The Master of Photography and Film's First 'It" Girl
It was Paris, 1920, and art suddenly mattered again. The First World War, which had brought unspeakable carnage, seemed to make the old ideals and principles of Western civilization look not only silly and out of date, but actually dangerous and insane. If nationalistic collectivism formed along the lines of old world morality could bring about the tools of such wholesale slaughter as chemical weapons or the machine gun, what, exactly, was so great about these flags, these churches, this so-called Civilization?
Europe looked to its visionaries for answers -- to its new philosophers, its new poets, and its new artists. From all over the world, writers and artists flocked to Paris as the center of Modernism, and in the boulevards of the Montparnasse district, the authorities set aside a region of relative lawlessness, where at night, the bohemians’ wild drinking bouts, the lascivious can-can dancers and near-orgiastic masked balls could proceed unscrutinized by the gendarmes. But by day, it was the cafes, with their terrasse tables spilling out into the thoroughfares, where over whiskey and wine, cappuccino and absinthes, philosophies clashed violently, artists exchanged techniques, duels were fought, and rendezvous were arranged. And in the middle of this, one could always find Kiki.
“...a Queen,” wrote Hemingway in his introduction to Kiki’s memoirs, “...but that, of course, is very different from being a lady.”
Kiki (born Alice Prin, in 1901) was the prototype flapper. Her domination of Paris’ art scene was neither the result of any philosophical insight nor notable artistic technique of her own. Kiki, organizing the models into cabaret chorus lines, Kiki’s laugh ringing out over the din of the crowded cafe... Kiki was the new breed of liberated woman, a work of Modern art on two legs. Fleeing a childhood of crushing poverty, Kiki modeled nude for a Parisian sculptor at 15, and forever onward thrived in the world of art and artists, as their model, their lover, their promoter, their cheerleader, and, perhaps, more importantly to the history of art, a sort of “grand introducer”; the one permanent fixture on the boulevard Raspail who could bring the painter to the dealer, the dealer to the buyer, the new model to the working painter, and the money for a meal (by showing her breasts to tourists for a few francs) to the starving poet. With her quick wit and her undefeatable optimism, the only problem for Paris was there was only so much of Kiki to go around…
...A problem which Man Ray, able to truly capture and mass-produce her beauty and spirit, could solve. Man Ray was getting in on the ground floor with a nascent medium at the moment of its explosion. What we now think of as fashion photography, society snapshots of the paparazzi, fine art photography, scientific photography and porn, were all coming out of the same dark room, and Man Ray did it all. He invented entirely new techniques of photography such as solarization, and even gave his name to one new photo process, the “Rayograph”. Born Emmanuel (‘Man’) Radnitzky (‘Ray’), the Pennsylvania-born painter and photographer was already deeply involved with (but not committed exclusively to) the Dada movement when he came to France in 1921, where he was able to move in and out among the riotously prolific cliques of Modern artists which were feuding, competing and cross-pollinating ideas in the galleries and studios of Paris.
To be much too brief, these art movements were: the Fauves (or “Wild Beasts”) – Modigliani, Matisse, Roualt - for whom Mona Lisa-style painting was now too neat and detailed, and who preferred to paint from the gut, in wild, fierce strokes of color; the Cubists - Picasso, Braque, Duchamp – for whom Mona Lisa-like painting was too formal and predictable, but who preferred to reduce her, instead, to a series of geometric shapes and straight lines; the Surrealists - Dali, Ernst, Miro - for whom the Mona Lisa’s smiling face itself was too rational and sane to be worth imitating, and who would have preferred to paint her in a series of sub-conscious Jungian symbols of the emotions the slight smile evoked; finally, the Dada (or “hobbyhorse”?) movement – Tzara, Picabia, and Man Ray - for whom art itself, as a rational exercise, was part of the problem, and who sought to attack painting and art, in true irrational fashion, with a series of anti-art paintings and other works of art.
Crazy? You bet. But after the desperate times of the Great War, it was felt that the duty of art was to resort to desperate measures.
The occasional barroom scuffle between art-movements-as-street-gangs or the odd vendetta over the stolen heart of a model/lover aside, the various cabals of Parisian painters were, for the most part, united by their common devotion to the artists’ community over which Kiki presided, and to which Man Ray sought to add the latest techniques and theories. Both levitated above the squabbling factions. As the Prince and Princess of the Bohemians, Kiki and Man Ray were destined for one another. After her first visit to his studio, they were not only an item. They were The Item.
“He photographs folks in the hotel room where we live, and at night, I lie stretched out on the bed while he works in the dark. I can see his face over the little red light, and he looks like the Devil himself; I am so on pins and needles that I can’t wait for him to get through.”
- Kiki’s Memoirs
She was everything he was not. She was instinctual, uninhibited, lascivious, while he was conscientious, philosophical, and perhaps a bit cold. That their love affair endured throughout the decade of the 20s, and that their affection endured beyond it, demonstrated that they complemented, more often than they contradicted, each other. Mass reproductions of Kiki’s images shot not only in Man Ray’s studio, but images of her by other artists, transformed Kiki from just another model, brightening the canvas of a few painters’ easels (and beds) - the girl who practically knew everybody - to the girl who, literally, everybody knew. Man Ray’s portraits of Kiki were numerous, and mostly nudes, but his most famous photograph entitled Le Violon d’Ingres, both Surrealist and sexy, showed Kiki’s naked form morphing into a violin with a little 20’s-era CGI. His film Etoile de mer, showed Kiki in even more frankly erotic scenes. We cannot ignore the impact of these prolific images of boldly, jubilantly lewd Kiki on millions of modern women and girls chaffing at the constraints of Victorian propriety and the ambient sexual repression of the day. Flappers, Roaring 20s version of “wannabes”, many sporting Kiki’s cropped hair, began cropping up everywhere, especially Paris, living and loving as they pleased.
After 10 years, with brief bouts of infidelity, followed by fiery spats and lusty reconciliations, their love had run its course, but in breezy Bohemian fashion, they parted without bitterness. Even though Man Ray found love with fellow photographer, Ms. Lee Miller, and Kiki ultimately settled down to a subdued monogamy with her Spanish accompanist, Man Ray nevertheless continued to shoot Kiki’s publicity photos.
Kiki’s face had brought a sort of brand recognition to whoever’s work she posed for. Man Ray’s film, Emak Bakia, had been a popular and critical success, as were her published memoirs, and her own modest paintings. She performed in several other films, and on stage at cabarets, screeching out filthy songs to the crowd’s delight.
These works are the tangible fruits of Man Ray’s and Kiki’s relationship, their children, so to speak. More important, however, to history were the intangibles they left to us; associated with Man Ray, Kiki became Modern art’s spokesmodel, and the Modern artist’s den mother. Through her association with Man Ray, Kiki was able to exercise her virtuosity as a social butterfly, the unstoppable life of every masked ball or gallery opening, the true heart of Parisian Art, as it reshaped western thought. “She certainly dominated that era of Montparnasse,” wrote Hemingway, “more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.”