Dr. Mark Braude on Kiki de Montparnasse

FM: Who was Alice Prin? 

MB: Alice Prin was born in 1901 to an unwed, teenage mother in Burgundy, in the French provinces, raised by her grandmother while her mother went off to Paris to work. Prin herself moved to Paris as a teenager, taking a series of menial jobs—working in factories and in a bakery, for instance. But she had a passion for an artistic life: for painting, for drawing, and she wanted to be a part of that world. She was living in Montparnasse and gravitated towards the Rotonde Cafe, where artists met models and models met artists to negotiate posing jobs. Adopting the nickname Kiki, she charmed her way into the back-room of the Rotonde, where the artists hung out. She ended up posing for people like Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine, Moïse Kisling, and Tsuguharu Foujita. She’s especially known for posing for Man Ray, and that’s how I knew her best— as the most famous model of her era. And that’s also how I would teach Alice Prin — by giving her a passing mention when I was talking about Man Ray.

As you know from when you start doing any real digging in the archives, you find out that the story you know is wrong, sometimes slightly, but sometimes completely. And in this case, I discovered that by the mid-twenties, Alice Prin / Kiki, was more of an influential figure in Montparnasse than Man Ray was. She was so much more than a model. Alongside her modeling work, she was a dazzling cabaret performer, she sold out the debut of her paintings in Paris in 1927, she was an illustrator, she acted in silent films (both commercial and experimental), and I think she excelled most as a writer. She wrote a memoir in 1929, when she was not yet 30, and when it came out it made front-page news in Paris. It got rave reviews. The memoir was about her life, Montparnasse, and the artists and other friends she’d made. The following year, Ernest Hemingway wrote a preface for the English-language edition, which was subsequently banned in America for obscenity.

In short: Alice Prin created the persona of Kiki de Montparnasse, which she then used to express herself in a variety of media in the 1920s.

FM: Was this moniker, Kiki de Montparnasse, self-given? 

Maurice Mendjizky, Kiki (1921) oil on canvas Collection Fonds de Dotation Mendjisky- Écoles de Paris

MB: The nickname “Kiki” might have come from a play on “Alice”: “Aliki.” But a “Kiki” was a sort of a “Jojo” — one of these fairly common nicknames, and it also meant all sorts of things in slang: someone’s neck (hanged) or chicken giblets. The French use “Kiki” as the English language uses “John” to signify a prostitute’s client. Her boyfriend at the time, Maurice Mendjisky, gave her the nickname; they liked the way it sounded.

More importantly, and this goes with how you used the phrase “self-given,” is that the name was part of her self-invention. There were a lot of people in Montparnasse, Man Ray being one of them (born Emmanuel Radnitsky in Philadelphia), who gave themselves new identities, new names, aliases. For some, it was to escape the bonds of their families and tradition. For others, it was the pure act of creativity, creating oneself in this case — or, to say, “I can be somebody new here. This is where I belong, and this, finally, is my true identity.” So, I think that “Kiki” was part of that, but the “de Montparnasse” came a little later when she was officially crowned the Queen of Montparnasse at a mock ceremony in 1929. After that, people in the neighborhood were bowing to her and sort of playing with this idea of mock royalty, but in a sense she really was a kind of sovereign in this little nation-state, if you want to think of Montparnasse in that way.

Brassaï, Kiki entourée d’homme, “Cabaret des Fleurs” (1932). Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais / Michèle Bello.

FM: And is there anything beyond the background you’ve given of her life and name that you think is worth mentioning about her?

MB: I’m glad you asked that. Yes! What I liked about Kiki as a book project, especially for English-readers, is that we’re looking at this very well-worn territory of 1920s Paris, where there’s so much that has been written about it, but in this case seen through the eyes of a French woman. This is not an American in Paris / Hemingway / Fitzgerald story. Kiki was the ultimate Parisian in many ways, but she loved and traded on her agrarian upbringing. For instance, she rolled her “R”s in a way that was kind of “foreign” to Parisian ears. She played up the idea of being a rustic villager for these cosmopolitan crowds. And she was both an insider and an outsider in a sense. Her upbringing was fundamental to who she was and how she thought of herself, but she also very astutely capitalized on that identity as a sort of representative of this older, traditional France yet now remodeled in a way that was new and exciting. She straddled both worlds.

We have to remember to put her in the context of her time, and to see how revolutionary she was. Because of her poverty and her relative lack of education – she quit school at 12 – the options for her were incredibly limited. She really made it all happen for herself without any outside help. Just the life she was able to lead is in itself an extraordinary accomplishment. 

