By Mark Braude

Two Roads (John Murray Press). 290 pages. £20. ISBN 978-1-529-30048-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Paris in the 1920s. A legendary time, with novels, memoirs, literary histories, walking guides, and additional material comprising a library that on its own might fully occupy someone for a lifetime. The names tumble from the pages, some of them well-known, others perhaps of only passing interest. One name that does often occur is that of Kiki, a celebrity in her day when she was usually referred to as Kiki of Montparnasse. But who was she?

She was born Alice Ernestine Prin on 2nd October, 1901 in Châtillon-sur-Seine, “a village in Burgundy 150 miles southeast of Paris”. She grew up in poverty, not knowing for sure who her father was, and with a mother who left her in the care of her grandmother and moved to Paris. Alice had a somewhat disjointed education at the village school, where she at least learned to read and write, and then reunited with her mother when she was twelve. She was only briefly at school in Paris, leaving when she was thirteen, the then legal age for going to work. Mark Braude makes the point that she loved to read and was especially fond of the Fantômas books and their tales of the “misadventures of the brilliant occasionally murderous arch-villain Fantômas”. These books were also popular with the Surrealists who Alice, when she became Kiki, would later encounter in Paris.

Following a series of mundane jobs, one of which involved disinfecting boots from dead soldiers so that they could be issued to troops at the front, she somehow fell in with a sculptor who asked her to model for him. His studio was at the Impasse Ronsin, “a hive of artists’ studios and workshops”, where the Romanian Constantin Brancusi also lived. There were other encounters with sculptors, painters, and a Brazilian diplomat who introduced her to cocaine. She also learned that the Café de la Rotonde was a good place to get to know artists and pick up modelling jobs. She became familiar with La Ruche, the rackety collection of studios where many artists lived, and by 1918 was residing there with the painter Maurice (Moishe) Mendjizky. There are several of his paintings of Kiki (she had by then adopted that name), a couple of them nude studies, in the book. She seems to have lived with Mendjizky for three or four years. She also modelled for Moise Kisling, and met Modigliani, Utrillo, and Soutine. It’s more than probable that she posed for all of them.

It’s obvious that, by 1921 or so, Kiki would have been a street-wise young woman and able to stand up for herself in any argument. Her initial encounter with Man Ray came after a scene in a café where Kiki had been refused service because she wasn’t wearing a hat, a standard requirement in those days for ladies who wanted to appear respectable. A friend, the artist Marie Vassilieff, intervened and invited Kiki to sit at her table, where she was with an American. It was Man Ray, and it would seem that he and Kiki immediately took to each other.

Man Ray’s real name was Emmanuel Radnitzky and he was born in Philadelphia in 1890.  When he was seven his family moved to Brooklyn. He was a bright student and, according to Braude, won a scholarship to study architecture at New York University. But he decided not to go there and instead got a job as an engraver. He switched to “doing layouts and lettering at a publishing house”. His real ambition was to become an artist. He visited art galleries in New York and was particularly fond of   291, the gallery run by photographer Alfred Steiglitz. It was there that he first encountered names then new to him – Rodin, Brancusi, and Picasso, “the one who touched him deepest of all with his Cubist acrobatics, trying to make the fourth dimension of time visible on a two-dimensional surface”. Manny, as he was known, also picked up copies of Steiglitz’s magazine, Camera Work.

He saw the 1913 Armoury exhibition, which introduced many European artists to an American audience, became friends with Marcel Duchamp, married a poet named Donna Lacour (also known as Adon Lacroix), and met William Carlos Williams, and Alfred Kreymborg. A move to Greenwich Village brought him into contact with Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, and others. Dada had hit New York and Braude says that “Man Ray appreciated how the Dadaists wanted to alienate themselves from the times and places they happened to be living in”.

With all that he had experienced in New York, much of it with a European base, it was probably inevitable that he would go to Paris, and perhaps be fated to meet Kiki. By late-1921 they were living together. She continued to work as a model, while he took on commercial photography jobs to boost their combined income. There is a suggestion that he occasionally also turned his camera hand to pornography as a means of making money. Kiki had started painting, no doubt influenced by what she had seen in various artists’ studios, and a couple of her watercolours were bought by Henri-Pierre Roché, a well-known art dealer. Braude tells us Roché wrote that “with their summery tones and quick lines they reminded him of Matisse”.

