The World's Most Valuable Photograph: Marc Braude on Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres and Kiki de Montparnasse
"To me, when I look at it there is this aura that is totally tied to their personal relationship. Is this a dance? Is this a dual? Is this a rivalry?"
Perhaps the most famous surrealist image in the world is Le Violon d’Ingres by Man Ray, a print of which was recently purchased at Christie’s for $12.4 million, making it by far the most expensive photograph ever sold. The story of this masterpiece is, in many ways, as fascinating as the mysterious image itself. At once an icon of the cultural fervor of 1920s Montparnasse, it is also the collaboration between two brilliant outsiders: Man Ray — born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia — and his muse and model Kiki de Montparnasse, originally Alice Prin from a small town in France. In his new book Kiki Man Ray: Art Love and Rivalry in 1920s Paris, the cultural historian Marc Braude tells the fascinating stories of these two polymathic artists, their tempestuous relationship, the epic artistic world they inhabited and helped create, and how they came to create one of the world’s great images. I caught up with Braude to talk about what drew him to the story, the origin of the photograph, what made Montparnasse special, and why Kiki — the inspiration for so many artists and a star in her own right— has not gotten her due from history.
Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924
Octavian Report: Why write a book about Kiki de Montparnasse – and to some extent a dual biography of Man Ray – now?
Mark Braude: Well Le Violon d’Ingres really was the genesis of the whole project. That image is one that I've had in my mind for as long as I can remember. It's like the Mona Lisa or Botticelli's Birth of Venus. It's just one of those ones I've known, the nude back with the F-holes, like the cello.
And when I got to teaching art history, I would use it in a lecture on Surrealism: here's Man Ray and this is what they were doing. And they were into dreams and they were into eroticism and all the things that they were doing. And I knew a bit about Kiki because I learned about Paris and that was my specialty. And what I understood was she was the biggest model in 1920s Paris and she was Man Ray's muse, and that was about it. And I would pass that along to my students.
And then I got to thinking, it's interesting that that's all I know about her. There are a lot of models in history where we don't know that much about them and that's not in and itself that fascinating. But with her, there did seem to be some sort of energy or mystery or connection in that image, even though we see so little of her, that seemed really vital to it.
So I dug around just for the sake of a lecture, just to make the lecture a better one. And I found out that she had written this memoir in 1929 called Kiki's Souvenirs. And that a year later it came out in English and Ernest Hemingway wrote the preface. So I had to get my hands on that.
So, I spent quite a bit of money compared to what I was being paid to lecture -- not a smart use of funds you would say -- but I just really, really wanted to see this. I tracked it down from this rare book seller in France and then five pages in, I was hooked. This became my next book for sure, because I'd always wanted to do something on 1920s France. And this was really the way in because she's so much more than a model and a muse. And it really complicates how we think about Man Ray. And so, he was sort of along for the ride too.
And through the two of them, I thought, well, this is a different way to look at 1920s Paris because they're sort of like in that crowd that we know so much about and yet they have their own special roles, especially the fact that Kiki is a French woman and not Paris-born and yet is such a vital mover in the scene.
OR: Who was Kiki?
Braude: So Kiki was born in 1901 in Chatillon-sur-Seine, this little village. It's about today a three-hour drive southeast of Paris, a small village. Her father didn't recognize her. She was born out of wedlock. Her mother moved to Paris to work. She was brought up by her grandmother, poor.
She was called to Paris by her mother when she was about 12 and worked a series of menial jobs and bounced around and really was a lover of the arts and of artists, and had aspirations to do something in that world. And she found her entry into that world through a cafe called the Rotonde in Montparnasse, which was really the center of Bohemian artistic life in Paris.
And in the back room of that cafe, there was a sort of informal market of models meeting artists and artists meeting models. You had to sort of earn your way back there through charm, through charisma. And she sort of paid her dues, cracking jokes at the bar, trying to get her way back in there. She was about 18 or 19 at this point.
And eventually she makes her way into the back room of the Rotonde, where she meets people like Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine, Moise Kisling, modern artists who are in Paris for various reasons. A lot of them came from elsewhere, a lot of them were Jewish. She starts posing for them in the early '20s and becomes quite sought after for her style. She had the short bobbed hair and unconventional look and really an energy, I think that people just really competed to capture.