FM: I have to ask this question about the title of your book. Why are Prin’s and Radnitsky’s names put together as one? 

MB: Kiki went by the name “Kiki Man Ray” for a few years in the Twenties. She’s credited in some of her films as Kiki Man Ray, and it’s how some of her friends addressed her in letters. She saw herself and Man Ray as a single being, a single unit, though they weren’t married. They were together romantically, off-and-on, for most of the 1920s. They had a very tumultuous, sometimes violent, difficult, and complicated relationship. But the title also works as Kiki / Man Ray. Where does being a model or muse end, and being an artist begin? 

When I tried to recreate the creations of their pictures, their most famous images together, I started to see them as collaborations of a sort — as her performing for the camera, because she was a true and expert performer. The book’s subtitle is ‘Art, Love, and Rivalry’ and that’s the focus: how they pushed, encouraged, supported, and inspired each other, but also how they were true rivals; and that from this rivalry came inspiration. They brought out the best and the worst in each other.

FM: The New York Times’s book review ends with the critique that the book could’ve focused a bit more on Kiki as an artist in her own right, but what you’ve said encapsulates a duality to both of their personas. 

MB: I don’t want to give a false sense that the book is 90% about Kiki. There’s a lot of Man Ray in the book. That was the dynamic I was looking at: focusing on how these two people influenced each other through their connection. And while I do think Kiki was a fantastic performer and writer, I consciously tried to avoid overstating her merit as a painter, for instance. At last that was my take on her paintings. I think her paintings are good, but I wasn’t trying to argue “we need to hang these in the MoMA immediately.” Her writing I find exceptional, and, most importantly, her performances were fantastic, but the thing is those performances weren’t extensively documented. She was expressing herself in all of these different ways—and each expression constituted some version or other of the Kiki persona. We have so many people doing that today with self-branding, presenting themselves as “multi-hyphenates,” but she was kind of doing that one-hundred years ago without really knowing it.

Alice Ernestine Prin, Les Matelots (1931)

FM: I can speak to the fragility of not wanting to overstate one’s reputation with what we’re doing here at Lost Modernists. How do you create a relevance for such figures that have been neglected? Some might say many are neglected for a reason or that it’s gendered to revisit a neglected, female artist. The question becomes what are the stakes in reviving this particular person? 

MB: That’s right, and you lose credibility if you say everyone is amazing. Let’s treat them fairly. The work exists. Let’s treat them fairly on the basis of that work. But I do think, in Kiki’s case, so much of what she did was ephemeral and that hampered her legacy. It was presence, charisma, dancing, interaction with the crowd—those things get lost in a way that a novel or a painting on a wall can’t

FM: Though we have Ballet Mécanique,  archives can’t capture the aspects of her character that you mention. I’d be curious to hear about what you referenced when writing your book. How much of your research was done in the archives?

MB: Kiki and Man Ray both wrote memoirs — sometimes dueling, which was really fun, because they’d have different accounts of the same story. I could then use other sources and context and do my best to get as close as possible to what felt like the truth, but often I chose to simply place their dueling accounts in conversation on the page and let readers make up their own minds. Or if I had it, I might even throw in a third source, a mutual friend, say, who had a third account totally different from Kiki and Man Ray’s. You might choose not to believe any of them! There we’re also other archival sources, like  a lot of contemporary press, some letters, lots of photographs. And the usual things you would think of, such as visual materials. There are a few recordings of her singing. I got Kiki’s original 1929 copy of the memoir. There were probably only a few hundred copies in the world, so she probably handled it herself. It has markings, drawings, and photos by her and of her. And luckily, there is an excellently researched coffee table book on Kiki from thirty or so years ago, where a lot of the footnotes presented leads that I could follow like breadcrumbs. And ditto for Neil Baldwin’s exhaustive biography of Man Ray, which was an equally valuable source. I could see his footnotes and retrace his steps which might then open the door to other sources.

Swann Galleries

But really it all started with the two memoirs. I wanted to use their voices as much as possible, and then to surround that with as much contemporary stuff as I could to verify (or question) and enrich what they were saying. Luckily, it was a hyper-literary crowd. Everyone who was there wrote a memoir — minor figures, major figures — and letters, tons of letters.

FM: I tweeted a few months back about wanting to someday write a bio on Kiki. I was so happy to see soon-after that yours was approaching publication. I thought it was time someone wrote on Kiki. 

MB: It’s like something was in the ether! I cooked the idea up five years ago. And now Man Ray and Kiki’s Le Violon d’Ingres sold as the most expensive photo ever sold at auction for like $12 million dollarsthere’s a ton of stuff on Surrealism at major museums right now. I don’t know, maybe we’re having a moment where it just seems right?

