Paris

More Than a Muse: A New Biography Casts Kiki de Montparnasse as a Leader in the Heady Art Swirl of 1920s Paris


If you know the name Kiki de Montparnasse, it’s probably as the subject of the famed 1924 Man Ray photograph Le Violon d’Ingres. The Surrealist masterpiece shows De Montaparnasse’s naked back marked in the dark room with the shapely f-holes of a violin, wittily comparing the curves of the female form to the string instrument.

Last May, a print of the image became the most expensive photograph ever to sell at auction, bringing in $12.4 million at Christie’s New York. (De Montparnasse’s own auction record is a still-respectable €19,275 [$23,406], set in 2021 at Fauve Paris for the 1927 painting L’acrobate, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.)

A model to a slew of major artists, including Alexander Calder, Francis Picabia, and Chaïm Soutine, to name just a few, De Montparnasse was Man Ray’s muse and lover for eight years, from 1921 through ’29.

But a new biography of the woman born Alice Ernestine Prin argues that she was in many ways the center of the Parisian avant-garde, highlighting her accomplishments as an actress, cabaret star, memoirist, and artist in her own right. Essentially, De Montparnasse was a talented multi-hyphenate who reinvented herself through an artistic persona—an act decades ahead of her time.

Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres (1924). Courtesy of Christie's.

Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres (1924). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Written by Mark Braude, Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris takes a deep dive into the life of this largely forgotten figure, from her impoverished and illegitimate origins to her literal crowning as queen of Montparnasse—Paris’s thriving artist quarter and nightlife hotspot—to her premature death at just 51, suffering from drug addiction and alcoholism.

It also charts her tumultuous relationship with Man Ray, as well as his origins as Emmanuel Radnitzky, born in Brooklyn. He, of course, became a leading light of the Dada and Surrealist movements, creating innovative photographs, paintings, and sculptures.

The two were surrounded by a milieu of now-famous names—the book’s pages are sprinkled with appearances by the likes of Amedeo Modigliani, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Coco Chanel, and Peggy Guggenheim, to name just a few.

Man Ray, <em>Noire et Blanche</em> (1926). Photo courtesy of Christie's Paris.

Man Ray, Noire et Blanche (1926). Photo courtesy of Christie’s Paris.

The book’s biggest takeaway is that while one could certainly make a case for De Montparnasse as a pioneering performance artist, her ephemeral works were sadly created in an era that rendered them evanescent.

And as with so many women artists, De Montparnasse’s fame has faded in the decades since her death. But unlike paintings and sculptures, which are ripe for rediscovery, her primary medium of performance—the very nature of the work that made her the lifeblood of Parisian bohemia in the 1920s—makes it difficult for audiences to truly experience her art, or to understand its importance in her time.

Braude does an admirable job of trying to rectify that injustice. Here are just a few of the fascinating facts about De Montparnasse presented in his tome.

 

Her mom tried to put a stop to her modeling career.

Maurice Mendjizky, <em>Kiki<em>.

Maurice Mendjizky, Kiki.

Kiki de Montparnasse first moved to Paris at age 12. When she was 16, she started posing for artists after she lost her job at a bakery. To make money, she began posing nude for a sculptor who had been a regular at the shop.

After the initial discomfort wore off, De Montparnasse found the work both interesting and easy—but when her mother found out, she crashed the studio and threatened to alert the cops.

In her memoir, De Montparnasse said her mom called her a “miserable whore” and disowned her—irreversibly setting the young girl on her course in the art world.

 

She got her nickname from the artist who painted the earliest known work for which she posed.

Maurice Mendjizky, <em>Kiki de Montparnasse</em> (1921). Collection Fonds de Dotation Mendjisky- Écoles de Paris

Maurice Mendjizky, Kiki de Montparnasse (1921). Collection Fonds de Dotation Mendjisky- Écoles de Paris

In 1918, De Montparnasse, fresh off a case of the Spanish flu, fell in love with Polish artist Maurice Mendjizky. He did his first painting of her in 1919, and bestowed upon her the pet name Kiki, by which she would become famous.

“[It] stuck only because they liked how it sounded two quick breaths pushed with clenched tongue through bared teeth,” Braude wrote. “People used kiki as a bit of slang to describe all sorts of things: chicken giblets; someone’s neck (usually strangled or hanged); a cock’s crow; having a chat; having sex.”

