It’s 1929 and avant-garde magazine Varits has a cash crisis. To the rescue, Man Ray and his muse, Kiki de Montparnasse. John Baxter lifts the lid on one of bohemian Paris’s better-kept secrets

‘It is said,’ Jacqueline Goddard conceded to me circumspectly, ‘that Man Ray started with pornography. And I have seen recently a photograph of Kiki’s mouth on Man Ray’s private parts.’

Beyond this detail the last survivor of Man Ray’s models from the 1920s – and the one who perhaps knew him best – was not prepared to go. Sitting in a hotel room in the sixieme arrondissement of Paris, she and I were picking over the bones of Ray’s career, a carcass from which much meat remains to be scavenged. For successive waves of scholars, the methods by which Brooklyn-raised Emmanuel Radnitski hustled himself into a new existence as Man Ray, photographer by appointment to the Surrealists, have proved a little too close to the bone. Indeed, to pursue the metaphor to its conclusion, these methods are proving to be the skeleton in Man Ray’s closet.

If, as Christopher Isherwood confessed memorably in Christopher and His Kind, ‘Berlin meant boys’, it’s increasingly clear that, for Man Ray, Paris meant pussy – and, it follows inevitably, porn. His photographs of Meret Oppenheim entwined nude with Paul Eluard’s wife Nusch – far more graphic than the discreet double portrait featured in most Ray retrospectives – so impressed Henri-Pierre Roch, author of Jules et Jim, that he commissioned more of the same.

William Seabrook, diabolist, fetishist and recreational cannibal, invited Ray to a dinner which didn’t feature, as was sometimes the case, fricasse la Parisienne made with a real Parisienne, but a naked girl chained to the stairs. Unblinking, Man snapped her, as he did a succession of Seabrook’s other tableaux vivants.

Hardly had Man Ray arrived in Paris in 1921 than he took Alice Prin, aka ‘Kiki de Montparnasse’, as mistress and model, the latter for nearly 14 years. With her bottom-heavy body and small breasts, Kiki – a slang term for vagina – was far from classically beautiful, but she radiated, and practised, a simple sexuality that, long before she met Ray, had already recommended her to Tsuguharu Foujita, Mose Kisling and numerous other Montparnassos.

Ray snapped hundreds of portraits of Kiki. Indeed, many of the first ‘rayograph’ images were of his muse, taken as early as 1922, only months after his first experiments with putting an item – or in Kiki’s case a body part – on film and exposing it to light.

But the pornographic images of the pair together remained one of the better-kept Surrealist secrets for more than 60 years. Ray doesn’t speak of it in his cranky memoir, Self Portrait, nor does it rate a mention in Neil Baldwin’s standard biography.

So what is the history of the image of Kiki’s mouth and Man’s manhood? The answers to that lie in a meeting of Surrealists in Paris in 1929, a meeting well-documented in the diaries of Louis Aragon, André Breton’s tall, soft-spoken lieutenant.

When the Surrealists gathered for their daily séance at the Café Radio on Place Blanche, one of Montmartre’s seedier squares, they were hardly surprised to learn that the Brussels-based magazine Varits was unable to pay a printers’ bill. Its editor, Edouard Mesens, later the doyen of London’s Surrealists, was, and remained, as hopeless in business as he was charming in person.

‘They could publish another special issue,’ suggested Aragon. Although the Belgians were technically Dadaists, the Surrealist edition of Varits published the previous year had been a huge success.

‘Maybe a special special issue.’ mused Benjamin Pret. The most outrageous of the group, Pret had arrived dressed as a German soldier at the first Surrealist show in 1918, with Paris still traumatised by the war. He also took the movement’s anti-clericalism sufficiently seriously to attack nuns and priests in the street.

That afternoon, Aragon headed across the Seine, to Montparnasse and the studio of Man Ray. He knew he’d find the hard-working photographer either at his home, on rue Campagne Première, or in his studio on the other side of the Luxembourg, at 8 rue Val-de-Grace, with its distant view of the domed observatory that would figure in Ray’s most famous painting, l’heure de l’observatoire Les Amants (Observatory Time The Lovers) 1936, with the languid lips of Lee Miller floating above it like an erotic dirigible.

Aragon explained the idea for a Varits erotic issue, with images illustrating the risqué poetry of Pret and Aragon. He showed Ray a sample:

Ah, the little girls who lift their skirts
and diddle themselves in the bushes
or in museums
behind the plaster Apollos
while their mother compares the
statue’s rod
to her husband’s
and sighs…

Ray slid open the drawer under his work table and took out a sheaf of photographs. Even with the faces cropped, Aragon knew who’d posed for them. The male body, hairy and pale, was obviously Ray’s. And everyone in Montparnasse would recognise as Kiki’s the mouth, lipsticked in a Cupid’s bow, clamped around his penis, and the wide hips being penetrated so vigorously.

Breton edited the production, calling it arbitrarily 19291 as a gibe at the almanacs produced each December by the post office and fire brigade, which sold them door-to-door as a means of earning their annual bonus. Dividing the poetry into four sections, he named them for the seasons, with a Ray photograph prefacing each one. Mesens printed 500 copies of 1929 and shipped them to Paris, only to have the douane seize them.

Well, not the entire shipment, because copies were soon on sale clandestinely in Paris at inflated prices. Did someone report 1929, knowing it would drive up the price? The shock-haired Pret would not have hesitated to play such a trick.

Ironically, the only authority to have taken note of it officially is HM Customs and Excise in Britain, which declared it pornographic and prohibited importation when, in 1996, Paris-based Karl Orend published the first English edition.

The translations by Zoltan Lizot-Picon were, Orend revealed recently, actually a collaboration between scholar, critic and MIT professor Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno and André Breton’s biographer, Mark Polizotti. Though banned in Britain, it circulates freely in the United States, where a tribunal accepted the evidence of two acknowledged experts that 1929 was indeed a work of art. The experts? Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno and Mark Polizotti, of course.

Jacqueline Goddard had much more to say about Ray. She walked with him around Montparnasse cemetery on a rainy night not long after Lee Miller left him, listening to his threats of murder and suicide as a pistol clinked in his raincoat pocket; she saw Kiki begging in the Montparnasse cafés where she once reigned as queen, supposedly to pay the gas and light bills but actually to buy cocaine; she visited him in his last home, on rue Ferou, and watched as, unnoticed by the invalid Ray or his near-blind wife Juliet, the dealers and admirers slipped his more portable prints and objets under their fashionably flowing overcoats.

Had Ray seen, would he have cared? Probably not. What makes him stand truly apart from the Surrealists is the sense, unique in that po-faced group, that the movement, and he himself, signified nothing. An autobiographical poem says it all:

I’m ugly.
I have an inexpressive face.
I am small. I’m like all of you!
I wanted to give myself
a little publicity.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 3.

  • 1. 1929, by Benjamin Pret, Aragon and Man Ray, is published by Alyscamps Press, Paris & London, ISBN 1897722 885.