Kiki de Montparnasse (born Alice Prin, called Kiki)

Châtillon-sur-Seine, France, 1901–Paris, 1953

Kiki de Montparnasse was a pivotal member of the artistic avant-gardes in Montmartre and Montparnasse during the interwar period. An artist’s model, performer, and painter, she was an important interlocutor for two generations of artists.

Born in the Burgundy region of France and raised by her grandmother, Kiki moved to Paris at the age of twelve and later became a model for artists living in the bohemian neighborhood of Montparnasse. Artists such as Alexander Calder, André Kertész, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine, Foujita Tsuguharu, and Maurice Utrillo found inspiration in her striking features and vivacious—and, frequently, volatile—personality. From 1921 to 1929, she and Man Ray had a relationship, which resulted in several of the artist's most iconic artworks (in which Kiki also appears), including his photographs Violon d’Ingres (1924) and Noir et blanche (1926), and films Retour à la raison (1924), Emak Bakia (1926), and L’Étoile de mer (1928). In addition to these film roles, Kiki also acted in two later feature productions: La Capitaine jaune by Anders Wilhelm Sandberg (1931) and Cette vieille canaille by Anatole Litvak (1933).

During the interwar years, Kiki developed her own practice as a performer and artist. Beginning in 1923, she was a signature act at the Jockey Club, the premiere avant-garde cabaret in Montparnasse; she also was a regular performer at Jean Cocteau’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Louis Wilson’s Le Dingo, and other venues including La Jungle, Saint-Tropez, Océanic, Cabaret des Fleurs, and Gypsy’s. In 1937, Kiki briefly owned and operated her own cabaret, Babel.

Kiki was also an artist, and in 1927 the Galerie Sacre du Printemps held the first solo exhibition of her paintings. The catalogue for the show, which included an introduction by Surrealist poet Robert Desnos, sold out in just a few days. Her work also appeared in group exhibitions, including at the Trémois Gallery in 1929 along with Hermine David, Per Krohg, Jules Pascin, and Louis Touchagues, and a year later at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery. It was in 1929 that journalist Henri Broca crowned Kiki the “Queen of Montparnasse” for her central role as a member of the Parisian avant-garde community. Three years later, Kiki met André Laroque, an amateur accordionist who became her life partner and who accompanied her in live performances and on her three records produced in 1939–40 by the British label Polydor.

Kiki immortalized her role as the “it” girl of the Parisian avant-garde in her memoirs, Kiki: Souvenirs, first published in 1928. Consisting of twenty-eight chapters with a preface by Foujita, reproductions of her paintings, and portraits of her by other artists, the book remains a valuable record of the Montparnasse avant-garde and its creative activities. The book was published in English in 1930, but banned in the United States until the 1970s due to its explicit content.

Following the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Kiki remained in Paris for two more years, then relocated south to Chinon and finally to the French city of Burgundy. She returned to Paris in 1945 and resumed her work as a performer at Le Boeuf sur le Toit and, beginning in 1947, at Chez Adrien. Kiki died in Paris in March 1953 following complications from her nearly lifelong alcohol and cocaine abuse.

For more information, see:

De Montparnasse, Kiki. The Education of a French Model: The Loves, Cares, Cartoons and Caricatures of Alice Prin. Translated by Samuel Putnam. New York: Boar's Head Books, 1950.

———. Kiki: Souvenirs. Translated by Samuel Putnam. Paris: Henri Broca, 1928.

Girard, Xavier. Paris in the 1920s: With Kiki de Montparnasse. New York: Assouline, 2013.

How to cite this entry:
Whitham Sánchez, Hilary, "Kiki de Montparnasse (born Alice Prin, called Kiki)", The Modern Art Index Project (December 2019), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://doi.org/10.57011/FCQL2506