Mendjizky and De Montparnasse lived together for three or four years, and there are six surviving oil paintings made depicting her, plus a drawing. Though De Montparnasse would credit the artist Moïse Kisling with “discovering” her, those pieces represent the true beginnings of the career of one of art history’s greatest muses.

 

She was the consummate hostess.

Artists at the Jockey in Paris (ca. 1921). Back row from left to right: Bill Bird, unknown, Holger Cahill, Miller, Les Copeland, Hilaire Hiler, Curtiss Moffitt. Middle: Kiki de Montparnasse, Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, unknown, Ezra Pound. Front: Man Ray, Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau.

De Montparnasse acted as Man Ray’s assistant by managing his schedule and helping with translations when his French skills fell short—all while keeping house.

“Kiki did the shopping and cooking and serving,” Braude wrote. “She stretched their money to create fabulous Burgundian dishes with artfully prepared salads and expertly chosen cheeses, always paired with good wine and followed by brandy.”

Despite her humble beginnings and lack of means, De Montparnasse was blessed with a “seemingly innate ability to serve just the right food and drink according to the social situation, and to have attained that knowledge without money or much exposure to traditional forms of ‘high’ culture.”

 

And the consummate performer.

Brassaï, The Singer Kiki of Montparnasse (1933). Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Tom E. Hinson Catalogue of Photography, ©the Brassaï Estate - RMN.

Brassaï, The Singer Kiki of Montparnasse (1933). Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Tom E. Hinson Catalogue of Photography, ©the Brassaï Estate – RMN.

In her memoirs, De Montparnasse wrote of singing for coins at bars as a child. But she was part of Paris’s artistic scene for several years as an adult before she started singing at the popular artist hangout the Jockey in 1924. Quickly, she became a famed chanteuse and local celebrity.

“Kiki’s shows were imbued with the spirit of artistic experimentation going on around her,” Braude wrote. “If a singing voice could smell, hers would be garlic hitting a pan’s hot butter and wine.”

 

She sold out her first solo show.

Kiki De Montparnasse, <em>L’acrobate</em> (1927). The painting set an auction record for the artist with a €19,275 ($23,406) sale in 2021 at Fauve Paris.

Kiki de Montparnasse, L’acrobate (1927). The painting set an auction record for the artist with a €19,275 ($23,406) sale in 2021 at Fauve Paris.

De Montparnasse began making art at an early age, drawing quick portraits of bar patrons and selling them to help make ends meet as a teenager. As she grew older, her work attracted the attention of the dealer Henri-Pierre Roché, who eventually bought 10 of her paintings.

In 1924, he wrote in his diary of purchasing a De Montparnasse watercolor he dubbed a “super-Matisse.”

Three years later, she had her first solo show at Au Sacre du Printemps in Paris, selling all 27 pieces on view—and getting good reviews to boot.

 

She appeared on the silver screen, although film stardom eluded her.

De Montparnasse’s first performance on film came in Le Retour à la raison, a hastily glued together three-minute film Man Ray made on two days notice for a Dada art show organized by Tristan Tzara in 1923. The event was marred by violence, with the police arriving after André Breton broke poet Pierre de Massot’s arm, and the night devolving into drunken fist fights in the streets.

Later that year, De Montparnasse traveled to New York, where she made a go of breaking into the movie business. The anecdotes vary, but for one reason or another, she returned to Paris without filming anything in the U.S.

There, she went on to have small parts in four pictures in quick succession, including Jaque Catelain’s feature film The Gallery of Monsters, credited as Kiki Ray. Her most prominent role came courtesy of Fernand Léger, in Ballet mécanique, in which De Montparnasse’s face is juxtaposed with close up shots of various objects and machines.

 

She wrote her memoirs at just 28.

Kiki's Memoirs by Kiki de Montparnasse, translated from the French by Samuel Putnam, and published in the U.S. by Black Manikin.

Kiki’s Memoirs by Kiki de Montparnasse, translated from the French by Samuel Putnam, and published in the U.S. by Black Manikin.

After splitting with Man Ray, De Montparnasse began dating the cartoonist Henri Broca, and paying to publish his new magazine, Paris-Montparnasse. That led in turn to the release of De Montparnasse’s memoirs, pairing her writings recounting her life with various artworks she had featured in over the years.

She was just 28 years old. She was also undeniably famous.

