Kiki de Montparnasse. Such a great name. It’s an exciting name, an erotic name, a name that evokes a certain place and a certain time. But it’s not a name that we immediately recognize, although her image is. I asked my small circle of friends and associates—most of whom have more than a passing knowledge of art and art history—if they had ever heard of Kiki. Each searched their mind and kind of shrugged as if to say “no, should I?” When I mentioned to one friend that she had been a model in 1920s Paris, especially for Man Ray’s photograph, “Le Violon d’Ingres,” he lit up and said “Oh! Is she the woman with the f-holes on her back?” This is how she’s remembered: presented as posing for, and inspiring, the great artists of her time. She’s not discussed as an artist in her own right whose work was purchased by powerful brokers and collectors, whose work was hung in prominent Parisian galleries. She’s not remembered as a sought after cabaret singer who would pack in tourists and denizens of Montparnasse’s clubs. Instead, she’s remembered by most, if she’s remembered at all, as “the woman with the f-holes on her back.”
In his new book, Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris, Mark Braude attempts to challenge this view of Kiki. Kiki was born Alice Prin in 1901 in Chatillon-sur-Seine, a village in Burgundy. She was raised by her grandmother after her mother moved to Paris to find work. Kiki eventually joined her there and worked as a bookbinder’s apprentice, repaired shoes, and as a lowly assistant at a bakery. Soon she wound up living on the streets drifting from place to place, staying with friends. At sixteen, she started posing for artists by coincidence and out of necessity. It was when she walked into the Cafe de la Rotonde in Montparnasse looking for modeling work that things took off for Kiki. Many artists had moved from Montmartre to Montparnasse, and the Rotonde was a popular hangout. She started to model on a semi-regular basis for artists like Modigliani, Soutine, and Kisling.“The painters adopted me,” Kiki wrote.
After being “adopted,” she started to run with a crowd that included some of the greatest artists of all time: Duchamp, Foujita, Cocteau, Kisling, and most of all Man Ray. Braude wants to show that Kiki wasn’t just part of the crowd, no model or hanger-on, not even just a contemporary; rather he wants us to see her as one of the major creative figures, not just of Montparnasse in the 20s, but of the 20th Century. His starting point is a question posed in the prologue: “[h]ow did it happen that this young woman should be the one to capture the spirit of their age like no one else, and by doing nothing more than making a performance of herself?”
Braude has compiled a dearth of research in answering this question. The notes section of the book is worth spending time with. Through this research he has been able to build a vivid and dramatic snapshot of interwar-era Paris. Braude is at his best when the book serves as a tour through 1920s Montparnasse, as we zip along the boulevards going from cafe to cafe and studio to studio, stumbling into soon-to-be famous artists, socialites, or just interesting strangers. Kiki, as a subject and a character, is a compelling theory, but so much of Braude’s research and focus feels Kiki-adjacent. Depth is what’s missing.
Braude’s main framing device is Kiki’s near-decade relationship with the photographer Man Ray: first as model, then as lover. The book follows the two of them as their stories intertwine with each other and with other artists. It’s fair to say that there is more writing and research available on Man Ray than there is on Kiki, but in Braude’s telling Kiki comes off as two-dimensional, static—she narrowly avoids cliche. The introduction of Man Ray and their relationship, should work, in effect, to reveal more about Kiki, to illuminate her character. But it doesn’t. Instead, the opposite becomes true: we learn more, and understand more, about Man Ray than we do Kiki.
Braude’s book gives the impression that Kiki was the kind of creative that could do anything she wanted: she became a sought after model; a painter with sales and gallery shows to her name; she took snapshots of her own; she became a cabaret singer that could pack in crowds; she wrote a best-selling memoir. This should garner as much attention as, say, Man Ray’s forays into experimental filmmaking, his anxiety at his place in society, and his deep desire to be known as a painter rather than a photographer. But instead it sits on the surface without exploring what the work and achievements meant to Kiki—especially considering that she was creating next to such a prominent, and famous, artist.
There is a moment late on in Kiki Man Ray when Braude raises the question of Kiki being Man Ray’s artistic rival—or at least him seeing it that way: “Man Ray, despite his dismissive statements to the contrary, did in truth recognize that Kiki’s experiments, in their various forms, were as unexpected and innovative as any of his.” Man Ray was jealous of Kiki from a professional standpoint. While Man Ray spoke of the need for freedom in his art, it was Kiki who was, in reality, the free artist. Kiki with her disregard for status, money, reputation—for her, living was a form of art.
The idea of a real rivalry between them leaves so much to explore, so much to unpack, it’s a shame it’s only given a few paragraphs in the book’s epilogue. “Rivalry” is in the book’s title and I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t given more prominence throughout. We see Kiki selling her works to collector/broker Henri-Pierre Roche, we read about Kiki having gallery shows (group and solo) but we don’t see Kiki, on the page, as a rival to Man Ray. We don’t get a sense of what it would mean for a woman like Kiki to provoke a kind of fear in an artist of Man Ray’s stature.
It’s worth asking the question: what is it for a man to write about a woman in this way? Would Kiki’s story and legacy as an artist, as a woman in a specific historical era, benefited from more of a feminist art-history lens? Any exploration of this is at the surface level. If, as Linda Nochlin wrote, the neutral position of the art scholar was “in reality the white-male-position-accepted-as-natural,” then why not dig into the fact that Kiki was a woman of a certain station among male artists whose greatness was given the benefit of the doubt?
In the late 80s, The Guerrilla Girls hung posters around New York asking “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” Beneath the text was a lunging nude wearing a gorilla mask, and statistics: “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” As much progress as we have made (at least on the surface), we haven’t made that much. Despite her output in multiple mediums, Kiki is still largely known as a model, as the subject in “Le Violon d’Ingres”: an object, a thing to be played with only when bored, as the French idiom where that famous photograph draws its name suggests, a mere “hobby.”
Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris
by Mark Braude
W. W. Norton & Company
Published August 9th, 2022
Brock Kingsley is a writer and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere.