Thursday, June 17

Man Ray's Tragic Muse

Kiki de Montparnasse was Man Ray's model and lover. She was certaintly something. Take a look at this film, shot by Man Ray in the 1920's. You'll see what I mean. (Warning, there is are a few seconds of artistic nudity.)

She was a beautiful, talented mess. A woman not unlike other famous messes of the time. Like Zelda Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, she was on a collision course with life and naturally, she found herself an artist to document it all.

Photo by Man Ray
Circa 1920

While she is portrayed in art as a beautiful and carefree creature (thanks largely to shameless self-promotion), her life was in reality very different. Abandoned by her mother and raised by relatives, Kiki (born Alice Prin) made her own way in the world from a very young age. She worked odd jobs as a girl and became a nude model at age 14 in Paris. There she met the artist known as Man Ray.

Man Ray was born in Pennsylvania. The son of Russian-Jews, his name was changed from Emmanuel Radnitzky to Ray by his family when he was 22. He began his career in the US, married, divorced and moved to Paris after WWI.

When Kiki met Man Ray he had already made the transition towards a new form of expression, created by his friend Duchamp. As a champion of Da Da, Man Ray rejected traditional art. He turned his focus to found objects, photography and shock for shock's sake.

Kiki worked with and loved Man Ray for over half a decade, only to have her heart broken by the artist when he left her for another woman. She went on to become both a dancer and a painter but her career fizzled as war reignited in Europe. Her life turned dark and she died at age 52, broke and addicted.

Man Ray's most famous work, Le Violon d'Ingres features Kiki with her back towards the viewer. Man Ray (who really invented what we now call"photoshopping") superimposed two f-holes on her back, making her curves look like the body of a violin.

Le Violon d'Ingres by Man Ray
circa 1924
The Getty Center, Los Angeles

This work is very telling. It sums up her relationship with Man Ray and sadly, her life. Kiki literally becomes an instrument to be played by men.

There is now a very expensive chain of lingerie boutiques named after Kiki de Montparnasse. And while I'm sure the store's owners found it clever, I think their choice in name is rather sad. Sadder is that the store's website says nothing about where they got their name. The woman, who died young after a life of drugs, burlesque shows and exploitation by bohemian artists is used as an instument again, this time to sell underwear.

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