In some ways, Alice Ernestine Prin, known to her friends and posterity as Kiki de Montparnasse, was born at precisely the right moment (1901) and place: never before or since might this child of the century’s magnetic character have been so vital or vividly realized. She was the model, lover, or taliswoman—sometimes all three—of the interwar Parisian avant-garde. “For about ten years,” Ernest Hemingway observed, “she was about as close as people get nowadays to being a Queen but that, of course, is very different from being a lady.” In other respects, Kiki’s timing could hardly have been worse. No matter how bright her 20s legend, she faded into drug-addled, toothless oblivion and died at 51.
Conjuring “personality” is the biographer’s supreme challenge. This is doubly so in Kiki’s case, for her personality was her achievement. The cultural historian Mark Braude asks in the prologue to Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris: “How did it happen that this young woman should be the one to capture the spirit of [the] age like no one else, and by doing nothing more than making a performance of herself?” Until Kiki Man Ray, I supposed you simply had to be there.
For Kiki’s childhood and upbringing, such as it was, we must generally take her word for it. Raised by her grandmother Geneviève in Burgundy, 150 miles southeast of Paris, Kiki was interested more in roaming the countryside than in studying. Her mother, Marie, summoned her to Paris at age 13, whereupon she dropped out of school to work successively as, Braude writes, “a knitter’s apprentice, a bottle cleaner … a bookbinder’s apprentice.… And then with what was not yet called the Great War under way, she worked at disinfecting and oiling dead soldiers’ boots before they went back into rotation, and at repairing fabric for observation balloons, and at soldering military equipment.”
Kiki went briefly to Troyes to live with her aunt Laure, whom she likened to “a policeman shrunken down a couple sizes and given the body of a woman.” She was back in Paris in 1916, assisting an elderly baker and his wife until she punched the latter for calling her “a little tart.” A sculptor who frequented the bakery invited her to pose for him: “My first contact with art!” Marie’s response—she struck Kiki, called her “a miserable whore,” and announced that “she no longer had a daughter”—was not encouraging.
Her next “contact with art” was the stuff of every parent’s nightmare. One night, “hungry and alone, admiring the exquisite window display of a store,” Braude relates, “she heard a man approaching from behind, offering to treat her to hot chocolate in his studio.” The man was an artist and no serial killer, on the plus side of the ledger; on the negative, he bullied Kiki and tried in vain to be her pimp. She dabbled in cocaine and contemplated suicide but ultimately resolved to model for the painters who assembled in the Café de la Rotonde, in the heart of Montparnasse.
Looking back on the Rotonde, La Ruche, the nearby three-story “beehive” of studios, and their derelict environs, Braude tends to glorification, suggesting that “Montparnasse’s squalor had its value, offering relief from the oppressive beauty put out by so much of Paris, and scaring off all but the most risk-loving speculators.” If this were so, Picasso, Kees van Dongen, and other “Montparnos” might have elected to remain in squalor when they first achieved financial success.
Alice, for one, embraced its charms and fell in with Maurice Mendjizky, whose slender claims to our notice are for painting her first known likeness and for giving her the nickname “Kiki.” She was “discovered,” however, by Moïse Kisling, one of the leaders of the “School of Paris,” the critic André Warnod’s ironic tag for the loose group of émigré artists that included Chagall, Modigliani, and Soutine. (His opening gambit was in keeping with the period’s appalling chauvinism: “Tell me, Papa Lisbon [the Rotonde’s proprietor], who’s the new whore?”)
Kiki sat for Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, the Japanese eccentric celebrated for his gossamer nudes and cats; for one of Alexander Calder’s wire portraits; even for the alcoholic landscapist Maurice Utrillo, who “guzzled his wine staring at her, never letting her see his canvas until finally he showed her a lovely landscape: mountains, trees, and a pretty river, but no sign of the naked Kiki he’d been eyeballing for three days.” In 1921, she met Man Ray, the American photographer Emmanuel Radnitzky, who, like Malcolm Cowley, crossed to Paris in pursuit of “the idea of salvation by exile.”
The photographic medium, which Kiki initially believed too “factual,” suited her off-kilter beauty perfectly. (She was not above an alternating boastfulness and insecurity, proud of her breasts and embarrassed about her negligible pubic hair.)
And in Kiki, Man Ray found his ideal collaborator. Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), depicting Kiki as an Ingresque bather with two f-holes burned via exposure into her lower back, and Noire et Blanche (1926), showing Kiki holding an African mask, are 20th-century icons.
Braude notes the peculiar range of her appeal. Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite sculptor, deemed Kiki “without question the most glorious [woman in Paris], a true phenomenon of carnal beauty and plentitude.”
It is to Kiki’s practically unique credit that she could see her contemporaries and things as they were. Of the Surrealists, she recalled: “What I liked about them was that they were so clearly just a bunch of wise-asses…. [Yet] here were people who insulted the bourgeoisie … but who lived exactly like the people they were proposing to burn at the stake … They were too cynical for me. I never understood them.” Parties at Jules Pascin’s, the “Prince of Montparnasse,” were “one long battle between bottles and bottle-openers.” And, in her own art, titles were strictly literal: 2 Nude Women and 2 Men, A Cow Between 2 Women.
Appearing in film, selling out solo exhibitions of her work, and intimidating the young Edith Piaf with her stage presence, Kiki sampled everything the decade had to offer. In May at Christie’s, the only unique version of Violon d’Ingres in private hands realized $12.4 million, becoming the most expensive photograph ever sold.
The triumph was Kiki’s as much as Man Ray’s. As Foujita said of his Reclining Nude, the painting that brought him fame, neither he nor Kiki “could say for sure who among the two of us was its author.”
Max Carter is the head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s in New York