That's the general knowledge of Kiki we have. But what I learned through reading about her was she was really a lot of other things. She was a big cabaret performer. She was quite a draw in Paris, kind of a realist singer. She was a fairly good painter, an illustrator. She sold out the debut works of her paintings. And she was an actress. She was in various films, including Man Ray's experimental films. But above all, I think she was a writer. She was a really good writer. And her memoir, when it came out, made front page news in France because she was a personality that people knew and it was a good book and really did give a good gritty insider's view of Paris.
OR: And can you talk for a second just about Montparnasse and its rise as the center of artistic Paris?
Braude: Montparnasse is one of these great places in cultural history. Certain places just bubble up at certain times. You'll know for instance, New York in the late '70s, early '80s, there's that great mythology there, a confluence of events.
There's a lot of push-pull factors of people coming from elsewhere. For the Jewish artists, especially pogroms or fear of being drafted into the czar's army. From America, African Americans who were feeling that they could live more freely in France. All sorts of people who had outsider status in some other place were going to Paris after the war because it was sort of cheap. And there was a history of culture there. But there was no real reason why it had to all happen in Montparnasse.
There were these bars and there were some art schools nearby and kind of a vibe just sort of evolved. But I think the thing that gets lost nowadays when all of these people are name brands is how small and sort of unlikely it was.
At the time, it was just a few misfits hanging out inspiring each other. “Oh, I'll pose for you and you'll help me, teach me.” Brancusi goes and shows Man Ray his sculptures and Man Ray teaches them how to take photographs, very informal. No one's thinking that this is going to be the major shift of the next a hundred years. So, it was all just sort of a fluke in a sense.
OR: Man Ray doesn't really have the background you would expect. He was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn. How did he end up in Paris and how did he end up meeting Kiki?
Braude: His parents were garment workers from Russia, who came early or late in the 19th century and settle in Philadelphia. And then they moved to Brooklyn and they're working in the rag trade. And he's the first born son and he gets a scholarship to NYU and he's supposed to go into the professions and disappoints them in a sense by saying, "I want to be an artist." And in his early 20s, when he was still unknown, but really moving with some people who are going to be important, Marcel Duchamp being the main one, he is looking to Paris as a place he just needed to go to see things.
So, he goes for three months on the dime of this American patron who wants to buy his paintings, because Man Ray at this point is a painter. He's going to go meet some of the artists there and go see the museums and come back in three months. And this is in summer of '21. He ends up staying for basically 50 years, with the exception of World War II when he returns.
And I think a lot of that actually has to do with meeting Kiki right off the bat. He sees this is the place where I'm going to learn how to see the world in a new way and make these connections with people that will also help my career.
He had an unlikely kind of background and what I really liked about Man Ray is how much of a job it was for him. He had this very working class, “this is a profession” attitude and I'm going to do what I can to earn as well as I can in this profession. And yes, he had a lot of high-minded and abstract and philosophical reasons to be pursuing an artist's life. But it was also very much like I'm going to earn my keep and was very workmanlike. I think that gets lost sometimes in art history, especially academic art history.
OR: How did he get into photography and was there a moment when that became more of his artistic focus?
Braude: It was a very vexed question for him throughout his life. He, until the day he died, would've said he was a painter first and foremost. And that that was his real work. The art world had a very different opinion. The photography started out as a job.
He was experimenting with cameras and you could see that he could do some interesting things that maybe he couldn't do with paint, especially this thing that he called Rayography, which was really like writing directly onto film in the dark room, putting objects on film and playing around with lights, all sorts of experimental things he could do with cameras. But he wasn't thinking this was the great vocation.
But what happened is he had a secondhand camera in Paris. He had a lot of friends who were selling art and needed prints of their art to send to dealers far away or prospective clients. And so Man Ray would take a shot almost as a service. He started charging, but mostly for friends, Picasso being one of them. "I'll document your art and you can send it to your dealer."
And then if he had film left over, he would take a portrait. And through that, he got a steady portraiture business and he got high society clients. People would come to him. For Americans, especially expats in Paris or people passing through, to sit for Man Ray was a big deal by the mid '20s. That was a way of showing one’s status.
And some of those things which started out as prosaic kind of ways to earn money, – like a shot of Gertrude Stein, for instance, to send to Vanity Fair to support an article that was going to be written about her and he got a few hundred bucks out of that—ended up being considered high art and things that have lasted. And so it was this interesting interplay with him between what was a job and what was fine art when he came to photography.
OR: He was also one of the first fashion photographers, right?
Braude: Richard Avedon said it all begins with Man Ray in terms of fashion photography. Somebody whose style is as important or even more important than the house that he's shooting for. He poses people in weird ways. He's the first person to pose a model next to a great work of modern art. He poses one model next to Brancusi's polished bird, kind of preceding those famous pictures of the models in Vogue in front of Jackson Pollocks. So, he's thinking in these interesting ways. And his fashion photography is a perfect example of where he's pushing the medium forward via a paying gig.
OR: How did he get the very experimental surrealist photography?
Braude: I think that was a product of him being in Paris at the right place at the right time. I don't want to say exclusively because of Kiki, but I think that Kiki being in the early 1920s the more known figure in the community could through things as informal as house parties make connections with people who would go on to really be influential on his vision. People like Jean Cocteau. He also definitely knew a lot of these Dadaists and people who became surrealists through Marcel Duchamp.
But there is a lot of this back-and-forth influence. The Parisians weren't threatened by Man Ray. It was a lot of infighting among these artists, but Man Ray, because he was doing photography and not painting or writing, and because he was an American, was sort of granted neutral status as this outsider. So, people are really welcoming to him. And I think that he is influenced by surrealism and what's happening in the writing with people like Andre Breton, what's happening with Marcel Duchamp's whole idea of conceptual art. And he has this way of putting his own spin on it through photography.
That's what's really cool about these little communities. We get hung up on this idea of the lone genius working in their dark room or in their studio. It's really about house parties, cafes, bars, walks down the street, you know what I mean? That's where a lot of this is happening. And it's so informal and it's so sort of innocent in a way when it happens.
OR: So how did his masterpiece Le Violon d’Ingres happen and why?
Braude: We don't know that much about how it came to be. That's what's really kind of cool and intriguing about the picture, that there's no real record as to who did what on that day in the studio.
I know that it happened in 1924. It's in Paris. Kiki is wearing this head scarf or the scarf she liked to wear a lot and she wrapped it up in the turban. And then Man Ray did the F-holes in the dark room after the fact.
Now she's definitely posing like she knows she's supposed to look like a violin. One of the things I get into in the book is how much of it is his vision? And how much of it is her performance and he's kind of documenting it.
And I come to the conclusion that they couldn't really have made this image without the two of them and their particular relationship, because it's really a performance. It's very theatrical. It's about her presence. The lighting and all that stuff is pretty neutral. It's the concept of this woman as instrument. But Kiki is a musician. And she's a singer and she's an actress at this time. She's drawing crowds. She is known as a performer far more so than Man Ray is known as a photographer at this point.
The image shows up in this small surrealist magazine in 1924 and immediately kind of gets forgotten about. It's not an earth-shattering moment when it gets published. And the people who saw it would likely have associated it as “here's Kiki, the icon Kiki, here's the performer Kiki, here's the personality Kiki shot by Man Ray.” Today Kiki is sort of lost from that narrative, which is part of the reason why I was so excited to write the book. But that doesn't answer the question of what really happened and why. I think they were probably fooling around experimenting.
OR: And how did he put the F-holes in it? Is it on the print or is it in the negative?
Braude: He did both. Somewhere he actually sort of paints or puts ink on the physical print and then there's somewhere it's burning. You block out everything that isn't the F-hole and then you expose it to light and then it turns black. So, dark room magic. I can't remember which one he did with the print which just sold at Christie's. But there's a lot of retouching. That's what's kind of cool about what he's doing at that time is he's using the dark room like a paint brush, which no one was really doing. And that's part of the reason why he's so influential. He got things that are conceptual that are beyond just point and shoot.
OR: When did it become iconic?
Braude: That I can't say with authority. The Christie’s print passed through some hands. He gave that one I think to the collector Jacques Doucet [ed.—the fashion designer who also owned Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon] in the mid '20s. So, a guy with a good eye saw this could be something interesting. But it was a gift or it would've been a hundred dollars or something.
And I don't think the prints were collected very much. I would say by the '70s or maybe even the '60s, people especially in the States are starting to kind of think of the surrealists as starting to speak to the moment a little bit. And so there was a bit of a spike there and certainly for photography as a whole. It's pretty recent to see the giant prices.
