The woman behind the world’s most expensive photo

It’s another nail in the coffin of the concept of the artist’s muse – traditionally a young woman whose supreme achievement is populating the imagination of a male genius while uncomplainingly providing his support system. Kiki did help Man Ray with his French, cooked for him and allowed him to photograph her having sex. But it was also her presence and skill as a model — and possibly her encouragement and ideas — that made his most famous photograph what it is.

man ray’s title, Le Violon d’Ingres (“Ingres’ violin”), like the word Dada, is French slang for a hobby. Kiki’s pose is reminiscent of that of The Bather of Valpinçon, by the great 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Her hourglass-shaped back, branded with “f” holes, has become a surrealist icon. Essentially, it’s Freud for Dummies, in which a dream about a violin or any smooth, curvy object with holes in it can be interpreted as a symbolic erotic fantasy about the female body. Apart from the fact that there is nothing unconscious about Man Ray’s fusion of dream symbol and real body.

Man Ray later developed a profitable sideline as a society photographer, lending an atmospheric, fashionable drama to his shoots Harper’s Bazaar and Fashion. Where Alice Prin used her wits and talent to reinvent herself — alongside modelling, Kiki sang in nightclubs and exhibited watercolors — Man Ray used his to tweak the surrealism and make his spoiled models look more interesting than them really were.

In 1952, years after they broke up and Man Ray returned to America as Kiki was battling her drug and alcohol addictions, he met her in Paris. She was overweight and unemployed and carried a bag of old clothes. It was her laugh that made him look up and see “the clean oval of her face” again. Of course, Kiki’s laugh didn’t last much longer than Man Ray’s photos. But her smile can be seen on YouTube in artist Fernand Léger’s 1924 experimental film Ballet mecanique.

Between montages of spinning, pumping machine parts, repeated glimpses of Kiki’s face are seen – her cupid’s arched lips, her large mascara-lined eyes, and her profile with the distinctive pointed nose. Indeed, the most memorable and certainly the most humane in all of Léger’s fast-firing machine-age razzmatazz, the how Le Violon d’IngresKiki de Montparnasse’s irrepressible, timeless smile has become a classic of the avant-garde of the early 20th century. The woman behind the world’s most expensive photo

Jaclyn Diaz

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