Everywhere I go, I keep running into Kiki de Montparnasse. I don’t just mean in the Cimitière I pass through every morning. (The tombstone directory’s stuck on my fridge door with a ‘No Kangaroos in Austria’ magnet.) At the Musée du Quai Branly’s sensually exotic exhibition L’Invention des arts primitifs, the eye is instantly drawn to her serene, porcelain face as she reclines next to an African tribal mask (Noire et Blanche). Last week at the Edinburgh Festival she smiled coyly down at me in the Man Ray exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Now I find myself living in her old 1920s haunt of the 15th arrondissement, where she cavorted with Cocteau, sang indecent songs in the nightclubs, posed for Modigliani, Soutine and Foujita, and was photographed by her lover Man Ray as the voluptuous Violin d’Ingres (never before or since this iconic image have a pair of f-holes seemed so erotic). In his Memoirs of Montparnasse, John Glassco perhaps didn’t quite put his finger on what was so alluring about her when he wrote that her magnificent visage had ‘the lineal purity of a stuffed salmon’.
My Montparnasse is a little more placid than the days of les années folles when, according to Kiki, it was a place ‘where what would be a crime elsewhere is just a peccadillo’. As far as I know, so far, I’ve committed no crimes here and inspired no one as muse. But I remain every bit as optimistic as she was about la vie Parisienne: ‘All I need in life is an onion, a bit of bread and a bottle of red wine, and I’ll always find someone to give me that,’ she reflected late in life.
And here she is in her latest guise. Télérama’s Emergence Revue de l’Avant-Garde Créative has chosen as its Project of the Month a new animated short about this larger-than-life femme fatale. Narrated from her 1929 memoirs (banned for decades in the US), Mademoiselle Kiki et les Montparnos is drawn and coloured entirely by hand in charmingly simple 2D (always with what I like to call the Dr Katz wobbly line syndrome) that captures Kiki’s bold yet facile world view. In under 13 minutes, Amélie Harrault’s whimsical style changes at the drop of a chapeau — from graphite to gouaches to collage — allowing us to view Kiki from the perspective of each artist who falls under her spell.
The opening scenes in harsh, scratchy pen and ink are Kiki’s view of herself: born Alice Ernstine Prin, raised in poverty in a lice-ridden house and disliked by her teachers because she was poor, already posing nude for painters at the age of 14, rising above desperately humble origins through grit, free-spirited lust for life and a certain je ne sais quoi.
By the time she was 28, she had been hailed Reine de Montparnasse. So, I’ve got two years, then.