OR: Why do you think the image has such resonance?
Braude: So, my pet theory is that it's just this unsolved mystery a hundred years later. To me, when I look at it there is this aura that is totally tied to their personal relationship. Is this a dance? Is this a dual? Is this a rivalry? Is this an invitation to something that's going to happen? Is this after something that has happened? There's a lot of mystery there that I think is just really captured in her look and in her pose.
And then I guess the actual concept is troubling, unsettling, but also alluring: this idea of is he objectifying her and she's become nameless and powerless? Or is she also part of this story and leading the way? And I think that's why it's very ambiguous to me at least. I think that's why it still resonates.
OR: They had a pretty combative, complicated relationship, right?
Braude: They brought the best and the worst out of each other. It was violent. Kiki at one point says that Man Ray chased her out into the street with a gun. They were very, very much at each other's throats, but also tender toward each other and encouraging of one another's art to different degrees. I think she more than him. But it was a romantic relationship.
And I think that was one of the great romantic relationships of both of their lives. And they were young, she was in her 20s, he was in his 30s. They're in Paris and it was definitely explosive. And I think that that's part of the magic of the images they've made.
OR: What do you think made Kiki so powerful as a muse, not only for Man Ray, but so many other great artists?
Braude: I think part of it is her look. She didn't look like a lot of the other models that were working at that time. She had just a sort of unconventional style. And her haircut. The bob and that whole fringe cut became ubiquitous by the end of the '20s. But when she started in 1921, 1922, that was actually a dangerous thing.
There were reports that as young women started to do that, fathers or husbands being violent towards the hairdressers or locking their daughters away, or in one case there were news reports of actual murders based on these haircuts because it was really, really outside of gender norms for the time and quite controversial. So, I think that was part of it. She was just very ahead of the curve there.
And then the second is I think this totally ineffable thing that she just seemed to have some kind of spark. I tell the story where she goes to post for Foujita, who was at the time a fairly well known, Tokyo-born painter who made his way to Paris just before the war and kind of got famous through a painting of Kiki in 1922.
But when she walks into the studio the first day, she just takes the pencil out of his hand because he was sketching her and she started sketching him. And that was the session. The first session. She did a portrait of Foujita, walked out the door, took her pay and said, "I'll see you next time." And she went and sold that portrait to a dealer. Just kind of a rebel, 50 or 60 years before punk rock.
OR: And then what happened to them after they split up?
Braude: It was in the 20s, when she was in her 20s, she was on fire. And then I think that by the time the moment seemed to pass in the 1930s, she struggled to find her footing and people moved on and people weren't as interested in what she had to say. It was very much of the moment.
And I think that she battled alcoholism and depression and addiction and she had a tough life. She really did. And we don't know much about her in World War II. She survived. But she really had a rough go until her death at 51 in 1952. And it was sort of the penniless, obscure, very classic trajectory of those sort of doomed figures who bloom very brightly early on.
And Man Ray had success after success really. And since her death and since his death, I think the divide has only become greater. She's really been marginalized. If she's mentioned at all, it's usually as a footnote or a sentence or two in art history books as the model or the muse. In her day, she was really the bigger star than Man Ray for a few years there in the '20s.
OR: Given her modest background, how did she manage to hold her own in Paris with all those geniuses?
Braude: She certainly was not well-educated and she had the upbringing where a lot of people from a similar background would have at that time gone into domestic service or prostitution, or be maybe being working in retail. That was about as good as you could get.
And she wanted more. And I think that was what it was, a hunger. I think she just wanted more out of life and she found ways to get that. I think she was, based on her writing, a very keen intellect. I'm not going to say her memoir is Shakespeare. It's short and simple in a way, but she has a way of sizing people up and understanding them in a few sentences and a way of connecting with people throughout her life that I think was quite unique and showed an intense intelligence.
I think that a lot of people did dismiss her, Man Ray especially felt she was not interested in these intellectual conversations that we have among us, we surrealists, and was not willing to engage with her on that level. But I think she was quite smart. Hemingway in the preface mentions e.e. cummings, Daniel Defoe, and Virginia Wolff all in the same paragraph where he is describing Kiki's writing. So, I think there was a sharp mind and a sharp eye there.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.