Paris in the 1920s: The Tale of the Notorious Kiki de Montparnasse

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Paris in the 1920s: The Tale of the Notorious Kiki de Montparnasse
In the ‘Années Folles’ of 1920s Paris, particularly in Montmartre and Montparnasse, uninhibited behavior was unlikely to raise an eyebrow. It was an era unsurpassed by its artistic and literary output, when bohemia lay its restless head on the pillows of the 14th and the 18th arrondissements and decided to stay. Neither quartiers were new to the bohemian life of artists and writers, nor to the excesses of alcohol and promiscuous living. Montparnasse and Montmartre in the 19th century were the epicenters of avant-garde artists, cabaret clubs and Bals Musettes, Can Can dancers, cheap absinthe, and loose living, but there was something unique in the atmosphere following the end of the brutalities of the First World War that made behavior in the 1920s more outrageous and licentious than ever before. And there was no-one more outrageous than Kiki de Montparnasse. Born Alice Ernestine Prin in Châtillon-sur-Seine in 1901, she was the third daughter of Marie Ernestine Prin. (Marie’s first two daughters had died, one stillborn in 1898, and the second, Maximillienne Alice, at the age of four months.) Alice’s father was presumed to be a charcoal merchant, Maxime Legros. When Alice’s mother left Châtillon-sur-Seine to work in Paris, she was brought up in extreme poverty by her grandmother, along with various cousins who had either been orphaned or abandoned. Alice had felt the loss of her mother keenly and although she adored her grandmother who had done her best to raise Alice with love and affection, Alice had already begun to sing in bistros with her godfather, who as a bootlegger, was a less than upright role model. In consequence, Alice had acquired a taste for alcohol before she was even 12 years old. In 1913, Alice’s mother brought her to Paris where they lived in the 15th arrondissement in Rue Dulac. After a scant year of schooling in the Rue de Vaugirard, Alice began work at a factory repairing soldiers shoes. Two years later when Alice was fifteen, her mother fell in love with Noel Deleccoeuillerie, a soldier, eleven years her junior, who had returned to Paris after being wounded at the Front. They would eventually marry in 1918, but when Noel moved in to their lodgings in 1917, three was definitely a crowd, and Marie found Alice a job in a bakery where she lived. The hours were long and hard in the bakery, the wages poor, and Alice– after months of arduous labour– finally had had enough and left. Her mother, unable or unwilling to help her daughter, left her with little options, and Alice agreed to model naked for the sculptor Ronchin. When Alice’s mother discovered she was posing naked, she promptly and furiously disowned her. Alice, at sixteen years old, was suddenly homeless and on the streets. This was a not uncommon situation for poor young girls at the time, and like many before her, Alice was forced to live on her wits, to survive in any way that she could. For a young, attractive female, surviving always meant a sometimes unwanted, but necessary, dependence on men. Invariably, artists’ models were classed as no more than common prostitutes, and it is true that it was rare for a model not to sleep with whichever artist or sculptor she was modeling for. Alice was no exception. (One of the only models recorded to have had a platonic relationship with an artist was Lydia Delectorskaya, who was Matisse’s model until he died.) But Alice was pragmatic about her situation; she enjoyed sex, was uninhibited and had immersed herself in the bohemian norms and the milieu of Montparnasse with gusto and undiluted enthusiasm. She proved very quickly to be a popular model, and the painter Soutine soon introduced her to Modigliani and Utrillo, who both painted her at this early stage in her career. It was however, the Polish artist, Maurice Mendjisky, who Alice fell in love and lived with until 1922. It was also Mendjisky who renamed her Kiki. By now a fixture in Montparnasse in the bars and the clubs, Kiki was spotted by the painter Kisling in La Rotonde and became his model throughout the 1920s. A more important and life long friendship was formed with the Japanese painter Foujita. Tsuguharu Foujita had arrived in Montparnasse in 1913 and with his black hair cut in a short, uncompromising fringe, heavy glasses, sandals and tunic, he cut an unforgettable figure. Picasso had introduced him to Max Jacob and Apollinaire in 1914 and he was immediately entranced by Isadora Duncan, and like Isadora, and her brother Raymond, Foujita would dance in the woods in a toga. But it was Kiki who was his favorite model and his painting of her, ‘Nu couche a la toile‘, marked the beginning of his real success as an artist. ‘Nu Couche a la toile‘ was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in Le Grand Palais in 1922 and was sold for 8,000 francs. Foujita shared some of the proceeds with Kiki. In 1921, Mendjisky tried to persuade Kiki to accompany him to the Côte d’Azur but Kiki was reluctant to leave Montparnasse and so Mendjisky left without her. It proved to be a fortuitous decision. Shortly afterwards, Kiki met the American photographer and painter Man Ray, and swiftly became his muse, model and mistress, moving into the Hotel des Ecoles on the Rue Delambre with him. Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) was an extraordinarily talented artist, more than proficient in sculpting, painting, collage and excelling in innovative photography. He had met Marcel Duchamp in America in 1913. Duchamp…
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Lead photo credit : Postcard, Alice Prin, c.1920-30. Photo: Julian Mandel, Wikipedia, public domain

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.

Comments

  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-07-06 08:57:06
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Thank you Cynthia and Darles, for leaving a comment. I think I also will be searching for Kiki's grave. Her old lover and faithful friend,. Foujita attended her burial and it was the first time anyone had seen him cry. I think.she was well loved despite, or because of her outrageous behaviour.

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  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-07-06 08:52:13
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Hi Danalla, Many thanks for your comment. There is a brilliant book simply entitled Kiki de Montparnasse with a wonderful cartoon history of her life including some rude but incredibly funny pictures...

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  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-07-04 04:29:36
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Thank you Bernard for your comments. It is certainly interesting that a portrait has now been attributed to Modigliani after all this time. I hope you can discover more!

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  • Cynthia Kulikov
    2020-07-03 12:05:16
    Cynthia Kulikov
    Absolutely fascinating! Thank you for writing this.

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  • Darles
    2020-07-03 11:14:11
    Darles
    Thank you for this article. When staying in the 5th we tried to visit some of the notorious haunts of the 20's and 30's. One day we'll make it to Kiki's final resting place.

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  • danalla combs
    2020-07-03 07:08:51
    danalla combs
    Marilyn, her story sounds like the makings for a great book

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  • Bernhelm Bonk
    2020-07-03 04:46:40
    Bernhelm Bonk
    Very interesting.I wonder if Bonjour Paris is interested in reporting about a portait of Modigliani previously believed to be by Jeanne Hébuterne painted in 1919 which has been now identified and authenticated as by Modigliani representing a selfportrait from the artist´s first creatve period in Paris. More to come when there is interst. Best regards

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  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-07-02 12:33:20
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Thank you for your kind comment Beth. If only we'd been alive in the 1920's! Wearing underwear of course ...

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-07-02 12:09:02
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Superbe, Marilyn! Merci beaucoup!

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  • g dewitt
    2020-07-02 10:46:48
    g dewitt
    The Julian Mandel photos do not look like Alice Prin at all . Probably fakes for postcards

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