“Who doesn’t know Kiki, in Montparnasse, and therefore the whole world?” one reviewer asked. Another proclaimed that “Kiki is a lively girl, rowdy painter, and bohemian writer, rolled into one. She is everything.”

Bookseller Edward Titus arranged to bring a translation of the book by Samuel Putnam to the U.S. It was to have a preface by Ernest Hemingway, who wrote that De Montparnasse “dominated the era of Montparnasse more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.”

But for De Montparnasse, Transatlantic fame was not to be. U.S. customs officials seized the first shipment of the book as obscene, and no more English language copies were printed.

 

She was crowned Queen of Montparnasse.

A photo by Kiki de Montparnasse by Julien Mandel.

A photo of Kiki de Montparnasse by Julien Mandel. Public domain.

Kiki earned the second half of her name in 1929, at a variety show hosted by Paris-Montparnasse ahead of the publication of her memoirs. She sang her most popular numbers before packed house, paying tribute to the neighborhood’s already fading glory days.

At the end of the night, there was an over-the-top coronation ceremony, crowning her Queen of Montparnasse. Her new name, Kiki de Montparnasse, not only recognized her as artistic royalty, it inextricably tied her to the neighborhood that had birthed such inspiring and groundbreaking art. It recognized her foremost position among the artists of Montparnasse, not only as muse and model, but as an equal party to the creative process.

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The Centre Pompidou Has Named Its Former Director, Laurent Le Bon, to Lead the Paris Museum Once Again


French president Emmanuel Macron has chosen Laurent Le Bon as the next director of the Centre Pompidou, effective July 19. The appointment marks a round trip for Le Bon, who served as director there once before but has most recently been serving as president of the Picasso Museum since 2014.

Now, he is is taking the reins from Serge Lasvignes, who has been director since 2015. The decision will be finalized at an upcoming French cabinet meeting on June 30, according to Le Monde.

Le Bon takes over at an interesting time for the museum. It announced at the start of this year that it will close to the public for three years for renovations at the end of 2023. Executives are hoping to reopen the building to mark its 50th anniversary in 2027. The final show before its temporary closure will be dedicated to Picasso’s drawings.

A rendering of the Centre Pompidou × Jersey City. Courtesy of OMA.

A rendering of the Centre Pompidou × Jersey City. Courtesy of OMA.

Earlier this month, the Pompidou announced that it would open a new branch of the museum in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. “Centre Pompidou x Jersey City,” as the new outpost will be known, is sited in a 109-year-old industrial building in the city’s Journal Square neighborhood.

Like the museum’s other satellite branches, such as the Centre Pompidou Málaga in Spain, the KANAL Centre Pompidou in Belgium, and the Centre Pompidou Shanghai in China, the American outpost will have access to the Pompidou’s curators and collection of roughly 120,000 artworks, but will operate semi-independently.

Le Bon was born in 1969 in Neuilly-sur-Seine. He graduated from the research university Sciences Po Paris and the École du Louvre. He was a curator at the Pompidou Center, and was chosen to lead the project to create its sister institution in Metz from 2008 to 2010.

The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, 2015. Photo: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images.

The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, 2015. Photo: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images.

When the Picasso Museum in Paris reopened in 2014, Le Bon took Anne Baldassari’s former position as its head. In a 2019 report, French politician Franck Riester praised Le Bon for his “cultural democratization,” as well as his “ambitious loan policy and numerous partnerships and cooperation agreements with major regional, national and international museums.”

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A New Paris Exhibition Showcases Top Mid-Century Design, Including Works By Noll and Royère


Every month, hundreds of galleries showcase new exhibitions on the Midnight Publishing Group Gallery Network—and every week, we shine a spotlight on the exhibitions we think you should see. Check out what we have in store, and inquire more with one simple click.

What You Need to Know: Galerie Jacques Lacoste Gallery in Paris focuses on French design from the 1950s, an enthusiastically experimental era. The new exhibition “Icônes 1950” presents a curation of the defining works from the era by some of its most innovative designers, including Max Ingrand, Georges Jouve, Mathieu Matégot, Serge Mouille, Alexandre Noll, Charlotte Perriand, Jean Prouvé, and Jean Royère. The objects on view embody a post-war aesthetic ethos that sought to capture the beauty in function as France underwent a period of rebuilding and simultaneous modernization.

