This exclusive four part blog piece has been illustrated by Catel, the artist behind multi-award winning graphic novel biography Kiki De Montparnasse. Jose-Louis Bocquet is an editor at French publishing house Dupuis and the writer of Kiki de Montparnasse.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, Paris welcomed the painters, sculptors and writers who had been told that the capital of France was the homeland of Art. They were Spanish, Italian, Polish, Russian, American, Scandinavian, Japanese, Moroccan, South American. They were called Picasso, Modigliani, Kisling, Soutine, Foujita, Chagall, Pascin, Tzara, Hemingway, Stein, Krogh, or Wahab. They would write the legend of Montparnasse.
In Châtillon-sur-Seine, Alice Prin knew nothing about Art. She arrived in Paris at 13, a poor girl who believed in the prospects that life in the big city could afford her. After World War One, with no one to rely on but herself, she keeps tumbling down the social ladder. Worse than a whore: she becomes a model.
Renamed Kiki, she will go on to become the Queen of Montparnasse. She will be immortalized by Man Ray’s surreal “Violon d’Ingres”, in which she lends her naked back to two cello curls.
During the Roaring Twenties, the Vavin crossroad was the centre of the world. In a swirl of parties and creativity, Kiki danced on the ashes of an old established order, one of bourgeois etiquette, provincial conventionality and social caste. “Kiki will never do the same thing twice, Never. Never. Never.” she claimed. She posed, she sang, she painted. She loved. The list of her lovers and of her friendships is also a who’s who of the history of art. The great names all appear, from Man Ray to Mosjoukine, from Brancusi to Duchamp, from Desnos to Cocteau, from Kisling to Foujita. Some of them captured her for eternity with their brushes and lenses, yet the legend of Kiki was written while she was alive. It is a story of coincidences and kismet: a woman and a place, at the same moment.
In her youth, Kiki tried all forms of expression, out of curiosity and need. She drew and painted and exhibited her work, several times finding some success. Henri-Pierre Roché, an enlightened art lover, is said to have had great respect for Kiki’s work. Nonetheless, she did not persist on this path. Kiki only used her pencil and brush to capture a few autobiographic pictures such as portraits of Einstein, Man Ray, Cocteau, childhood memories, landscapes of Burgundian nostalgia, sketches of New York visits. She never considered herself a painter. She knew only too well the burning desire that needed to consume the soul of those artists.
Against all odds – and without taking into account the avant-garde movies of Fernand Léger and Man Ray in which she features in a few momentary shots – Kiki was never to be truly immortalized by film. Her New York setbacks are famous. When she went there to shoot potential screen tests, she returned to Paris empty-handed, another failed starlet. In France, her few cinema appearances as a circus singer, in 1923, or as a gang leader in a women’s prison, in 1933, puts her in the category of “oddities”, even though Henri-Pierre Roché, the future writer of Jules and Jim, found her outstanding on screen.
Kiki also wrote, occasionally. Indeed, she produced her memoirs not once, but twice. The first time at the age of 28, in the middle of her glorious reign as the Queen of Montparnasse. Those memoirs received a preface by Hemingway and a cover by Kisling. In 1938, she revised the first version, but her words did not find their readers until they were published posthumously in 2005 by José Corti, the publisher of the surrealists.
In the end, Kiki’s legacy was singing.
To celebrate the publication of this biography (that won the top prize at the Angouleme Festival and was named ‘Graphic Book of the Month’ in The Observer) – double signed first editions of Kiki de Montparnase are available through the following retailers (and via their mail order services) while stocks last:
Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road (London)
Dave’s Comics (Brighton)
Forbidden Planet Megastore (London)
Foyles Charing Cross Road (London)
Gosh! Comics (London)
Mega City Comics (London)
OK Comics (Leeds)
Orbital Comics (London)
Plan B Books (Glasgow)
Travelling Man (Leeds)