Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Alice Prin

A luncheon party at a Montparnasse café during the 1920--the famous, the soon-to-be-famous, would-be famous, and the should-be famous. Kiki takes up the whole front row.
Insofar as art is concerned, Paris is undoubtedly the figurehead city of the past two centuries. (It's too early in this century to say if that tradition continues.) Two areas of Paris lay claim to being the centers of this art world, Montmartre, and Montparnasse. Montmartre can claim such artists as Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh. Montparnasse, on Paris's famed "left bank" came to the fore between the wars, after WW I, until the Nazis came and broke up the party in 1940. Montparnasse hosted such artists, writers, and thinkers as Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Moise Kisling, Jean Cocteau, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, Chaim Soutine, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Amedeo Modigliani, Ezra Pound, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Rousseau, Constantin Brâncuși, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Joan Miró, and, in his declining years, Edgar Degas. Add to these such "arty" luminaries as the wealthy Peggy Guggenheim, and Edith Wharton from New York City, and Harry Crosby and his wife, who published the Black Sun Press in Paris in 1927. They eventually published works by such future literary demigods as Hemmingway, Faulkner, D. H. Lawrence, Archibald MacLeish, James Joyce, Hart Crane, and Dorothy Parker. It's doubtful all these people ever got together for a single party, but WOW, what a bash that would have been. And the entertaining star of the show would have been Alice Prin, better known as Kiki of Montparnasse.

Kiki and her accompanist
But can she Can Can?
Montmartre and Montparnasse define two separate, radically different eras. Montmartre was 19th century, truly a mountain topped with the famous basilica of Sacre Coeur. Although the artists' names overlap somewhat, Montmartre was refined, sophisticated, and only occasionally raucous. By the same token, if you've ever seen the movie, Cabaret, staring Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray, you have some idea as to the look and feel of Montparnasse during the 1920s. (Note: Cabaret was set in Berlin and the modest hill of Montparnasse, even then, had long since been flattened to maximize early 20th century urban sprawl.) Of course, little of this survives today. On our recent trip to Paris we stayed in a Montparnasse hotel. Only the Gare Montparnasse, the cemetery, and one or two of the same restaurants from that era remain. Marking the district today is the Tour Montparnasse, a big, black, monolithic, 59-story, office tower which the French have come to hate. It's said to offer the best view in Paris (it's the only view of Paris where you can't see the Tour Montparnasse).

Garde Meuble, Alice Prin.
Kiki of Montparnasse, 1920s,
as photographed by Man Ray.
The 1920s in Paris have sometimes come to be called the "crazy years." Owing to a worldwide Depression, the 1930s were presumably less crazy. The war was over. War changes things. This particular war loosened things--morals, philosophies, art, music, literature, political thinking, money, booze, all flooded the hot bistros and nightclubs of Paris, and other cities such as London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and New York like a tsunami from a ruptured dam. Montparnasse was the center of this international whirlpool. And, one might argue, Kiki of Montparnasse was the center of the whirlpool. That's not to overstate her importance. She was first of all an artists' model, who could sing (sorta) and dance (somewhat). Moreover, Kiki was also a painter of absolutely no importance. Her Garde Meuble (above) should be adequate proof of that. Her major claim to fame was that she was young, slender, quite beautiful, and didn't mind taking off all her clothes to prove it. Liza Minnelli could have played her perfectly had Cabaret been set in Paris.

Kiki de Montparnasse, Mikao Cono
Kiki, Kees Van Dongen
Although Kiki posed for any number of artists of that era. It's fair to say they were only modestly well-known (then and now). In fact, most have become little more than art history footnotes. One such artist, Mikao Cono (above) provides a feel for the kind of painter he was and the kind of girl she was. Kees van Dongen, another virtually unknown painter from that era, captures with near perfection the entire ambience of the Montparnasse era with his watercolor portrait of Kiki (right). The two paintings of Moise Kisling (below) are fascinating in that first, (on the left) he paints Kiki with her clothes on sometime during the height of her youth and beauty in the 1920s. Then, (on the right) he paints her again, nude this time, in 1953, just months before her death at the age of fifty-one. She's put on a few pounds, but retains her classic beauty (or at least Kisling does).

Kiki de Montparnasse in a
Red Jumper and a Blue
Scarf, 1925, Moise Kisling
Kiki de Montparnasse,
1953 at the age of fifty-one,
Moise Kisling
Violin d'Ingres, Man Ray
Kiki was born Alice Ernestine Prin in 1901, which makes it easy to figure her age as the century went on. Her birthplace at Châtillon-sur-Seine is just east of Paris. Her father never acknowledged her birth while her mother abandoned her daughter to be raised by her own mother. When Alice turned twelve, her mother sent for Alice to come to Paris where she was apprenticed to first a knitter, then a shoemaker, and finally a baker. By the time she was fourteen Alice was posing nude for artists such as Chaim Soutine, Tsuguharu Foujita, Jean Cocteau, Alexander Calder, Pablo Gargallo, and Moise Kisling. Today they could all be arrested for painting her nude. Instead however, when Alice's mother found out how her daughter was earning money on the side, she promptly disowned her. From that point on, as Kiki of Montparnasse, she traded on her beauty, her meager talents as an entertainer, and spritely personality to earn her way. Though she had many lovers during her lifetime, she was never a prostitute. During the decade of the 1920s, she became the favorite of the American expatriate painter/photographer, Man Ray, who shot hundreds of photos of her, the most famous of which I saw last year at the Getty Center in LA, his famous Violin d'Ingres (above, left).

Kiki Self-portrait, 1929, Alice Prin
Kiki's Memoir, 1929
Although I had little kind to say about Kiki's talents as a painter, her name in Paris was such that, at the age of twenty-six, when she had first one-woman sold out. Her name and lifestyle were so familiar that in 1929, at the age of twenty-eight, she wrote her biography which contained an introduction by no less than Ernest Hemmingway himself. A success in Europe, the book was sent to the United States which promptly banned it. Apparently, American's weren't ready to read about fourteen-year-old nude models.


No comments:

Post a Comment