Why We Like It: Dealer Jacques Lacoste is a devoted connoisseur of the era and the works on view have been selected with exquisite care. The exhibition offers a particularly strong assortment of works by Jean Royère, whose archives Lacoste acquired in 1997, including a rare “Baquet” armchair (1955) covered in goat hair, along with several highly sought-after lighting fixtures by Max Ingrand, among other gems.

Installation view “Icônes 1950” 2021. Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

Installation view “Icônes 1950” 2021. Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

What the Gallery Says: “The design from this era is characterized by a certain porosity between the arts and the free and organic forms emblematic of the furniture of the 1950s echo the works of Jean Arp, Alexandre Calder, Fernand Léger or Yves Tanguy… Most of the great signatures of the post war-era (in particular Charlotte Perriand, Jean Royère, Jean Prouvé, Alexandre Noll, Max Ingrand, Mathieu Matégot) started in the course of the years 1920—1930… The modernist movement of the 1920s and ’30s opened up design and the decorative arts to industrial materials (glass, metal), the 1950s broadened this repertoire by reconnecting with natural materials,” wrote art historian Françoise Claire Prodhon in a text for the exhibition.

 

Mathieu Matégot
Low table model “Mondrian” (ca. 1956)
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Mathieu Matégot, Low table model “Mondrian” (ca. 1956). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

Mathieu Matégot, Low table model “Mondrian” (ca. 1956). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

 

Serge Mouille
“Cactus” table lamp (ca. 1962)
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Serge Mouille, “Cactus” table lamp (ca. 1962). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

Serge Mouille, “Cactus” table lamp (ca. 1962). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

 

Alexandre Noll
Pair of chairs in carved mahogany (1940)
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Alexandre Noll, Pair of chairs in carved mahogany (1940). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

Alexandre Noll, Pair of chairs in carved mahogany (1940). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

 

Jean Royère
Sideboard (ca. 1951)
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Jean Royère, Sideboard (ca. 1951). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

Jean Royère, Sideboard (ca. 1951). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

 

Jean Royère
“Baquet” armchair (1955)
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Jean Royère, "Baquet" armchair (1955). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

Jean Royère, “Baquet” armchair (1955). Courtesy of Galerie Jacques Lacoste.

 

“Icônes 1950” is on view at Galerie Jacques Lacoste, Paris, through July 24, 2021.

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Closely Watched Chicago Dealer Mariane Ibrahim Joins the Growing Ranks of Gallerists Opening New Spaces in Paris


Art dealer Mariane Ibrahim, who recently moved her influential gallery to Chicago from Seattle, has joined a growing number of gallerists expanding to Paris. As Midnight Publishing Group News reported recently, a combination of real-estate opportunities, Brexit fallout, and a renewed sense of vibrancy is turning the City of Lights into a veritable art-market hub.

The new space is on Paris’s famous Avenue Matignon and the first exhibition, a group show of artists on the gallery’s roster, will open in September. In recent years, Ibrahim has offered an influential platform for artists of the African diaspora, including Ghanaian market star Amoako Boafo and British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor. Ayana V. Jackson, who she also represents, will have a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in 2022.

“The 8th arrondissement reminds us of our initial initiative to move to Chicago, where we felt like there was something new happening,” Ibrahim told Midnight Publishing Group News. “We are very lucky to be present for the beginning of a new resurrection of certain areas in Paris.”

Mariane Ibrahim is opening a new gallery in Paris on Avenue Matignon. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Mariane Ibrahim is opening a new gallery in Paris on Avenue Matignon. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Paris has remained a point of departure and a point of return for the dealer, who lived in France before moving to the US in 2010. Given the ongoing travel restrictions, it was her French citizenship that made it possible to move forward with the space. 

Ibrahim said she had been considering the move “unconsciously for quite some time,” but began seriously pursuing it over the past six months. 

The pandemic “almost facilitated the need to be in two places at one time,” she added. “Paris is becoming a city that is going to compete in the major art market, and we are eager to be a part of that.”

In recent years, French collectors have grown increasingly interested in artists of the African diaspora as the country has engaged in deeper conversations about restitution of art stolen during the colonial era.

Asked how the Paris and Chicago spaces will work together, Ibrahim said they are opposites in many ways: the Chicago gallery is all on one level and spread out, while the Paris space spans three floors in a Haussmann building. 

At a time when “the global is local and vice versa,” she said, “being in two cultural spaces will enrich the work and practice of our artists.”

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