Kiki, Oui Oui! (Book Club, 5th ed.)

It fascinates and enchants me. Le Violion d’Ingres, a photo of a nude woman as a violin, draws me in like few other works of art. The artist, Man Ray, is a favourite of mine, but I never thought to find out who the model was. Imagine my delight when I saw there was a graphic novel (graphic biography?) about Kiki de Montparnasse, the mysterious turbaned lady with the violin bum in the photo! Had I known it had been published in French first, I would have read it ages ago.

Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres (1924)Gelatin Silver Print

Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres (1924)
Gelatin Silver Print

I knew nothing of Kiki before opening this book, yet I had unknowingly admired her in photos like Noire et Blanche. I was astounded to learn that she had posed for a great many of the major artists of the early 20th century in Paris and counted more than a few of them as her lover, including Man Ray with whom she was en amour for 7 years.

If you’ve enjoyed, as I have, graphic novels such as Persepolis and the works of Alison Bechdel, you might find that the drawings in this book are not always well executed. Nevertheless, the story drew me in and I became accustomed to the style. (Also, slight bone to pick here — why was Kiki’s underarm hair not drawn? In many photos of her, she has little dark tufts… cause it’s PARIS in the TWENTIES!)

Cartel & Bocquet. Kiki de Montparnasse. London: SelfMadeHero, 2011.

Cartel & Bocquet. Kiki de Montparnasse. London: SelfMadeHero, 2011.

And what a life was led by little Kiki! Born in 1901 in provincial France and raised by her grandmother, Alice Prin seemed like a bit of a prankish troublemaker early on. According to the book, she knew who her father was but he was married to someone other than her mother (scandale!)… This fact may or may not have set the tone for her life. The problems started after she moved to Paris to live with her mother as a teenager. When, at 16, she was fired from a bakery for being sassy, she ended up in a sculptor’s studio posing for money. This, um, displeased her mother to say the least and she found herself out on her ass. Thus began the adventures of Kiki, a nickname given to her by the painter Maurice Mendjisky.

An early scene from the book; always smiling and at ease in her body

An early scene from the book; always smiling and at ease in her body

The remarkable thing about Kiki, as she’s portrayed in this book, is that she seemed to be bursting with life. In many of the drawings, she’s pictured as being joyful and passionate. Oh, and naked. I’m not sure if it was her passionate nature that made it impossible for her to be faithful to one lover, even when she was in a loving relationship (as with Man Ray), or if it was just how things were with artists at that time. But, whether it was Dada or just Kiki, her emotional life was tumultuous and exciting; she met and frequently bedded some of the most talented visual artists of the last century.

One of Moïse Kisling's portraits of Kiki

One of Moïse Kisling’s portraits of Kiki

While art modelling was how Kiki earned some of her living, working for people who were often broke themselves did not offer much financial stability. Good thing this gal had charisma! She sang risqué little tunes in cafés, danced the cancan [sans knickers!] in night clubs, and she even put out a couple of albums later in life with her accordionist, lover, and guardian angel, André Laroque.

Throughout Kiki’s story, she seems to be comfortable in her role as muse and as object of the gaze. It is evident that she knew how to engage with her audience and she is portrayed as quite enjoying the work and the contact with all those crazy interesting people. Surprisingly, after a few years of modelling, seemingly on a whim, she began to create works of art of her own.  She even exhibited her paintings and drawings when encouraged by an art dealer friend. I couldn’t help wondering whether Kiki could have been a great visual artist in her own right if she hadn’t been thrust in such a vulnerable position at a young age.

She demonstrated a great deal of street smarts in getting by and using her assets to become a success within that marginal society of the Paris art world. But there are scenes in the book in which Kiki throws tantrums with lovers over jealousies and triffles (she especially resented Man Ray’s serious devotion to his art above all else). In other scenes, Kiki is called a whore by people outside her insular world who don’t know that she is Queen of Montparnasse. These dramas, as well as the cocaine and drink she consumed throughout her life to keep her going, point to a likelihood that underneath the joy de vivre was some real pain.

Kiki de Montparnasse: such a captivating smile

Kiki de Montparnasse: such a captivating smile

Anyone who has ever watched a biopic or a VHI Behind the Music episode already knows how the rest of this story goes. By her late 40s, Kiki was estranged from the art world and suffering from health problems. Dropsy, addiction, and weight gain also meant that she could no longer perform and model. Though she is portrayed as having kept her good humour until the end, it’s sad to think she was so troubled.

It was joy to get to know Kiki through this illustrated biography. If you’re not familiar with artists and the art movements of the time, don’t be intimidated — the book has a great little section at the end with short biographies of all of the major figures in Kiki’s life. Now go dance naked!

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