Why you should care
She defined an era for a generation of Parisian artists. The artists are still remembered, but she is not.
Her body, her face and her name are everywhere. Kiki de Montparnasse was turned into a musical instrument for photographer Man Ray’s immortal Ingres’s Violin. Spanish genius Paul Gargallo sculpted a surreal golden bust of her head, most of her face a void save for her smile. And her name is now that of a luxury lingerie brand that sells not just bras but also riding crops and corsets. Those, for most people, are what remains of the legend of Kiki de Montparnasse. That, and a grave in Paris that dubs her “Queen of Montparnasse.”
Kiki, as she was known — her birth name was Alice Prin — was the figure around whom Jazz Age Paris spun. As Kate Conley, a professor of French and Francophone studies at William & Mary, says, “Everyone who knows anything about that time period knows her name.” Kiki wasn’t the first “it” girl and she wasn’t the last, but her whirlwind life and tragic death may serve modern “it” girls (and the societies that create them) as a cautionary tale, and others as a how-to guide.
Born in 1901 in eastern France, Kiki was 12 years old when her mother sent her to Paris to get an education. This was successful, but only just: Kiki reported that when she was 13, she “quit school for good.” At 14, she started working as a nude model for artists, an occupation that at the time was considered morally suspect and even synonymous with prostitution. Slowly, she began to meet and model for some of the biggest names of Montparnasse, from Amedeo Modigliani to Maurice Utrillo to, in one of her most famous encounters, Man Ray.
Man Ray first met Kiki, indignant and enraged, in a Paris café; she had just been refused service for failing to wear a hat. The artist and his companion defused the situation by inviting her to sit with them. Soon, Kiki became his lover and frequent model, and their relationship helped popularize her image as a sensual muse who did whatever she wanted. When friends asked Man Ray whether Kiki was intelligent, he replied that he “had enough intelligence for the two of us.” She was also, he reported, a popular nightclub performer for “her naughty French songs, delivered in an inimitable deadpan manner.”
But Kiki was more than just an artfully posed body, and, as with many muse-artist exchanges, it is difficult to parse where her inspiration ends and Man Ray’s creation begins. For example, his famous work The Lovers depicts a huge pair of floating lips that are generally thought to be Lee Miller’s, his subsequent muse and lover. Yet Man Ray credits Kiki with the idea: She once jealously put a “perfect imprint of a beautiful pair of red lips” on his collar before he left for dinner. Likewise, Kiki produced her own creative work. In 1927, a show of her paintings sold out, and in 1929 — when she was just 28 years old — she published Kiki’s Memoirs to great acclaim.
Many of the most iconic “it” girls, from Edie Sedgwick to Marilyn Monroe, died premature deaths. But what happens when a muse ages and changes along with her era?
The artist Tsuguharu Foujita once noted that “Montparnasse has changed. Kiki does not change” — but change she did. She eventually left Man Ray for the journalist Henri Broca and weathered World War II by clinging to Montparnasse, even as the conflict dispersed France’s artistic coteries. “She would come to perform in [writer Robert Desnos’] apartment during World War II when friends gathered there, bringing what food and wine they had to share,” Conley says. “The party would begin when she arrived.” Though most sources are remarkably silent about this period in Kiki’s life, a decade later she no longer ruled Paris; she haunted it. When Man Ray happened to meet her again after the war, she — like most of Europe — was much altered, suffering from edema, bloated and “quite ill,” as he noted.
Soon after, Kiki was dead. In late April 1953, she collapsed outside of her Montparnasse home, likely from the effects of substance abuse. Her death precipitated an outpouring of retrospectives about Jazz Age Paris, and about Kiki as the symbol of an end of an era. Man Ray commented on her funeral, “Why wasn’t she helped while still alive? And now the undertaker, the florists and the journalists were making the most of it, like maggots on a carcass.”
In the years since, English-language criticism on Kiki has been scant. Author Anna Davis argues that Kiki’s male artist companions “reinvented her.” In this imagining, Kiki becomes valuable primarily for the pliable surface that she offers the male genius. In response, other critics have rightly focused on Kiki’s own creative agency — but they also tend to skim over her troubling death.
This critical legacy puts Kiki in an impossible position of either artist’s plaything or absolute individual. Many of the most iconic “it” girls, from Edie Sedgwick to Marilyn Monroe, died premature deaths. But what happens when a muse ages and changes along with her era? Some Jazz Age stars such as Josephine Baker and Ada “Bricktop” Smith managed to parlay their “it” status into long careers, but their later work was still heavily dependent on nostalgia. Kiki, forgotten and discarded, never made it that far. Her fate points to a larger problem: “It” girls are rarely allowed to become women.
“All I need is an onion, a bit of bread and a bottle of red,” Kiki quipped in her memoirs, “and I will always find somebody to offer me that.”