Who was Kiki de Montparnasse? His name might or might not ring a bell. But if you can’t immediately put a face to it, you might be familiar with the rear view of 22-year-old Kiki’s naked body. She is seated, turning to look over her left shoulder. On her head, she wears a patterned scarf, like a twisted turban; on its back, just above the height of the kidneys, are two symmetrical “f” shapes, imitating the rosettes of a violin. We also notice how the photographer has quite roughly retouched the slit of her buttocks. For reasons he knows best, he gave this graceful, lively musical instrument a cartoon tramp.
In May this year, an original 1924 gelatin silver print of this image sold for $12.4m (£10.1m) at Christie’s New York, breaking the previous auction record of 4.3 million dollars to become, by far, the most expensive photograph in the world. . The photographer’s name, Man Ray, now figures prominently in textbooks on surrealism and the history of photography. Kiki’s, on the other hand, features more anecdotes about Paris in the jazz age, a spicy condiment to serious art history stuff. Both names, of course, were made up.
During the decade following the First World War, the Parisian district of Montparnasse was the epicenter of the avant-garde cultural scene. Recent and current regulars 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 figured out how to market modern art to a high-value clientele. It was still possible for a Cubist or a Surrealist to starve to death in an attic, but it was not necessary.
The poet Guillaume Apollinaire predicted – correctly – that Montparnasse was about to become a tourist honeypot, where “Cook’s Tours would bring its busloads” to sample the sleazy life of its cabarets, but it was still a place where you could reinvent yourself and start over. Born in 1901 in Burgundy and brought up in rural poverty, Alice Prin moved to Paris at the age of 12. A few years and a succession of odd jobs later, she started modeling for artists. She had her long hair cut in a trendy bob and renamed herself Kiki.
Since kiki is baby-speak French for penis, this may have been Alice/Kiki’s first irony about male artists, who watched naked women in their man cave studios, comparing the activity of sex painting (Picasso) and coming out of sayings like “I paint with my pine” (attributed to Renoir). In any case, after managing in Paris throughout her adolescence, she embraced her new profession without any illusions.