You might not recognise Alice Prin’s name, aka Kiki de Montparnasse. But you will have seen her. She’s the face in Sanyu_’s paintings. It’s her back, painted to look like a violin, in Man Ray’s iconic photo. Described as ‘remarkably good looking’ by Peggy Guggenheim, in 1928 this model, cabaret singer and socialite was crowned the Queen of Montparnasse.
You’ll meet her in Jean Rhys’s debut novel, Quartet, where, disguised as Cri-Cri, she:
was a bold spirit and a good sort […] a small, plump girl with astonishingly accurate make-up, a make-up which never varied, day in and day out, week in and week out. Her round cheeks were painted orange-red, her lips vermilion, her green eyes shadowed with kohl, her pointed nose dead white […] she realised she could afford to display coldness, and that no good ever comes from being too polite.
But beyond the image of the woman we have in frames and on postcards, who was Kiki?
Born in the Côte d’Or, she was raised in poverty by her grandmother before joining her mother in Paris to earn money. Unlike many of her Montparnasse contemporaries, Kiki was dirt poor. She had no money, no independent wealth, her parents weren’t married and she had little idea where her father was. She was forced to make her own way in the world, living hand-to-mouth with women friends and posing or dancing to make money. However, despite her sometimes desperate living conditions, Kiki maintained an upbeat attitude.
All I need is an onion, a bit of bread, and a bottle of red; and I will always find somebody to offer me that.
She started posing for artists aged only 14. As an adult, she featured in the frames of the most famous and respected modernist artists of the 1920s – including Picabia and Cocteau. She met Man Ray and became his lover and his muse, posing for some of his most celebrated photographs. Kiki was also a regular sight in short, experimental movies from the period – including one by Rene Clair – putting her at the foreground of contemporary culture.
Kiki is most famous now for her modelling – for being the cult figure who dazzled artists, poets, writers and cabaret audiences. But what is less known is that she was a painter in her own right. Her first exhibition took place in 1927, and Janet Flanner reviewed the show for the New Yorker. Her American audience read that that Kiki’s paintings created an “impression of simplicity, faith, and tenderness”.
One thing I love about Kiki is that through her paintings, she transcended popular expectations of her. She’d been seen through the eyes of the men who painted her, or who watched her on stage. She was the cool character described by Rhys as one “who knew no good came from being too polite“. In her paintings, she became the artist in her own right. She was the subject, not the object, and as the subject, she became someone different to how the world saw her – while still being irrevocably herself.
It wasn’t just modelling and painting that Kiki turned her talented hand to. She also wrote a book, originally titled Kiki’s Memoirs. Published by Black Manikin press, Hemingway himself wrote the introduction, saying “There is a part of it that reads as though it might have been written by Moll Flanders if Moll Flanders had written it herself and not Defoe.”
Kiki died in 1953, collapsing outside her apartment due to complications from alcohol and drug dependency. She was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery where her tombstone remembers her as the Queen of Montparnasse. As Hemingway wrote in his introduction, “Kiki was Montparnasse.”
I discovered Kiki in large part thanks to Catel’s and Jose-Luis Bocquet’s luscious graphic novel Kiki de Montparnasse. Her ebullience and joie-de-vivre sings from every black and white illustration. A brilliant friend gave me my copy of the book, and one of the things I love about the portrayal of Kiki in it is how much she cares for her women friends. You get a sense of her being a real sister – you get a sense of this gang of brave, bolshy and sexual women living and working together in Paris, facing the highs and lows together, standing in solidarity in a male-dominated world.
That’s the Kiki I like to think of – the model, the artist, the writer, the party girl, the friend.