As last summer drew to a close and the central heating went on, the change in atmosphere affected the sticky tack on my wall. It hardened to useless globs of cement and caused everything to tumble to the floor like the autumnal leaves outside. The nightly ritual of reinstating the fallen on the blank face of the magnolia wall saw me picking out art gallery postcards from the scattered laundry – tacking postcards to walls being a fairly universal tactic for inscribing a personality on an otherwise innocuous rented room. Without fail I would pause on the same two Man Ray photographs and wonder: …Who’s that girl?
Around the same time I was balling up fresh sticky tack, UK publisher SelfMadeHero was acquiring the rights to a multi-award-winning French graphic novel by Jose-Louis Bocquet and Catel Muller about the life of Alice Prin, better known as Kiki de Montparnasse, the muse to a generation and the iconic face on my wall.
The life of Prin is similar to the myth of almost every great artist if you boil it down to a template Wikipedia biography: born into abject poverty, followed by a life lived in the wilds of excess and pleasure ending with an anti-climactic death thanks to said excess. This graphic novel is ostensibly a straightforward biography of the bawdy loudmouth who would become known as the Queen of 1920s bohemian Montparnasse: an artist’s model, nightclub singer and (admittedly, a pretty terrible but decidedly free-spirited) painter. Her face and body were immortalised by the likes of Fernand Léger, Maurice Utrillo, Alexander Calder, Tsuguharu Foujita, and, of course, the heavily-eyebrowed Man Ray, with whom she had her famously tangled and tempestuous relationship.
From the outset this is a story about tough women, and of women in control. On page two her godfather grows steadily drunker as he attends the birth of wee Alice, soon to become one of the first emancipated women of the 20th century, while the females calmly deal with the business end of things. When we next meet Prin she is ten, standing on a high wall striking poses and reciting poetry. Her friends fear for her safety at first, and then dare her to jump, which she does, and lands safely to rounds of applause. Everything that happens after is an extrapolated version of that leap, a metaphor for her life story. Kiki may be a made-up name, but Kiki was not an act.
From a young age this girl was magnetic. At fourteen her mother packed her off to work and live elsewhere, it being implied that the mother’s boyfriend had a thing for the fast-maturing teenager. A boy in the bakery drops his trousers and says, well, if she’s not going to touch it she should least show him a boob. Cut to a full page devoted to the future muse regarding herself in the mirror: for the first time she sees what everyone else seems to see. The swirling dream panel of her masturbatory fantasy that night is reminiscent of the gorgeous lines of Craig Thompson in Blankets, and Catel Muller’s illustrations are as vibrant as Kiki herself in black and white. This is the first of many examples of why this particular story has a reason to – and strongly benefits from – being presented in graphic form rather than straight prose (in which there are already dozens of biographies). I’m generally of the opinion that graphic autobiographies are a wonderful thing, while graphic biographies are less so (unless we’re talking Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, in which case forget I ever said anything). With Kiki, it’s almost as if a life that was lived in images should be told the very same way.
There’s enough tits and sex in this thing to sink a floating brothel. Pragmatic and wild, everything Kiki wants is for the now (a slap-up meal and sex with her shoes on) and yet she yearns for immortality through art. She’s Forrest Gumping her way through the art world, and it would be totally unbelievable had it not actually happened. Unable to pay for a meal, the famously penniless Modigliani draws a picture of the seventeen-year-old for the café owner. It’s a steady stream of cameos that seem so fleeting in a 370 page book, but even though they may only get their eight panels in this woman’s lifetime they are depicted with the deft hand of a master artist themselves: Picasso summed up in a page by Muller.
Her story is a battle between life and art – Kiki forever entangling the two, much to the chagrin of Man Ray – and jealousy. In a furious rage Kiki throws a bottle of black ink at Ray’s head. It misses, smashes against the wall and leaves a splatter up the hotel wallpaper. The fight is forgotten instantly and the stain is lauded. “You see,” he says, “Even the least of your movements can mark a moment in the history of art.”
Sometimes it’s near impossible to see what an artist sees in his muse. I’ll never understand why Lennon was so taken with Yoko, and I wish Woody Allen would just shut up about Scarlett Johansson. In making this book so honest about its subject it might have been hard to like her. My only complaint is that the translation at times seems a bit wobbly, though so does her lovely bottom and no one’s complaining about that. Kiki may appear to be a brash, coarse, mouthy self-absorbed manifestation of her own idea of herself, but she was an icon and more adored than we could hope to be. She died fifty years ago but even if you never knew her name you will have seen her face on posters at bus stops and wondered: Who’s that girl?