The wild life of Kiki de Montparnasse

Who was Kiki de Montparnasse? Her name might or might not ring a bell. But if you can’t immediately put a face to it, you may well be familiar with the back view of Kiki’s 22-year-old naked body. She is seated, turning to look over her left shoulder. On her head she wears a patterned scarf, twisted turban-style; on her back, just above kidney height, are two symmetrical “f” shapes, mimicking the sound holes in a violin. Also noticeable is the way the photographer has rather crudely touched up the cleft of her buttocks. For reasons best known to himself, he has given this graceful living musical instrument a cartoon bum.

In May this year, an original 1924 silver gelatin print of this image sold for $12.4 million (£10.1 million) at Christie’s New York, beating the previous auction record of $4.3 million to become, by a very wide margin, the world’s most expensive photograph . The photographer’s name, Man Ray, now looms large in textbooks on surrealism and the history of photography. Kiki’s, by contrast, features more in anecdotes about Paris in the Jazz Age, a spicy condiment to the serious art-historical stuff. Both names, obviously, were made up.

During the decade after the First World War, the Parisian quarter of Montparnasse was the epicenter of the avant-garde cultural scene. Recent and current habitués included Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Artists were also drawn there by the prospect of making a living. Parisian dealers had worked out how to market modern art to a high-value clientele. It remained possible for a cubist or surrealist to starve in a garret, but you didn’t have to.

The poet Guillaume Apollinaire predicted – accurately – that Montparnasse was on the cusp of becoming a tourist honeypot, where “Cook’s Tours would bring its busloads” to sample the louche life of its cabarets, but it was still a place where you could reinvent yourself and start afresh. Born in 1901 in Burgundy and raised in rural poverty, Alice Prin moved to Paris aged 12. A few years and a string of menial jobs later, she began modeling for artists. She got her long hair cut in a fashionable bob and renamed herself Kiki.

Since kiki is French baby-speak for penis, this may have been Alice/Kiki’s first ironic tilt at male artists, who stared at naked women in their man-cave studios, comparing the activity of painting to sex (Picasso) and popping out sayings such as “I paint with my prick” (attributed to Renoir). At any rate, after fending for herself in Paris throughout her teens, she embraced her new profession with no illusions.

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