Review | Iconic Kiki, muse of Man Ray, and her role in the birth of modern art in 1920s Paris focus of new biography

Cultural historian Mark Braude (“The Invisible Emperor,” “Making Monte Carlo”) returns with an irresistible romp through 1920s Paris alongside the luminous Kiki de Montparnasse, chanteuse, artist’s model, painter, actor and storyteller. The preferred model of the groundbreaking artist and photographer Man Ray, she is a charismatic figure who was previously relegated to the margins in the history of modern art.

With vibrant prose as beguiling as Kiki herself, Braude opens his new book “Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris,” in the middle of the story, with a lush scene in summer 1925 at The Jockey, a buzzing nightclub where we observe Kiki, “carried along by joy,” performing songs sometimes with lyrics by her poet friend Robert Desnos. As Braude proposes, she lets “her watchers imagine that by singing about her sins, she’s hearing their confessions.”

Braude, who lives in Vancouver, sets out to answer the question of how this young woman — she was born Alice Prin in 1901 and raised in poverty in a village in Burgundy — is able to capture the spirit of her time “by doing nothing more than making a performance of herself.”

Seeking modelling work, 16-year-old Alice sets her sights on the Café de la Rotonde, a Parisian spot frequented by local artists. To pay for coffee, she sketches its patrons, drawing like she speaks, Braude writes, “in lines that were barbed and ironic and warm and tenderhearted all at once.” There she meets Maurice Mendjizky, a Polish-Jewish painter and composer, who gives her her nickname and paints her first portrait. She would also meet and pose for Moïse Kisling, Amedeo Modigliani and Maurice Utrillo, among others, confessing, “the painters adopted me. End of sad times.”

Kiki meets Man Ray in 1921, but initially refuses to be photographed by him. When she moves in and becomes his lover, he ends up photographing Kiki more than anyone else. She, too practises her art and begins to paint watercolours, mostly recollections from her childhood, pieces acquired by art dealer Henri-Pierre Roché, who writes that “their summery tones and quick lines” remind him of Matisse. When Kiki has her first solo show at which she sells all 27 paintings, the Paris Tribune touts it “the most successful vernissage of the year.”

Demand for her as a model increases when Tsuguharu Foujita’s portrait “Reclining Nude With Toile de Jouy,” featuring Kiki looking directly at the viewer and “evoking the pose of Manet’s ‘Olympia,’” is shown at the 1922 Autumn Salon of the Grand Palais. Foujita generously shares funds from the painting’s sale with Kiki and she treats herself to a hat and a dress, eager to get something that makes her happy in the moment.

In 1924, Man Ray’s photo “Le Violon d’Ingres” presents Kiki with the painted f-holes of a violin on her smooth back, her torso angled to reveal her as both woman and instrument. Braude correctly wonders, “How much of the picture’s rough magic is owed to his camera work and how much to her performance in front of the lens?”

There’s another celebrated Man Ray photo of Kiki, her pale face still, her sleek dark head resting on a table, her bow lips painted, her naked body out of view. In her left hand she holds a carved ebony mask upright. Commonly known as “Noire et blanche” it’s a collaborative piece that Braude writes is “about everything that isn’t shown.”

On May 30, 1929, Kiki sings in a variety show, lifting up the publication of her forthcoming memoir “Kiki Souvenirs.” That evening she is crowned Queen of Montparnasse. With friends she later celebrates at La Coupole where, Braude notes, “among her chosen family, plates and glasses filled, talking, listening, taking note, being noticed,” she is likely “as happy as she’d ever been in her life.”

Braude’s exuberant, absorbing biography stands Kiki at the “white-hot center” of 1920s Montparnasse, reclaiming her rightful place.

Janet Somerville is the author of “Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love & War 1930-1949,” available now in audio, read by Ellen Barkin.

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