Art Forms

The Hundred Faces Of Kiki de Montparnasse

Zuzanna Stańska 15 September 2017 min Read

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

Kiki de Montparnasse Kiki in the front row at luncheon party, 1920s.
Kiki at luncheon party, 1920s. She is holding Tsuguharu Foujita.

Kiki, originally Alice Prin, was born in Burgundy in 1901, and had a poor, uneducated upbringing in the French countryside. But it didn’t prevent her to get what she wanted – conquering Montparnasse.

Kiki de Montparnasse Kiki-Man-Ray
Kiki photographed by Man Ray

Beyond her well-documented beauty (frequently unclothed) she 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 the women whose visionary spirits and in-charge attitudes we admire today.

Kiki de Montparnasse Kiki photographed by Man Ray.
Kiki de Montparnasse photographed by Man Ray

She first worked in shops and bakeries, but by the age of fourteen, she was posing nude for sculptors, which created discord with her mother.

Kiki de Montparnasse Alice Prin in a photo by Julien Mandel
Alice Prin in a photo by Julien Mandel

She became a fixture in the Montparnasse social scene and a popular artist’s model, posing 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.

Kiki de Montparnasse Alice Prin (Kiki), c. 1920, painted by Gustaw Gwozdecki (1880–1935)
Alice Prin (Kiki), c. 1920, painted by Gustaw Gwozdecki
Kiki de Montparnasse Pablo_gargallo-kiki_de_montparnasse_front_eh
Kiki de Montparnasse, Pablo Gargallo, Musee du Louvre

But her most famous romance was with Man Ray. He also created her most memorable image – the photograph Le Violon D’Ingres, which shows a naked Kiki, seated and viewed from behind, with two ‘f’s in her back; 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, Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray were lovers for six 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 colour 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 Man Ray left Kiki for his photographic protege, Lee Miller.

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

Kiki’s autobiography was published in 1929 as Kiki’s Memoirs, with Ernest Hemingway and Tsuguharu Foujita providing introductions. The book was banned in 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
Her 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 owned the Montparnasse cabaret L’Oasis, which was later renamed “Chez Kiki.”

Kiki de Montparnasse
Kiki on one of the Man Ray’s films

A symbol of bohemian and creative Paris, at 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)
Portrait of a woman with a cigarette (Kiki de Montparnasse), Kees van Dongen, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Her 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.

Kiki de Montparnasse
Kiki, Photograph: Roger Viollet/AFP

Kiki died in 1953 after collapsing outside her flat in Montparnasse, at the age of fifty-one, apparently of complications of alcoholism or drug dependence. Tsuguharu Foujita has said that, with Kiki, the glorious days of Montparnasse were buried forever. Hemingway wrote about her that she “dominated the era of Montparnasse more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.”

Find out more:

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