You may have seen the famous picture of her nude back marked with the sound holes of a violin, which recently sold for $12.4 million, the highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction. Or, if not that, then an equally striking image of her face resting on its side, perpendicular to an African mask.
Her name was Alice Prin, but she was better known in the bohemian world of 1920s Paris as Kiki de Montparnasse — and best known today as the muse of American surrealist artist Man Ray. In a splendid new biography, “Kiki Man Ray,” cultural historian Mark Braude brings her vividly to life and argues that she deserves to be remembered as a significant cultural figure in her own right, “a reality star for surreal times.”
Prin was born out of wedlock in 1901 in a village in Burgundy, still a mark of shame in deeply Catholic provincial France. Raised by her grandmother, she had to forage for snails to get enough to eat. At 12, she moved to Paris to live with her mother, who disowned her a few years later for modeling in the nude for a sculptor. Even as a teenager, she had a knack for self-presentation, blackening her eyebrows with burnt matches and rubbing flower petals on her cheeks and lips for color.
By the time she met Man Ray in 1921, Kiki had already posed for a number of artists destined for greatness, including Amadeo Modigliani, who were drawn to her voluptuous figure and cupid’s bow lips. Eventually, she became an accomplished painter, experimental film star and popular cabaret performer.
“If a singing voice could smell, hers would be garlic hitting a pan’s hot butter and wine,” Braude writes. None other than Ernest Hemingway wrote the introduction to her best-selling memoir. When she died in 1953 at age 51 after years of drug and alcohol abuse, Life magazine ran a three-page spread on her but she was already fading into obscurity.
Braude, who has written about Napoleon and the resort town of Monte Carlo, argues for her restoration to the history of modern art. She “anticipated our moment by embracing the… idea of treating her life as an ongoing work of art… turning her daily problems and pleasures and those of her friends into an interconnected and ongoing story to be consumed across several media.”