SEPTEMBER 20, 2022
IN 1924, THE AMERICAN-BORN artist Man Ray created in his Paris apartment a typical specimen of surrealist humor. The photograph Le Violon d’Ingres (1924) shows the bare back of his seated lover; between the cello-like curves of her nude waist, he painted a pair of f-holes directly onto the print. The pun, marking the model as the artist’s instrument, is as unforgettable as its irony is questionable. When Christie’s auctioned off Le Violin d’Ingres this spring, an anonymous bidder paid $12.4 million, or twice as much as predicted, making it the most expensive photograph in history. Even though another Man Ray photograph had sold for $3.1 million five years earlier, the experts were caught off guard.
We shouldn’t assume that the buyer in each case was after a Man Ray, however. Instead, the selling point may well have been the photograph’s magnetic model: the painter, chanteuse, and actress Kiki de Montparnasse. During her short life, the ironic, world-weary, sharp-banged “Queen of Montparnasse” served as a muse for a prolific list of mostly male, avant-garde, Parisian artists: Tsuguharu Foujita, Maurice Mendjizky, Moïse Kisling, Hermine David , Antonio “Toño” Salazar, Per Krohg, Alexander Calder, Kees van Dongen, Pablo Gargallo, Amedeo Modigliani, and possibly even Picasso himself.
The term “muse,” however, doesn’t do justice to the Kiki of Mark Braude’s new biography, Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris. In one telling of the Kiki myth, her natural allure inevitably captivated the male geniuses around her. In another, she is an exceptionally pliable model whom a range of artists posed to their liking. Braude’s biography suggests a third and more compelling possibility: the “Kiki Man Ray” at the heart of the book was a true collaboration.
Man Ray’s and Kiki’s respective biographies, which the book’s early chapters narrate in parallel, show how both artists developed as they discovered one another in Paris’s bohemian Montparnasse district. Unacknowledged by her father, left behind in Burgundy while her mother sought work elsewhere, Alice Ernestine Prin (born 1901) was raised in poverty by her grandmother. When she was 12, her mother, now in Paris, sent for her. A few years later, fired for striking the wife of her baker employer and dreaming of “falling in love with a poet, painter, or actor,” Prin secretly began modeling nude for an unnamed older artist. Her mother disowned her, abandoning her to the Bohemian Demimonde, where she began modeling for the relatively unknown Mendjizky and later Kisling. (Kisling was the first to dub Alice “Kiki,” a French slang word with a dozen different meanings, from the client of a prostitute to the neck of a chicken.) Not yet 18, and without yet stepping onto a stage or producing her own paintings, Kiki was on her way to becoming a beloved figure in the quarter.
In 1921, Kiki met Emmanuel Radnitzky, born in Philadelphia to Russian Jewish immigrant parents and recently arrived in Paris. Despite showing his work in New York and crossing paths with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray was not well known in Europe when Kiki, a decade younger, introduced him to their fellow “Montparnos.” Man Ray, who had recently begun experimenting with photography as a potential Dadaist medium, asked Kiki to let him photograph her. She was reluctant — photography was too “factual” for her taste — but eventually agreed. What commenced was both a romantic and a professional relationship, in which artist and model honed their crafts together. In Braude’s words, Man Ray “seemed to understand Kiki’s innate gift for performance — although she had yet to appear on any stage — and that his main task was to be there to capture her as she presented herself.” While Man Ray made the technical transition from painting to photography, Kiki learned to direct herself. Sexist though it was, the visual pun in Le Violon d’Ingres may well have been her idea; most likely, it was the couple’s shared joke.
Man Ray also encouraged Kiki’s own early efforts at painting. Their relationship was undoubtedly exploitative: Kiki made valuable introductions to the Parisian cultural figures Man Ray would later photograph, and usually made dinner as well, while Man Ray did less to promote her work. Even so, his images of Kiki — and the success she helped create for him — led to greater demand for her as both a model and an artist. In 1922, Kiki posed for the Japanese-born Foujita (and he for her); the nude he produced of her, with its striking black-and-white palette derived from Kiki’s own chic style, helped launch the Japanese artist’s career. “When recounting the creation of Reclining Nude,” according to Braude, “Foujita wrote that neither he nor Kiki ‘could say for sure who among the two of us was its author.’” The two split the money from the sale of Reclining Nudeevidently seeing it as a collaboration.
