Kiki de Montparnasse
Created by: Catel Muller, Jose-Luis Bocquet
Published by: Self Made Hero
ISBN: 1906838259 (Amazon)
My wife, after reading Kiki de Montparnasse for something near a half hour, stopped and asked me: “Is this for real? Did men really just go up to women and offer them a few bucks to flash their boobs?” I assured her that it was and that it’s the same today and it’s not a big thing and everybody does it. I was not very convincing. Probably because I was as surprised as her. I knew the early twentieth century in Europe11And in America too, as it so happens. was a rambunctious time—what with the swift ideological, artistic, and moral paradigm hops that were occurring quickly enough to pile up on each other’s shoulders. But I wouldn’t have suspected the streets of Paris would basically be a live-action Girls Gone Wild.
Deep down I guess I still unknowingly held onto the mythology that our forebears were a quaint and unimaginative bunch.22Clearly though, they were more imaginative than me. I would have never thought of walking up to a stranger and offering a pittance for a brief show of public nudity. Strange world. For that reason (probably among others), biography proves its usefulness once more. We are again reminded that the world is bigger than we thought and expression of the human spirit is wide and diverse. Kiki de Montparnasse is good at arguing this reminder because Kiki de Montparnasse, in all likelihood, is not very much like us at all.
See. I told you this happened in real life. Proof!
Note: I censored the last panel for all the delicate children out there
reading a review of a book about a nude model.
In Catel and Bocquet’s biography of Alice Prin, better known as Kiki,33At least better-known in some circles—perhaps in France or in the art world or by biographers of Man Ray. I had never actually heard of the woman. Which actually fits the story told fairly well. the reader is rushed through fifty-two tumultuous, extravagant years of a woman’s life. Kiki is one of those figures whose existence is simultaneously extraordinary and clichéd. Extraordinary because she lives in that larger-than-life manner that can’t possibly seem to sustain itself. Clichéd because it doesn’t. Like so many of those who burn brightly enough to catch the eye of the everyman, Kiki flares out, smouldering and spent.
Nobody respects the arts anymore.
Kiki’s life incorporates what amounts to a who’s who of the early-century French arts movements. Picasso, Cocteau, Man Ray, and piles of painters, writers, dadaists, and more. Kiki, for all her faults and failures, was famous for a time in her small but powerful corner of the world. She modeled for many of the best of her generation and inspired others through her own creative endeavors—through singing, painting, writing, and sex. Kiki’s output among these lights was voracious, swallowing up as much as it produced. She tortured the hearts of men even as she led them to new artistic discoveries. She was, to use an American turn of phrase that would post-date her by a couple decades, something else.
The comic depiction of the shooting of the art that graces the book’s cover with Man Ray’s actual photo for comparison.
The publisher’s description that graces the book’s cover is bizarre. After describing Kiki in terse encyclopedic summary (model in Montparnasse in the ‘20s, partner to Man Ray, painted by Kisling, Foujita, et al), it embellishes grandly: “she is the first emancipated woman of the 20th century” and ironically goes on to cite her sexual, emotional, and whole-persona liberties. The irony, of course, is that Catel and Brocquet demonstrate so much the opposite of this over the course of their treatment of her life that one wonders if the publishers were being merely playful or if they truly misunderstood the work before them.
The trailhead of Kiki’s life is the abject poverty into which she’s born. Nearly an orphan and raised by a grandmother, she comes to live with her mother in her young teens. Necessity and expediency lead her to sell her body for display, as a model to sculptors and painters at times and as a cheap thrill for randy men at others. As told in Kiki there is nothing noble in her modeling at first, no transcendent love of the arts. She only wants to get paid and initially embarks on a life of nude modeling at the command of her basest needs: for hunger, for shelter—and eventually, to support growing coke and alcohol habits.
Dude. If you don’t respect the coke, the coke won’t respect you.
At no time does Catel and Brocquet’s Kiki ever approach anything resembling emancipation—save perhaps in her death in the final pages of the book. She is bound by her poverty, enslaved to her addictions, held captive by her reputation, fettered in her fear of losing that reputation, imprisoned by her desires, and subjugated by her emotional needs. Kiki de Montparnasse, if read as written, presents almost a cautionary tale, a non-fictional catalogue of how not to live if you wish to lead a happy life. Kiki’s abundant lack of abiding joy may be the surest evidence that she did not, in fact, live the kind of emancipation this book’s publishers seem to daydream into the work.
In its most realistic sense, Kiki plays as tragedy. The reader keeps hoping things will finally work out for the woman, but while there are certainly some high points, everything winds down through a series of soft crescendos. By tale’s end (and it’s no secret that Alice Prin dies in 1953), I liked Kiki enough that I mourned her along with the small few who gathered at her funeral. Catel and Bocquet do an admirable job breathing life into a dead-and-gone celebrity, fleshing out her flesh and selling her as a model of the more exuberant kind of twentieth-century woman—a woman as much bound by her circumstances and personality as any of us. A slave, a whore, a human. A spark, a light, a life.
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