"A Nuanced View of a Life of Excess"
Max Bledstein (Research Fellow) reviews Kiki de Montparnasse by Muller & Bocquet
The life of model, artist, singer, and general bon vivant Kiki de Montparnasse (born Alice Prin), cannot be easily summed up in a few sentences, and Catel Muller and José-Louis Bocquet attempt to do nothing of the sort in their eponymous graphic biography of her (Trans. Nora Mahony. London: SelfMadeHero, 2011). Instead, the sprawling, dense yet highly readable, nearly 400 page comic attempts to capture Kiki’s many complexities in an attempt that would be laudable for its ambition alone. But Catel and Bocquet’s graphic biography succeeds at an astonishing rate, creating a funny, melancholy, and moving portrait of a woman instrumental to the history of 20th century art.
In its basic structure, the comic book appears to fall victim to the trappings of many maligned Hollywood biopics: Kiki is born in 1901 at the beginning, and she dies in 1953 at the end. Yet unlike perfunctory and oft-critiqued biopic narratives, Catel and Bocquet’s work weaves strong themes, motifs, and character development within a comprehensive and chronological arc.
Bocquet also imbues the arc with an impressive attention to historical detail, both within the comic itself and in its useful appendices. The appendices offer a yearly, prose-based timeline of Kiki’s history and brief prose biographies of some of the many famous figures featured in Kiki De Montparnasse, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau (among others). The timeline and biographies provide useful elaboration on and illumination of events depicted in the comic, corresponding with Catel’s drawings while also giving greater detail for readers interested in learning more about a particular occurrence.
Occasionally, such as in the depiction of Kiki and Henri-Pierre Roché’s first meeting, there’s a discrepancy between the comic and the appendices (the comic shows it happening in 1921, whereas Roché’s biography lists 1922), and moments such as these highlight the adjustments often made when narrativizing history. As Andrew Lesk writes of the differences between the comic and the footnotes in Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, such instances “suggest that it is up to the reader to examine afresh not only the distortions caused by his apparently innocent compressions, but, more significantly, the inferences such distortions provoke as they resonate and rumble throughout the history” (71).
But Catel and Bocquet still attend to a remarkable degree of historical fidelity throughout Kiki De Montparnasse. Following a brief prologue depicting Kiki’s birth in Châtillon-sur-Seine, the comic’s main narrative begins with Kiki’s childhood, during which her grandmother raises her with her cousins. The close affinity between Kiki and her grandmother is just one of many female relationships the comic memorably depicts, positioning them against the ugly misogyny which also recurs throughout Kiki De Montparnasse. “Prince Charming only exists in fairytales. In real life, there are only frogs,” Kiki’s grandmother tells her just before she leaves the countryside to live with her mother in Paris, conveying a mantra which reverberates throughout the rest of the comic.
If only the men in Kiki’s life actually were frogs. Kiki’s relationship with her mother is not one of the strong female alliances in Kiki De Montparnasse, as she soon kicks her daughter out of their shared apartment. Alone, vulnerable, and strapped for cash, a 15-year-old Kiki begins accepting cash to get naked for Parisian men, both self-proclaimed “artists” and those without even the pretension of loftier ambitions, in the interest of pulling together money however she can.
As exploited as she may be, Kiki’s modeling career has its fair share of upsides, particularly as she becomes older and more acquainted with the Paris art scene. Her first encounter with a major artist comes with Amadeo Modigliani, whose painting of Kiki helps her to overcome youthful insecurities and recognize her own beauty. She finds one of her most important artistic partners several years later in Foujita Tsuguharu, who both has a major success with a portrait of her (entitled “Reclining Nude with Toile de Jouy”) and inspires her to begin her own art career by drawing him. Shortly after meeting Foujita, Kiki meets a man who goes onto become perhaps her most significant collaborator and romantic partner: Man Ray. Their tumultuous relationship includes domestic violence, infidelity, and substance abuse, but the two also have indelible influences on one another which shape their artistic and personal lives.
At the same time, Catel and Bouquet don’t shy away from the relationship’s darker elements, and much to their credit. Catel draws Kiki and Man Ray’s fights with the motion lines and onomatopoeia of comics covering lighter subject matter, but the juxtaposition doesn’t dampen the impact of the brutal reality being depicted. Man Ray’s violence functions in tandem with the sexism Kiki and other women experience throughout the comic to create an ugly portrait of the misogyny amongst the supposedly freewheeling and progressive artists of Paris in the early 20th century.
But Kiki and her female associates hardly take the discrimination lying down, and some of the comic’s most compelling moments come in the interactions between various women as they discuss their tribulations at the hands of the many abusive men in their lives. Catel’s depiction of facial expressions shines in these scenes, as the women’s reactions to each other’s stories of violence capture the pain of trauma survivors while also showing their ability to revel in jouissance.
Catel and Bouqet’s celebration of feminine strength ultimately reveals itself most in Kiki herself, though the comic wisely avoids hagiography. She resists the lechery of unwelcome gazes from men, but she doesn’t let her resistance ignore the pleasure she takes in the flattery of Man Ray and Foujita. Likewise, Catel’s detailed countenances and gestures highlight her enjoyment as she sings, dances, and reveals herself for men, yet the comic doesn’t shy away from the rampant alcohol and drug use that accompany her exploration of Parisian nightlife. Thus, Kiki De Montparnasse is a rollicking and entertaining look at a larger than life figure, but one with enough nuance and subtlety to never let her human flaws stray too far from the reader’s mind.
Brown, Chester. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. Montreal, Drawn and Quarterly, 2006.
Lesk, Andrew. “Redrawing Nationalism: Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography.” Journal of Graphic Novels &Amp; Comics, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 63–81. Taylor and Francis Journals, doi:10.1080/21504851003798595.
Muller, Catel, and José-Louis Bocquet. Kiki De Montparnasse. London, SelfMadeHero, 2011.