With the lightness of a bubble of champagne, the muse of Soutine or Foujita, darling of the interwar period, passed on to posterity thanks to the photographic work of Man Ray. The violin woman, that's her!



Kiki de Montparnasse, the muse of the Roaring Twenties

"Out of my house! And that I don't see you again!", screams Marie Prin, who has just surprised Alice, aged 16, naked in a sculptor's workshop. For several days, the outraged mother had been wondering where the money the kid was bringing home came from. She followed her quietly. Now she knows. She wanted her daughter to become, like her, an intellectual worker, a linotypist, but you don't redo a failed education. Marie Prin has only herself to blame. Her little bastard, she almost gave birth to her in the street, on October 2, 1901, in Châtillon-sur-Seine, a village in Burgundy. Then she put the baby in her own mother's arms and went to find work in the capital.

For excuse, she had only her 19 years and her poverty. Alice Prin, the brunette with the long nose who finds herself on the street with 5 francs offered by the sculptor, angry at being at the origin of the family drama, wanders like a lost soul. What would her grandmother that she loves so much say? She's a little ashamed, Alice, but not that much. Life did not give him a gift. A good grandmother, certainly, but misery at all meals against a backdrop of melancholy: "One cannot know the sadness that can invade the heart of a child who has no mother", will write- she. And when finally, at 12, her mother brings her to Paris to give her a little education, the hope is only short-lived. School is not for her and, after a few disappointments, she finds herself good at everything with a baker who treats her like a slave. This job will at least have had the merit of making him meet the famous sculptor who, at first, was the source of his downfall.

Hosted by Soutine

Rich with her 5 francs, Alice finds a room and a new friend, no better off than her, who knows painters in Montparnasse. Chaïm Soutine, a recently arrived Russian Jew, is not the most handsome of them, but he is talented and kind. He retrieves them both when they are ejected from their furnished accommodation. At Soutine's, it's cold, they are hungry, but at least he tells Alice she's beautiful and, in his wake, she meets other men, other artists who are just waiting for her milky body to start to create.

The young woman is not afraid of male lust that she knows by heart. Discovering her body for a few pieces is her daily life. She would have liked to be in a magazine but, everywhere, people make fun of her big nose. Never mind, it gives it personality. Her life, she is sure, has not really begun yet. Besides, what is a life without love?

Love is called Maurice Mendjizky, he is a painter and Polish. Alice is the miracle he was waiting for to inhabit his paintings. And probably not just his paintings. He opens his workshop, his bed and his heart to his little Aliki, which he transforms into Kiki in the blink of an eye. With this new nickname, she abandons the togs of the poor and the peasant, to adopt the bob cut, the eyes rimmed with kohl, the red lips, the conquering attitude and the escapades of a future queen of the night. .

The Great War ended, giving way to the Spanish flu, the worst pandemic of the 20th century. When all this finally comes to an end, Paris has only one desire: to party. Americans discover Europe, France and especially Paris. They mingle with the nightlife, drink from every chalice.

In Montparnasse, we find Hemingway at La Closerie des Lilas, Man Ray at the Select. Emmanuel Radnitzky, of Russian origin, born in the United States, emigrated to France, is known only by his artist name: Man Ray, the very symbol of photography, an art for which he will become famous. When he meets Kiki, she has already posed for the most fashionable painters: the Japanese Foujita, the Polish Kisling. Having become the mascot of the district, she overflows with energy even if it is sometimes due to cocaine, even if she already drinks too much.

At just 20 years old, she has the beauty of her age and the appetite for life of those who have always been hungry. In 1922, she met at La Rotonde the one who would become her lifelong friend, Thérèse Maure, known as Treize (thirteen). "If there is one of us to whom something happens, we share that, even the blows to give or to receive", she writes.

