953 and was buried in her beloved Montparnasse.

Her existence is at once extraordinary and clichéd. An illegitimate child raised by a grandmother, Kiki came to live with her mother in Paris as a teenager in order to find work. After working in shops and bakeries for a while, the necessity and expediency lead her to sell her body for display, as a model to sculptors and painters at times and as a thrill for randy men at others, finally creating discord with her mother.

From then on, at the age of 14, she embarked on a life of nude modeling at the command of her basest needs, such as food and shelter.

Iwata Nakayama, Foujita and Kiki de Montparnasse, Paris, 1926, André Kertész - Kiki de Montparnasse, 1927
Left: Iwata Nakayama, Foujita and Kiki de Montparnasse, Paris, 1926, via monsieurcocosse.blogspot.com / Right: André Kertész – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1927, via Wikimedia Commons

The Irresistable Magnetism of Kiki de Montparnasse

Living on the streets and stricken by poverty, Kiki discovered Montparnasse and soon befriended artist Chaim Soutine, who in turn introduced her to a wider network of artists. Adopting a single name, she soon became a fixture in the Montparnasse social and art scene and a popular artist’s model, posing for the most famous and respected modernist artists of the 1920s, including Maurice Utrillo, Jean Cocteau, Fujita Tsuguji, Amedeo Modigliani, Julian Mandel, Francis Picabia, Arno Breker, Alexander Calder, Per Krohg, Pablo Gargallo, and Moise Kisling, whose portrait of Kiki titled Nu assis is one of his best known. 

In their eyes, she was not only a good model but an ongoing source of inspiration. She was also featured in numerous short experimental movies from the period, including one by Rene Clair, positioning herself in the foreground of contemporary culture.

She tortured the hearts of men even as she led them to new artistic discoveries. However, it was the acclaimed photographer Man Ray whom she captivated as both longtime lover and artistic muse. The romance lasted for six years, during which she posed for some of his most celebrated photographs. He was hugely influential in the creation of her persona, as she is the subject of his iconic photographs such as Noire et Blanche from 1926 and Le Violon d’Ingres from 1924, where she posed naked wearing only a turban with her back turned to the viewer, with two “f’s” in her back, as a celebration of her violin curves. Their turbulent relationship ended when Ray left her for his photographic protege, Lee Miller.

Man Ray - Ingre's Violon, 1924, Man Ray - Kiki de Montparnasse
Left: Man Ray – Ingre’s Violon, 1924, via Wikimedia Commopns / Right: Man Ray – Kiki de Montparnasse, montparnassedekiki-mememad.com

An Artist in Her Own Right

What was so fascinating about Kiki, was the unapologetic self-confidence she effortlessly exuded. Despite living in a time when women struggled against societal repression, she embraced her body as an extension of her artistry. A self-possessed and sexually liberated woman who was not shy about craving sexual pleasure, she lived in bohemian Paris’s heyday, slipping into various visual identities.

She performed regularly in Parisian cabarets, wearing black hose and garters and singing crowd-pleasing risqué songs, which were uninhibited, yet inoffensive. For a few years during the 1930s, she even owned the Montparnasse cabaret L’Oasis, which was later renamed Chez Kiki. Defying society’s expectations for women to be seen but rarely heard, she was a feminist icon and a somewhat early example of sexual emancipation.

Besides being a cult figure who dazzled artists, poets, writers and cabaret audience, she was also an artist in her own right, leading the way for many women with visionary spirits and in-charge attitudes. With subjects ranging from childhood scenes to portraits of her friends, she always transcended popular expectations of her. Her American audience read that that Kiki’s paintings created an “impression of simplicity, faith, and tenderness”. Her first exhibition took place at Galerie du Sacre du Printempts in 1927, where, by the end of the opening night party, almost all of her works were sold out.

Kiki de Montparnasse, from the films of Man Ray and Fernand Leger

The Tragic End of Kiki de Montparnasse

In 1929, Kiki’s autobiography was published in French as Kiki’s Memoirs, with Ernest Hemingway and Tsuguharu Foujita providing introductions. The U.S. customs banned the book for its honest depictions of socially active and sexually uninhibited life of a woman. The English translation was only made available in 1996. In the introduction to the English edition of Kiki’s memoirs, editors Billy Klüver and Julie Martin rightfully note, “Kiki was a star of everyday life”.

Like so many of those who burn bright enough to catch the eye of the everyman, Kiki, despite all her ebullience and joie-de-vivre, flared out, smoldering and spent. Her reign ended along with the decade, and in later years, she slipped into self-parody, singing for tourists in the Montparnasse cafes, to fund her cocaine and alcohol habits. Struggling with substance abuse and addiction, her health spiraled downhill as the madcap era drew to a close.

Kiki died in 1953 after collapsing outside her flat in Montparnasse, apparently of complications of alcoholism and drug dependence. She was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery where her tombstone remembers her as the Queen of Montparnasse. After all, as Hemingway wrote in his introduction, “Kiki was Montparnasse.” Her legacy lives on through countless artistic creations she inspired, reflecting the full and fearless life she led on her own terms.

Gustaw Gwozdecki - Kiki de Montparnasse, 1920, Tsuguharu Foujita - Kiki de Montparnasse, 1925
Left: Gustaw Gwozdecki – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1920 / Right: Tsuguharu Foujita – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1925, via monsieurcocosse.blogspot.com

  Editors’ Tip: Kiki’s Memoirs

Featuring an introduction by Ernest Hemingway and published for the first time in America, the unexpurgated memoirs of a model who reigned over Montparnasse in the twenties created a sensation when they first appeared in France in 1929.

  Editors’ Tip: Kiki’s Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930

Recreates life in the tumultuous world of 1900-1930 Montparnasse. This book presents photographs of legendary figures, among them the model Kiki, Modigliani, Picasso, Satie, Matisse, Leger, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Miro. Gossip and anecdotes aim to bring this world alive.

Featured images: Man Ray – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1926; Man Ray – Noire et blanche, 1926; Left: Kees van Dongen – Portrait of a woman with a cigarette (Kiki de Montparnasse), ca. 1922 – 1924 / Right: Moise Kisling – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1924; Left: Man Ray – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1925, via dantebea.com / Right: Man Ray – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1922, via dantebea.com; Pablo Gargallo – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1928. All images used for illustrative purposes only.