What a life!

Welcome to the extraordinary life of Kiki Man Ray/Kiki de Montparnasse, artist’s model, muse, cabaret star, painter, film star, author…While a major luminary of the Paris art world, especially of the 1920’s, her life has until now been quite obscure.

Mark Braude’s KIKI MAN RAY is divided into twenty-five chapters, with a prologue and epilogue, notes, a handy index and a few select illustrations in the middle. It is a story about a quest for identity, one’s real self and how a name can change everything.

Braude charts Kiki’s life from when she was born Alice Prin in 1901 in Burgundy. She was raised by her grandmother along with other illegitimate cousins. At the age of twelve she was summoned to Paris by her mother. In Paris she discovered Montparnasse, or ‘the Quarter’, her people and her vocation.

Once in Paris, from the age of sixteen Kiki became a regular at the Rotonde cafe, where she performed and did quick sketches of audience members, meeting artists who invited her to model. Among them was Maurice Mendjizky, a Polish-Jewish painter and composer, who became her lover and gave her the nickname Kiki and painted her first portrait. She would also meet and pose for Moïse Kisling, Amedeo Modigliani and Maurice Utrillo among others.

However her mother did not approve and Alice moved out. She became linked to the remarkable Bohemian life of the era between the Wars and her friend and acquaintances read like an artistic Who’s Who of the times.

While documenting her life, Braude puts it in context , not only with the development of certain artistic movements (eg Dada and Surrealism) but with world events – the 1929 Wall St crash , the rise of Hitler during the 1930’s etc. Braude concentrates on the amazing, at times scandalous, life Kiki led in Paris during the 1920’s, becoming one of the most dazzling, sizzling nightclub performers. She exuded charisma.

The book also encompasses all the various artists Kiki worked with (who didn’t she know?!), how she was involved with the major movements and was a model/muse for them. As well, he details her paintings and the eventual publication of her book.

1922 saw Kiki hugely popular as a model, when Tsuguharu Foujita’s portrait Reclining Nude With Toile de Jouy, was included in the Autumn Salon of the Grand Palais.

A major part of the book describes Kiki’s impact on and life with Man Ray, a Philadelphia artist born Emmanuel Radnitzky .Their relationship became not just muse and photographer but far more intimate and turbulent for seven years . During their second photo session they became lovers and ended up sharing a diminutive studio very close to the Café Rotonde. They slept together during their second photo session and soon after that began sharing a tiny studio down the block from the Rotonde. Man Ray at first expected Kiki to be a traditional wife/girlfriend – carer, assistant, muse and encourager – Kiki had a wonderful time entertaining but Man Ray never declared his love in words .

In 1921, Man Ray had joined his friend Marcel Duchamp in Paris, purposely separating himself from America, his birth name and his first wife, a Belgian poet who was known as Adon Lacroix. Ray’s treatment of Lacroix when they split reveals his misogynist attitude and malevolent, sometimes brutal temper and could perhaps be regarded as domestic violence.

Ray struggled with his talent, longing to be regarded as a splendid painter instead of the great photographer he was. While downplaying the jobs, he was very successful as a portrait photographer, taking photos of everyone from Francis Picabia to Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Picasso , Braque , James Joyce and society VIP’s ….. His main muse and model though was Kiki . Ray produced many luminous photos of her – a couple of the famous ones are the 1924 Le Violon d’Ingres, depicting Kiki with the painted f-holes of a violin on her back, portraying her both as musical instrument and celebrating her smooth, lustrous female body.

Noire et blanche is also influential, a polished, tastefully nude (but artfully hidden) Kiki holding an upright ebony mask .

In later years we also read about Ray’s turning to film work and his assorted representations of Kiki in that medium. Like Man Ray, she was interested in film, and appeared onscreen — credited as Kiki Ray or Kiki Man Ray — in experimental works including both films by Man Ray and Fernand Léger’s 1924 Ballet Mécanique , Emak Bakia and Gift being just a couple of examples .

In 1927 Kiki had her first solo show, a huge success selling all 27 paintings . She was regarded as a somewhat neutral yet accomplished painter.

During the 1930’s with The Great Depression, and then the 1940’s with the second World War , nightclubs and bars changed and/or closed and Kiki’s legendary performances became faded in memory after a while. She also had developed a cocaine addiction, was at times discombobulated by other drugs and by then also had major dental problems.

Man Ray fled to America in 1940 to escape the Nazis and married Juliet Browner (Kiki of course was devastated).

Kiki’s sad decline and sudden collapse in 1953 is documented . Man Ray did not attend the funeral or answer media calls. He passed in 1976 .

Braude vividly captures Kiki’s life and the various aspects of her exuberant character: generous to a fault she was also unexpectedly racist.

An arresting, terrific, fascinating read exploring Paris of the 1920’s.