FM: What perfect timing! Aside from the Surrealists and Man Ray, can you situate Kiki alongside the Lost Generation in Paris? What was her relationship to other artists at the time?

MB: She was this incredible figure in that she seemed to connect with so many different worlds. I think as a French speaker who had an American boyfriend, she was translating in many ways — literally translating and, otherwise, connecting people. She was very close to Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, Kay Boyle, Constantin Brancusi, and Jean Cocteau.

Kiki de Montparnasse, Peggy Guggenheim, Louis Aragon, Clotilde Vail and Man Ray, 1923

One of the things that came to light when I followed Kiki around and the more I was writing was that all these people lived a couple doors down from each other. So many people, and it’s all happening at two or three cafes. We think about it now in this legendary, mythic way, and it becomes calcified. Picasso’s name is on the back of Citroen cars now. Hemingway’s like a cottage industry right now. But if you go back, it’s a few misfits, really, hanging out in their twenties—some are in their thirties—from all over the world either to escape something at home or seeking to feel at home in this little neighborhood. Or they’ve been drawn by art school or the usual things that bring young, talented, ambitious people to big cities, and this is an incredibly cosmopolitan and progressive city. But it’s just a few people hanging out at the cafes. They don’t know they’re going to become legends. [They’re not even thinking that way.] They’re trying to get through the week, trying to make rent. 

One of the things that’s so refreshing about that moment, especially now, is this reminder of the joys of physical proximity and what can happen with people who are different from one another that end up in the same place, interacting. It’s all being made there in the room. Even though now it’s in museums, a lot of this stuff was happening at house parties — in a little apartment — just chatting, them saying “wouldn’t it be cool if we did a movie where Man Ray turns Robert Desnos’s poem into images?” Or “what would it look like if we filmed Kiki through a kaleidoscope and she can wink?” There’s like five people working on Ballet Mecanique. It’s credited to Fernand Léger, but Man Ray helped, Ezra Pound helped, this guy Dudley Murphy helped, Kiki is obviously a contributor… it’s all just chaotic. They’re making it up as they go along. It was refreshing: this contingent, chaotic feeling, everything up for grabs.

Front row: Man Ray, Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau
Middle row: Kiki (circled in red), Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson, Ezra Pound
Top row: Bill Bird on the left, Hilaire Hiler and Curtiss Moffit on the right

FM: In a sense, it’s like she was a force that connected together many salons, cabarets, and other events. It’s fascinating how name comes up in literary, musical, and other artistic circles. 

MB: There are these people you tend to meet, usually in your twenties, that are “connectors,” right? You know “that guy” that knows everyone. He’s in a band, but he also knows all of the cool painters, and people starting businesses, and, I don’t know, people who work in advertising — he just knows everyone. And you meet weird people going to his parties. That’s who Kiki was. It just happened that a lot of those people she knew became famous.

Brassaï, The Singer Kiki de Montparnasse (1933). Cleveland Museum of Art, Tom E Hinson. Catalogue of Photography. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1996. Reproduced: P. 110.

FM: With Kiki in mind as a sort of conduit to but also a central figure to the happenings in Montparnasse, what does your book seek to do in regards to attitudes toward her? Are you trying to create new attitudes or simply to shed light on her? 

MB: I tried consciously not to think about that, while writing and researching, because I didn’t want it to be a polemic. Not because I don’t love an argument, but because I didn’t want to shape the narrative contrary to what the archives were telling me. I don’t think the prime motivation was trying to prove anything or rescue anyone. It was, more simply, kind of selfish in a sense. I thought of Kiki this way and it turns out she was that way. That’s an inherently interesting story to me. That gap in my knowledge is interesting to me, and I know I’m going to find something out by writing through that gap. But when I’m done, I’m hands-off. Whatever happens from then-on is great. Someone could write a book and say “your take is completely wrong,” which would be wonderful! Or: “I’m going to write my thesis on Kiki and really dig into the archives in her hometown to do a social history” or whatever it might be. That would all be cool. But I was just following the story of two complex, innovative people who interested me and doing the best I could to form a coherent and compelling narrative out of these lives and events with the archival materials on-hand, while trying to do justice to the people who lived these lives, not by mythologizing them but just by trying to let them do their thing, honestly and authentically, on the page, while trying to accept them as they were, while trying to be kind to them. 

 

 


Mark Braude is a cultural historian and the author of Kiki Man Ray, The Invisible Emperor, and Making Monte Carlo. He has been a visiting fellow at the American Library in Paris, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar, and the recipient of a Silvers Grant. He lives in Vancouver with his family.

 

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