Not long after, Man Ray was invited to screen a film starring Kiki at an infamous festival organized by Dada founder Tristan Tzara, after which the audience broke into fistfights and vandalized the theater. The event formally marked the splintering of Dada into surrealism, cubism, and other movements. Just as importantly, it inspired Kiki’s ambitions to seek a bigger audience. After an ill-fated trip to New York to audition for larger film roles, Kiki returned to Paris and began her career as a live performer in earnest. By the end of the decade, crowds of Parisians and tourists were cramming into the cabarets and cafés where, when the mood struck her, Kiki would mount the stage to joke, tell stories, sing sad sea shanties, and, on occasion, moon particularly bourgeois-looking visitors.
As Hemingway wrote in his introduction to her 1929 book Kiki’s Memoirs that Kiki “dominated that era of Montparnasse more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.” For Braude, however, “dominated” is the wrong word. A better description would be “experienced.” The story he relates tell us as much about Kiki’s fellow Montparnos as it does about her, evoking a creative community that existed in a state of miraculous openness. No individual embodied that ethos as well as Kiki, as she charmed dinner guests, portrait subjects (including Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Cocteau), patrons, collectors, and cabaret audiences. Writing with a lyrical touch rare among biographers, Braude imagines the power of Kiki’s vulnerability as she sings one night at the Jockey Club before friends and strangers:
She’s carried along by joy. She tells the dejected they’re worthy, only misunderstood. She promises shelter to the misplaced and broken. She plays to the lie that village folks are simpler and so wiser than city folk. She never strives for the sublime. Her voice is earthbound, she knows. If a singing voice could smell, hers would be garlic hitting a pan’s hot butter and wine.
The Queen of Montparnasse was less an object of worship than of identification. She “will never .” command an audience,” Braude notes. “All she does is let her watchers imagine that by singing about her sins, she’s hearing their confessions.”
Posthumous memorials of Kiki have mostly failed to capture her full range as an artist, focusing instead on her personal charisma and proximity to other influential cultural figures. That mistake is born partly out of sexism but also out of the fact that Kiki’s most developed métier was performance art, a genre not recognized in her lifetime. It is difficult to celebrate an artist whose art was ephemeral. “A perfectly timed pause that makes everyone in a nightclub go still in uneasy anticipation isn’t something you can trademark and bottle,” writes Braude. “You can’t sell a dance at auction. You can’t sell a pose.” Working in so many genres, the Queen of Montparnasse produced relatively few paintings, which are seldom reproduced or placed on the market. Man Ray’s pictures of Kiki are the closest one can come to purchasing her art — a potential explanation for their high price.
Like contemporary YouTube artists, early 20th-century performers such as Kiki took a populist route to celebrity, ingratiating themselves with audiences before impressing casting agents and producers. Unlike those YouTubers, however, the audience for performers like Kiki was usually local. Telling her story on stage, she played up her provincial background and miserable childhood. She connected with her Montparnasse audience by speaking and singing honestly about the episodes of war, sickness, and romantic abandonment she had experienced alongside them.
As she discovered from her failed screen tests in New York, her personal magnetism was strongest in her own extraordinary neighborhood. When she was memorialized by Life magazine, it was as an emblem of the avant-garde community she had nurtured, rather than as an individual creator. During the war, some Montparnos, Man Ray included, relaunched their careers elsewhere, while Kiki remained behind, running the cabaret L’Oasis and waiting out the Occupation in the countryside. She struggled to escape her addictions but eventually succumbed to them. At 51, she collapsed outside her Montparnasse apartment and died. Foujita attended her funeral; Man Ray did not.
Montparnasse’s avant-garde community was at once deeply sexist and extremely tolerant of Jews, people of color, homosexuals, independent women, and other cultural outsiders. For every Gertrude Stein, there were scores of male artists who gained reputations and fortunes in 1920s Paris. While attacking other cultural traditions, these artists clung to and even reinforced the classical model of the female muse inspiring the male creator. Le Violon d’Ingres, for instance, plays with the trope without challenging it. Feminist biographies of female muses such as Kiki have sought to correct the record by exploring their own neglected work.
Instead of asking whether such figures received or gave the inspiration, it may be more radical to reenvision works such as Le Violon d’Ingres As collaborations, and to ask that art historians, auction houses, and’ estates recognize them as such. Inspiration, in Kiki’s case, went both ways: she helped make Man Ray and others, and they helped make Kiki, providing the stage for her to display her audacious energy. Rather than discard the figure of the muse, Braude’s biography points to the possibility of collectivizing it.
Justin T. Clark’s latest book is The Zero Season (Penguin, 2022), a novel of love and revenge set in post–World War II Paris and Cambodia. Follow him on Twitter @Justin_T_Clark.