Kiki, Queen of Paris

“We laughed, my God how we laughed.” – Kiki de Montparnasse

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Kiki de Montparnasse, “Girl of Music-hall”. Paris, about 1937-1939.© Gaston Paris / Roger-Viollet. Photo from Parisiene de Photographie

I just finished reading Kiki’s Memoirs, a fun and sometimes poignant autobiography by Kiki de Montparnasse, born Alice Prin. She writes about her life with the artists of the 1920s Paris including May Ray, Calder, Kisling, and Foujita. She was an audacious, fun-loving woman, an artist’s muse, a showgirl, an actress, and an artist. Her memoir touches on her horrible childhood but focuses on the bohemian life in Montparnasse beginning in the 1920s. She writes about her love affairs, the famous cafes in Paris, the Surrealists, her trip to New York, the trials of the artists trying to eat and keep a roof over their heads, and many other adventures. Her writing style is a bit childlike – perhaps since she was taken out of school at a young age to work she never had the chance to develop a more mature voice. But what I really like is exuberant writing style – she really enjoyed her adventures and relished her life. Alas, Kiki died when she was 51 but I like to think she fit a lot of life in her 51 years.

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Noire et blanche (variante). Kiki torse nu de face portant un masque africain contre son visage. Man Ray, 1926. © MAN RAY TRUST / ADAGP. Paris, 2011 / Telimage.

Kiki

Kiki, by André Kertész, 1927. Donation André Kertész, Ministère de la culture (Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine), diffusion RMN


Her memoirs were banned in the U.S. when they were first published because of her descriptions of her sexual exploits. (I found them very tame, actually.) Billy Kluver and Julie Martin published a new edition in 1997 with lots of photographs by Man Ray and other artists of the time, as well as Kiki’s own art. If you enjoy reading about Paris in the 1920s or about strong, audacious women, I recommend this book. The New York Times reviewed it here.

Last year Jose-Louis Bocquet and Catel Muller published a graphic novel about Kiki titled Kiki’s Montparnasse. I think it’s a nice companion to Ms. Prin’s autobiography; it has more details about her life after the heydays of Montparnasse.

Book cover 2 Book cover

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