Kiki was, no doubt, one of the queens of the Rotonde and enjoyed living it up, but she appears to have been quite practical-minded when it came to the domestic arrangements with Man Ray. She shopped and cooked, and organised his workdays and his appointments book. He may have been making a living by doing portraits and fashion work, but he was constantly experimenting and anxious to produce more creative material. He developed what he referred to as “Rayographs”, a process defined as “photographic prints made by laying objects onto photographic paper and exposing it to light”. It’s this kind of work that he’s mostly remembered for, though he always wanted, but never really received, recognition for his paintings.

Both Man Ray and Kiki were caught up in the early days of Surrealism and attended sessions where André Breton, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, and others indulged in automatic writing and derangement of the senses. Kiki was not impressed and, in her down-to-earth way, dismissed what they were doing: “She thought of them as silly kids from good families playing at being dangerous by poking around in the hidden depths of the mind”. And she felt that as a group “they dealt too heavily in theories and abstractions”. As Braude puts it, “They were Surrealists. Kiki was a realist”.

The relationship between Kiki and Man Ray was always turbulent. At one point she walked out and went to New York with a journalist she’d met and who is known to posterity only as “Mike”. Their association didn’t last long and Mike eventually left her. She had to contact Man Ray to ask him to send her money so she could get back to Paris. The reason she’d given for leaving him in the first place was that, though she loved him, he didn’t love her. Braude quotes a comment that May Ray supposedly made when she raised the question of love: “Love? What’s that? Huh, idiot? We don’t love, we screw”.

It was in 1924 that Man Ray posed Kiki in what has become one of his most famous images. Called “La Violon d’Ingres” we see a near-naked Kiki with her back to the camera, head turned to profile, and with two “f-holes” tattooed on her back. It’s the stuff of a thousand postcards and, like the “Mona Lisa”, has been parodied more than once. But the original is an enticing photo and raises questions about what it means. Braude’s comments are apt: “There’s no effort to fool. The f-holes have been rendered too clearly superficial for that. Instead we’re being challenged to hold both their visual artifice (we know those markings don’t belong to that woman’s body) and their analogical effectiveness (but her body does look like a cello) in our heads at the same time”. The photo was  used in the final issue of the  Surrealist magazine, Littérature. 

By the mid-1920s Kiki was singing in a bar called The Jockey owned by Hilaire Hiler, an American artist and writer. It was obvious that, young as she still was, her “voice was weary, burning and broken” from years of smoke and drink. She was also increasingly reliant on cocaine to help her cope with the pressures of constantly performing. There is a group photograph taken outside The Jockey in which Kiki appears, along with, among others, Ezra Pound, Tristan Tzara, Man Ray, and the beautiful Mina Loy. The latter seems to steal the limelight, kneeling as she does and looking over at the crouching Man Ray with a smile on her face as if he’s just said or done something amusing.

In February 1925 Kiki paid a visit to Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small town on the Riviera, staying at the Welcome Hotel. Braude refers to the town as “seedy Villefranche with its small but lively port”, and says that Kiki “settled in at the Welcome’s lobby bar, a natural among the pimps, petty thieves, counterfeiters, hustlers, and filles de joie (‘pleasure girls’, as French sex workers were called). She could swear as colourfully as any of the seamen and knew dirtier songs”. But she got into trouble and was arrested for assaulting a policeman. She was lucky not to be sent to prison.

In early 1927 Kiki and Man Ray made a trip to New York where she met members of his family. When they returned to Paris she had her first solo show of her paintings at the Au Sacre du Printemps gallery. It wasn’t a large exhibition but all of the twenty-seven canvases on display were sold. It was around this time that Sisley Huddleston, an English journalist well-known as a commentator on the Parisian artistic scene, described the show as “the sensation not only of Montparnasse but tout Paris”.

She may have been riding high in some ways, but her relationship with Man Ray was coming to an end. Braude suggests that there may have been a degree of professional jealousy on his part due to her increased popularity, but also perhaps a resentment because she was no longer available to do the shopping, cooking, washing and other routine tasks while he spent time photographing and painting. Whatever the reason they’d split up by 1929.

It didn’t take Kiki long to link up with someone else and she moved in with Henri Broca, a cartoonist. They started a magazine, Paris – Montparnasse, and she began to work on her memoirs. They were published in French in a limited de-luxe edition, and later by Edward Titus in an English edition, with the translation by Samuel Putnam. Titus, the husband of the immensely wealthy Helena Rubinstein, had a bookshop, At the Sign of The Black Manikin, in Paris, and had also taken over as editor of This Quarter, a magazine previously edited by Ethel Moorhead and the ill-fated Ernest Walsh.

