The Hundred Faces of Kiki de Montparnasse

Zuzanna Stańska 12 June 2023 min Read

Kiki de Montparnasse was an actress, singer, and muse of Man Ray. Known as the “Queen of Montparnasse,” she influenced the trajectory of Paris’s roaring 1920s.

Brassaï, Kiki (De Montparnasse) et ses Amies, 1932, Howard Greenberg Gallery New York, NY, USA.

Kiki, originally Alice Prin, was born in Burgundy in 1901 and spent her childhood with her grandmother in the French countryside. Her family didn’t have much money and at the age of twelve Alice Prin was sent to Paris where she lived with her mother and worked multiple jobs to support the family. However, it didn’t prevent her from getting what she wanted – to conquer Paris’s art scene.

Kiki first worked with her mother and later in shops and bakeries, but by the age of fourteen, she started posing nude for sculptors which led to Kiki being disowned by her own mother. When Kiki was on the verge of poverty, she discovered Montparnasse and decided to befriend artists and make a career as a professional art model.

Marcel L’Herbier, still from the movie The Inhuman, 1924.

Beyond her well-documented beauty, Kiki was a woman who understood the power of possessing agency over her image. She wasn’t a passive muse. She became an independent artist in her own right, leading the way for other women whose visionary spirits and in-charge attitudes we admire today.

Man Ray, Kiki, Noire et Blanche, 1926, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH, USA.

Kiki became a fixture in the Montparnasse social scene and a popular artist’s model. She posed for dozens of artists including Sanyu (painter), Chaim Soutine, Julian Mandel, Tsuguharu Foujita, Constant Detré, Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, Arno Breker, Alexander Calder, Per Krohg, Hermine David, Moise Kisling, Pablo Gargallo, Mayo, and Tono Salazar.

Left: Gustaw Gwozdecki – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1920 / Right: Tsuguharu Foujita – Kiki de Montparnasse, 1925, Widewalls.
Kiki de Montparnasse Pablo_gargallo-kiki_de_montparnasse_front_eh
Pablo Gargallo, Kiki de Montparnasse,  Musee du Louvre, Paris, France.

The most memorable images of Kiki de Montparnasse are probably those by her lover and artistic partner – Man Ray. The two met in 1921 and soon after became a star couple in Surrealist circles. Both of them were extremely talented and combined their passion for art and each other. One such example is Man Ray’s photograph Le Violon D’Ingres, which shows a naked Kiki, seated and viewed from behind, with two ‘f’s on her back. It is both a celebration of her violin curves and a statement that she was, in effect, an instrument for the creation of art.

 Kiki de MontparnasseMan Ray, Le Violon D'Ingres, 1924
Man Ray, Le Violon D’Ingres, 1924, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP.

Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray were lovers for eight years, during which time he made hundreds of images of her, and was hugely influential in the creation of her persona. Kay Boyle, a Paris-based American novelist and contemporary of Kiki’s, wrote that:

Man Ray had designed Kiki’s face for her … and painted it on with his own hand. He would begin by shaving her eyebrows off … and then putting other eyebrows back, in any color he might have selected for her mask that day … Her heavy eyelids might be done in copper one day and in royal blue another, or else in silver or jade.

Despite their intense connection, Kiki ultimately went too far for Man Ray and soon he left Kiki for his photographic protégé, Lee Miller.

Kiki de Montparnasse Man Ray in front of the portrait of Kiki, 1930s / Michel Sima
Michel Sima, Man Ray in front of the portrait of Kiki, c. 1930s.

Kiki’s autobiography was published in 1929 as Kiki’s Memoirs, with Ernest Hemingway and Tsuguharu Foujita providing introductions. The book was banned in the United States until 1970(!).

Kiki de Montparnasse Moise Kisling - Kiki of Montparnasse, 1924 [Alice Ernestine Prin, nicknamed Queen of
Moise Kisling , Kiki de Montparnasse, 1924, private collection.
Kiki’s music hall performances in black hose and garters included 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.”

Roger Viollet, Photo of Kiki de Montparnasse and the painter Hermine David.

A symbol of bohemian and creative Paris, at the age of twenty-eight she was declared the Queen of Montparnasse. Even during difficult times, she maintained her positive attitude, 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.

So French!

Kiki de Montparnasse DONGEN, Kees van_Retrato de una mujer con un cigarrillo (Kiki de Montparnasse), c.1922-1924_529 (1980.65)
Kees van Dongen, Portrait of a Woman with a Cigarette (Kiki de Montparnasse) , Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain

Kiki’s “reign” ended along with the decade. She seemed unable to function outside Paris – an attempt to break into the American film industry of the 1930s failed. In her last years, Kiki slipped into self-parody, singing for tourists in the Montparnasse cafes to fund her voracious cocaine and alcohol habits.

Man Ray, Kiki de Montparnasse, c. 1924, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Sadly, Kiki died in 1953 after collapsing outside her flat in Montparnasse at the age of fifty-one, apparently due to complications of alcoholism or drug dependence. Tsuguharu Foujita said that, with Kiki, the glorious days of Montparnasse were buried forever and Hemingway wrote about her that:

She dominated the era of Montparnasse more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.

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