Adopted by the surrealists

Cheeky, Kiki sings in cabarets, also dances, but does not know that her greatest achievement will be to become... a violin. How could she have imagined that it was her back adorned with two gills that would make her go down in history? His face too, associated with a Baoulé mask from Côte d'Ivoire, another of Man Ray's shots that have defied time and fashion. The photographer's band is that of the surrealists: Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Jean Cocteau... The collaboration between the artist and his muse will last eight years. Sometimes rocky years because Kiki is not the stable or faithful type.

She was only 22 when one of her lovers, an American journalist, took her to New York in the hope of getting her to make movies. Alas, Kiki behaves like the queen of Montparnasse with the lords of the studios who are struggling to place France on the world map. Schedules, constraints, she ignores them. And will return pitifully to Paris to find Man Ray, her favorite American.

Kiki embraces the rhythm of the Roaring Twenties, she herself is a bit. She appears in several experimental films. On the advice of Cocteau, she tries a disastrous stay on the Côte d'Azur, meets the writer Henri-Pierre Roché (future author of the novel "Jules and Jim") who encourages her to draw and paint.

Kiki's first exhibition took place at the art gallery Au Sacre du Printemps, rue du Cherche-Midi, in March 1927. Her works sold well, the young woman was at the height of her glory. How could she then imagine that the second half of her life has begun and that her decline has begun? For the time being, she continues to burn her nights at balls, Bal Bullier, Bal Nègre, Bal des Quat’z’Arts… and champagne bubbles.

Trapped by drugs

At the age of 28, Kiki begins to write her memoirs, the first chapters of which are published in the magazine "Paris Montparnasse", directed by the journalist Henri Broca who becomes her new love. She left Man Ray, or maybe it was the other way around, because the photographer has a new assistant, Lee Miller, who soon becomes his mistress and his muse. With Broca, Kiki hosts gala or charity dinners; she is everywhere and entertains the gallery with saucy songs sung when she has had too much to drink. Alexander Calder makes his portrait in wire.

To publish all of her book of memories, a subscription is successfully launched and makes Kiki an author. While everything smiles on her, her mother, whom she never saw again, and her lover, Henri Broca, are hospitalized and only she can pay the costs. She multiplies the appearances, the concerts, accepts an engagement in Berlin. It was during this stay, in 1932, that she learned of the death of her mother (for Broca, it was in 1935). Kiki takes drugs, drinks too much, eats haphazardly and grows to the point of reaching eighty kilos. Then loses a few to continue posing, singing in cabarets.

Her new lover,André Laroque, is a pianist and accordionist and accompanies her in concert. He has his feet on the ground and will help her to set up her first place in 1937, "Chez Kiki", rue Vavin. He also attempts to wean her off the drug.

The nights in this Montparnos lair are so crazy that the owner of the walls quickly puts an end to them... Constantly short of money, Kiki continues to work wherever possible, at the "Jockey", for example, the new establishment on rue Campagne-Première.

Then the Second World War broke out, the spirit was no longer festive. Man Ray, a Jew, returns to the United States. From 1943, Kiki took refuge in the countryside.

Back in Paris, after the war, everything has changed, starting with her - her body and her face are in ruins. Her former lover André Laroque continues to give her enough to live on. But his health is deteriorating.

She held out year after year until the early 1950s and died following a fall at the Paris Laennec hospital. The story goes that only the painter Foujita and his friend Treize attended his burial in the cemetery of Thiais, in the outer suburbs. A shame for the one who has forever associated her name with Montparnasse.

Kiki de Montparnasse, marks

- October 2, 1901: Birth in Châtillon-sur-Seine (Côte-d'Or) of a working-class mother and an unknown father.

- 1917: Begins to be a model and meets the painter Maurice Mendjizki, who nicknamed her Kiki.

- 1922: Stands out for his poses in the works of Man Ray, meets Treize, her best friend, as well as Jean Cocteau and Henri-Pierre Roché.

- 1927: Exhibits her paintings at the Rite of Spring, rue du Cherche-Midi gallery. Then wrote his memoirs.

- 1932: Loses her mother and forms a relationship with accordionist André Laroque.

- March 23, 1953: Dies after years of trying, in vain, to reconnect with success.

source : Notre Temps