As an added attraction for the English edition Titus persuaded Ernest Hemingway to write an introduction in which the noted American writer said that Kiki’s book marked the end of an era. Unfortunately, many of the copies that Titus sent to America were seized by Customs officials on the grounds of obscenity. Braude notes that, years later, in the 1950s, a pirated edition using the Titus original was published in New York by the notorious pornographer Samuel Roth. 

It was true, it was the end of an era. 1929 brought the Wall Street Crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Kiki and Broca’s magazine closed down in 1930, and Broca, increasingly subject to mental health problems, was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and committed to a sanatorium. Kiki’s own health issues were a matter for concern. She was advised to stop drinking, but this pushed her into using cocaine more often. She carried on painting and had what was to be her final show in January, 1931 at “an informal gallery space” in the garden of a large house owned by a wealthy young collector. Braude says that her paintings “retained the same casual feel as her earlier work, though she now showed greater skill in rendering perspective and scale”. And he refers to “L’Acrobate” as “a feast of colour and movement” and describes it as “the finest of all her paintings”. It’s reproduced in the book, and seems naïve but with a certain amount of charm.

In 1932 Kiki teamed up with André Laroque, “a minor tax official” and part-time piano and accordion player, who accompanied her when she sang in clubs and bars. Her modelling career had declined and although she had appeared in minor roles in a few films there was no further screen work for her after 1933. There were a handful of recordings by Kiki and Laroque in the late-1930s, but her addiction to cocaine (Braude thinks she was also using heroin) continued to cause her to be unreliable as a performer. Braude sums up the situation in these words: “Kiki’s name pops up rarely in the 1940s, most often in the back pages of newspapers advertising an appearance in some local dives”. He adds that: “There is evidence pointing to Kiki living in the Loire valley with a plumber between 1941 and 1944”.  The war years are otherwise an undocumented period in her life.

She returned to Paris after the War and met Laroque who tried to help by paying her bills, knowing that if he gave her money she would spend it on drink and drugs. She was arrested in 1946 for “creating false prescriptions for psychotropic substances”.  Laroque was living with someone else but insisted, despite opposition from his partner, that Kiki move in with them so that he could look after her. She still made appearances in clubs and the American writer Kay Boyle, who had known Kiki in the 1920s,  recalled seeing her “singing in various little night-clubs, and remembering nothing from one night to the next”, which Boyle put down to the drug-taking. She would ask Boyle the same questions about old friends each time they met.

There were other equally sad accounts of Kiki’s post-1945 activities. The English artist Ronald Searle pictured her in his Paris Sketchbook: “In Searle’s line drawing of Kiki, who would then have been forty-eight or forty-nine, her hair is withered and her face ravaged and emaciated”. She met Man Ray again when he was in Paris in 1952 and told him she was ill. He gave her some money and “She came by his studio a few times, then disappeared”. In March 1953 she collapsed in the street and was rushed to a nearby hospital but died. She was buried in the “massive Thiais cemetery, where in the alabaster vaults of the Jardin de la Fraternitié the penniless and unidentifiable may be buried without charge. Her friends were unable to raise enough money to see her buried in the Montparnasse cemetery, a hope she’d expressed while alive”.   

Braude quotes a passage by the Canadian poet John Glassco, another of those who’d encountered Kiki in the Paris of the Twenties: “Kiki was always a savagesse who didn’t care what happened to her. It is terrible, to us, to compare her as she  was in Modigliani’s and Kisling’s paintings and in Man Ray’s photographs, with what she became…..But I don’t think it bothered her at all….……She used to say ‘Modi and (Kisling) have done me; what more can a tart want than that? I look at their pretty pictures and I think: That’s me, you know’ ”.

One of the advantages of Braude’s book is that, focusing as it does on Kiki and Man Ray, it doesn’t repeat the usual stories about what various American expatriates got up to in Paris. Man Ray was American, but on the whole chose not to mix too closely with his fellow countrymen. It could be that his links to the Surrealists and their ideas set him apart from the others. He obviously knew people like Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, and Robert McAlmon, and it may have been a case of being with them, but not of them.  Braude brings them out of the wings where necessary, but it’s Kiki who is centre stage and he does a good job of telling her story. And should anyone want to delve further into the world that Kiki lived in there are ample notes and references to numerous books that will provide all the required information.