Kiki, Queen of Paris

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


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.


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, 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


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse-Lautrec and Lucién Metivet drinking absinthe c.1885 Photograph © Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi-Tarn, France

Toulouse-Lautrec and Lucién Metivet drinking absinthe c.1885. Photograph© Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi-Tarn, France

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was born on November 24, 1864 in Albi, France. I like his paintings but really knew nothing about the artist until I started research for this post. Cora Michael of the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes him as “an aristocratic, alcoholic dwarf known for his louche lifestyle.” He painted and document the nightlife of late 19th century Paris, particularly Montmartre’s seedy side. The film Moulin Rouge gives a fictionalized view of what the times were like when Toulouse-Lautrec lived and painted; you might recall the Toulouse-Lautrec character played by John Leguizamo in the film.

Cheval Blanc

Cheval Blanc Gazelle, 1881. ©Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, gift of Comtesse Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Toulouse-Lautrec was fond of painting horses. This is one of his early works painted in 1891.

Jane Avril, 1899. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection.

Jane Avril, 1899. ©The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection.

One of my favorite posters is Jane Avril – I have a small copy hanging in my office.

At The Moulin Rouge

At The Moulin Rouge, circa 1892. ©Art Institute of Chicago.

Au Salon

Au Salon de la Rue Des Moulins, 1894.

Yvette Guibert

Yvette Guilbert Taking a Curtain Call, 1894. ©Musee Toulouse Lautrec

Divon Japonais

Divon Japonais, circa 1892. ©Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Clifford A. Furst.

Sadly, Toulouse-Lautrec’s alcoholism lead to his quick decline; he died in 1901 at 36 of complications from alcoholism and syphilis.

Additional Resources
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
National Gallery of Art’s Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre exhibit
Musee Toulouse-Lautrec
What Ailed Toulouse-Lautrec? Scientists Zero In on a Key Gene. New York Times article that reviews what disease Toulouse-Lautrec may have had that caused his dwarfism.

Le Marché aux Puces de Vanves

I’m fascinated by flea markets in Europe. I prefer the traditional ones where you might find a mix of bric-a-brac, paintings, vintage jewelry, silverware, old books, pieces of lace, old pots and pans, and records. I don’t like the noisy ones with plastic battery-operated junk – I can see that kind of flea market any weekend here in the U.S.

One reason I find used goods fascinating is the history that goes along with an item. I like to daydream about who owned it originally and how the item was used. Did that set of silverware belong to a just married couple before the war? Who is that pretty girl in the painting? When were those dolls made?

The book Flea Markets in Europe describes why some people buy second-hand goods at flea market – “the desire to be different, to possess those articles which are no longer made, aand which few people still have…which do not show the marks of mass production and which outlive both fashion and their owners.” I think many of the visitor to the Vanves flea market fall into this category.

The people watching is great at le marché aux puces. The sellers know each other and banter about and watch each other’s stalls if they have to go get lunch. Many of them are very knowledgeable about what they’re selling though there is a subgroup of slightly rough-hewn types that descend straight from the rag and bone pickers of old.  At Vanves, many of the customers are local Parisians as well as tourists from all over the world exploring the wares.


Mysterious Beauty. ©2013 Todd Mecklem

Dolls. ©2013 Todd Mecklem

Dolls. ©2013 Todd Mecklem

Dalida and Spools. ©2013 Todd Mecklem

Dalida and Spools. ©2013 Todd Mecklem

Pretty Girl and Junk. ©2013 Todd Mecklem

Pretty Girl and Junk. ©2013 Todd Mecklem

Sue charm bracelet

Trying on a charm bracelet at the Vanves flea market. ©2013 Todd Mecklem

French man at flea market.  ©2012 Todd Mecklem

French man at flea market. ©2012 Todd Mecklem

Of course one must eat after a morning of looking at interesting objects. A small cheese sandwich and a coffee at a local cafe rounded out this expedition.

Lunch at Cafe Didot

Lunch at Cafe Didot

Do you buy second-hand items or do you find used stuff gross? What’s your favorite flea market?

