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Graphic Novel Round-up: Kiki de Montparnasse

KikiCatel and Bocquet's massive graphic novel biography Kiki de Montparnasse has a lot going for it. It's comprehensive, to begin with, covering the life of Alice Prin (the early 20th century model and artist better known as Kiki) from her first breath to her last. The art is lovely, stylish without being mannered or fussy. Kiki's main draw is its subject: Kiki herself was a fascinating woman, and Catel and Bocquet do well by her.

As well-executed as Kiki de Montparnasse is, however (and it is well executed, don't get me wrong), it's still a problematic work, and serves to illustrate the potential – and the peril – of biography.

You're probably familiar with Kiki herself, though you may not know it. The French model, artist and muse inserted herself directly into the center of Paris' extraordinary arts culture in the early decades of the twentieth century, most famously as Man Ray's on-again, off-again lover and inspiration while he was experimenting with photography. Kiki is an appealing subject; she was wild and uninhibited and aggressive in her interests and spun madly at the center of a maelstrom of sex and drugs and the avante garde. Her appetites caught up with her in the end, but she lived her life to the fullest at a time when women were beginning to chafe at the boundaries society imposed upon their gender.

Kiki de Montparnasse traces Alice's life from her birth through her unconventional childhood (raised alongside a host of orphaned cousins by her grandmother) to her move to Paris, where she lived hand-to-mouth after being thrown out of the house by her estranged mother. Alice's unconventional beauty attracts the eye of a Parisian sculptor, launching her career as a model. Despite new-found fame and a fair amount of money, however, Alice - now Kiki - remains as she always has been: happiest living in the moment, swirling around in pretty new frocks and a haze of men and drugs.

Man RayBut Kiki exhibits a great deal of agency, according to Kiki de Montparnasse, which presents her as a woman secure about her decisions and sexuality. The book's cover is a brilliant example of this, which represents Kiki's best-known work, as Man Ray's Le violon d'Ingres. In Man Ray's conception, the woman is an anonymous object, her gaze unfocused, her features vague and her individuality all but obliterated by the shock of seeing her shape so violently transposed. Unlike the famous photograph, however, Catel draws Kiki glancing over her shoulder at the reader, her hair unbound and bobbed. She's not the passive object of the gaze, but an active participant in the work's effect. This is the book's thesis in sum: Kiki was no mere object, but an enthusiastic creator in control of her image and work.

And yet, Kiki de Montparnasse is not an entirely successful biography. The creators chose to present Kiki's life in vignettes, hopping from event to event, work to work, and lover to lover in stolid chronological order. While this does, as I mentioned above, create a comprehensive account of the subject's life, it also serves to diffuse the work's effectiveness. The book's length and means that there is a lot of material to work through, and occasionally that material conflicts with the book's thesis. Rather than exploring those contradictions in any really interesting or meaningful way, however, Catel and Bocquet just sort of move on, celebrating them without providing any real insight into them, and rather lessening their subject in the process. A more focused approach - say, primarily depicting Kiki's assocation with Man Ray - might have helped smooth these wrinkles in the work as a whole. Instead the reader is left with the sense that the authors set up but never resolve the tensions between Alice and Kiki, to the book's detriment.

A good biography provides a point of view about its subject, and through that a thesis. It doesn't have to be "right" - indeed, humans being quite as complicated as they are, there is no real answer to the mysteries of any one person. But it does have to be comprehensive, to tie together what we do know and what we don't know, to create a compelling theory about the whole.

This is where Catel and Bocquet don't quite measure up. Despite the book's many strengths, their scattershot, vignette-driven approach is a fascile one, and their thesis - that Alice Prin, Kiki of Montparnasse, exerted a great deal of agency in her own life - simply doesn't get to the heart of the matter. It simply doesn't do justice to this immense, fascinating, and complicated woman.