Try to find out virtually anything about Kiki de Montparnasse online — I was looking for “The Acrobat,” a painting she made in 1927, late in her heyday as the queen of avant-garde Paris — and you run into a brick wall: a company using her evocative name to sell high-end lingerie and (um) bedroom accessories, including “The Gold Wand,” a sleek Brancusian object available for $1,249 from Goop. Shipping free.
The real Kiki was a varied and remarkable person, a model, artist, writer, singer, muse, and friend, as “Kiki Man Ray,” an uneven but absorbing and insightful new biography of her by Mark Braude reveals. If you had to identify her as briefly as possible, it might be as the model in Man Ray’s picture of a woman’s nude back with two f-holes superimposed on it, “Le Violon d’Ingres”, which earlier this year became the most expensive photograph ever sold. But Kiki was far more than that, utterly central to the thrilling culture of ‘20s Paris — and above all, despite passing hungry days in which she would have done nearly anything for a meal and a bottle of wine, she was never, unlike the Gold Wand, really for sale. Only herself. Whether such soaring authenticity is possible again in our consumerist age is perhaps Braude’s truest subject.
Kiki de Montparnasse was born Alice Prin, in 1901, about 150 miles from Paris. An early indication of how far she departed from her origins is that her father was induced to marry by the dowry of “a thousand francs and a pig.” That pig says a lot about France at the time, a country still rooted firmly in medieval life. Her primary caretaker was a grandmother, to whom Alice would return throughout her life, no matter how far away experience took her from this Burgundy childhood.
France was, of course, on the brink of an immense change. Some three million immigrants move to Paris in the 1920s, revitalizing the dying aristocratic city of Proust and the Goncourts. Kiki was barely out of childhood when she went to the city, and Braude vividly describes her early days there, including an abusive and talentless boyfriend, the difficulty of finding a corner to sleep in, and the endless search for food. But during these years she began to make a few tentative friends at the local bars in Montparnasse, until all at once, seemingly, they formed into a community around her. “The painters adopted me,” Kiki herself wrote in her memoir. “End of sad times.”
One of these painters was Man Ray, the chief supporting character in Braude’s book, who was soon to find fame as a photographer. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, he reads like a Bellow character here, undersized, ingenious, moody, passionate. He was the love of Kiki’s early life, and though the credit has accrued to him, they were closer to collaborators than artist and muse.
Between them, they met everyone. Their best friend was Marcel Duchamp, the greatest artist of the century, and around them every day were figures like Utrillo, Modigliani, Kisling, Satie, Cocteau, Tzara, Calder, and a hundred others. Essentially all of them photographed or painted or wrote about Kiki. The portraits are worth seeking out — particularly Modigliani’s, a supreme example of his ethereal immediacy — because they answer Braude’s primary question: “How did it happen that this young woman…who in her brief life barely made enough to eat, by singing old songs for tips, posing for the art of others, selling sketches to fellow drinkers spied from her barstool — how did it happen that this young woman should be the one to capture the spirit of their age?” Because, as “Kiki Man Ray” makes clear, she was a genius herself, earthy, funny, and gifted, unafraid of her body, with beautiful eyes and daringly sharp bangs above a big memorable blade of a nose.
She eventually had several successful exhibitions (her surrealist paintings, in bold Matisse colorways, are still intriguing, perhaps under-regarded) and was famous enough that her memoirs were the beneficiary of a glowing introduction from Ernest Hemingway. It’s an interesting pairing, because the Lost Generation hangs continually in the background of Kiki’s story. You realize that in the tableaux of Hemingway and his crowd, women like Kiki were the background, the voiceless mondaines there to make a story picturesque and melancholy, local, not foreign, without the foreigner’s suspicious prestige or the safety net of the American Express office. Kiki and her friends nearly starved again and again, especially early on; and danced over the chasm every night at the café anyway, finding a franc here or there to survive.
Braude leans heavily on both Kiki’s and Man Ray’s memoirs; his writing is occasionally slack, and his deployment of art history can be perfunctory. But that matters little when you’re under Kiki’s spell, and he has written a biography worthy of her, alive with anecdote and incident. You just become so glad to know her — at least, I did, after having thought of her, stupidly, as an adjunct to other artists. She was a marvel, and her triumph feels so far-fetched, the space that she opened for herself as a poor woman in a rich city: “How in this violent, money-mad world that makes no space for its Kikis,” as Braude says, in a lovely passage, “its Kikis have always found some way to make themselves feel at home.”
KIKI MAN RAY: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris
By Mark Braude
Norton, 304 pages, $30
A novelist and critic, Charles Finch is most recently the author of “What Just Happened,” a chronicle of 2020.