Parisian Adventure on Rue Daguerre

 © 2013 Todd Mecklem

© 2013 Todd Mecklem

One Sunday a few weeks ago, my sweetie and I decided to check out the community yard sale (vide-greniers) on Rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondisement. It was a beautiful day for a stroll along the shops and stalls set up along the street. It’s not a touristy place at all, and has an authentic French feel about it. The neighborhood doesn’t have any actual yards nor garages to hold yard sales so they just set up tables out in the street, which was closed to traffic.

I’m not sure what I was expecting but this community yard sale was amazing. There were some 200 residents who had little tables set up with curiosities, antiques and junk. It was a very social event because the stalls were jammed next to each other.

Rue Daguerre vide-greniers  © 2013 Todd Mecklem

Rue Daguerre Vide-greniers © 2013 Todd Mecklem

I wandered down the street looking at the stalls and saw designer clothing, vintage jewelry, children’s toys, lots of books, used kitchen tools, odd paintings and figurines, and all kinds of other stuff. At one woman’s table, I rummaged through some old jewelry and at the bottom of pile was a plastic bag with a dusty old makeup case set. I pulled the items out of the bag and realized the objects were covered in face powder, not dust. I brushed them off a bit, and saw that the cases were covered in silk, with petit-point insets created by hand. The woman selling them said they were from the 1950s and were “typically French.” I bought the set as a fun souvenir. There’s a comb case with a comb, a lipstick holder that looks like it’s not been used, and a compact with powder and a very fuzzy feather powder puff that I’ll probably toss.

petit point

Of course I had to dig through all the boxes of scarves in case there was an Hermes silk scarf calling my name; I didn’t find one but I did find this colorful scarf by Carven. It cost a euro!

The best part of the adventure was yet to come. I sat down at a cafe for a while to people watch and Todd came back and told me he’d seen and gotten to talk to film director Agnès Varda. Wow! For those not familiar with Madame Varda, she’s a French film director whose early works are considered precursors of French New Wave cinema. Her films include the seminal Le Pointe Courte (1956) and Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and the more recent Beaches of Agnes and The Gleaners and I.

Meeting this iconic director was a great experience; she was gracious and charming. She was busy selling things at the sale for a non-profit she works with that empowers young women so I didn’t ask her for an autograph. Also, I didn’t want to look like the déclassé American tourist in front of her home and business.

For more information on Agnès Varda, see this short essay at the Criterion Collection and her faculty page at the European Graduate School. Her company, Ciné-Tamaris, produces and manages both her and her late husband Jacques Demy’s work.


Agnès Varda © 2013 Todd Mecklem (She’s in the middle.)

Sue Agnes

Sue exults after meeting Agnès Varda. © 2013 Todd Mecklem

This adventure down Rue Daguerre was one of the highlights of our trip. I’ll write soon about a Man Ray exhibit I saw in London and a haute couture exhibit in Paris.

Dreaming of Paris

I was daydreaming about Paris yesterday and dug out some photos taken by photographer Todd Mecklem  on our last trip. The food, the artful way they display their wares, and the beautiful old buildings are part of what I love about the city.

Todd Mecklem. Cider and galettes

Todd Mecklem. Cider and galettes


Todd Mecklem. Croque monsieur and goat cheese salad for lunch


Todd Mecklem. Patisserie


Todd Mecklem. Details on old building

Bikes in Paris

Bikes in Paris

Lenoir market

Todd Mecklem. Richard Lenoir market


Todd Mecklem. Cobbler’s shop (cordonnier)


Todd Mecklem. Our favorite local wine store Nicolas

Musee Carnavalet, Paris

Eugène Atget. Intérieur d’artiste dramatique, rue Vavin, 6e arrdt, 1910. Image from Musee Carnavalet.

The Musee Carnavalet is a wonderful museum in Paris that highlights the history of the city. My main interest in going was to see the exhibit of Eugène Atget, a famous Parisian photographer, but I was surprised at how interesting the rest of the museum was. Old signs from long gone inns, tools, paintings, everyday objects, and the very disturbing stuffed monkeys. The courtyard is a nice respite from city life and the museum itself wasn’t crowded or overwhelming. This is exactly the out of the way kind of place I really enjoy. What’s the oddest museum you’ve ever been to?

Photo by Todd Mecklem. À la bonne bouteille.

Photo by Todd Mecklem. À la bonne bouteille.

Photo by Todd Mecklem.

Photo by Todd Mecklem.

Photo by Todd Mecklem. Monkey tableau from the 19th century.