Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Little escap(ad)e: Ré Soupault

A few weeks ago my husband brought home a flyer with the year’s program for the „Ostdeutsche Galerie“ in Regensburg. As I had never been to that museum yet and was looking for another nice exhibition worthy of a “little escap(ad)e”, I decided to take the opportunity. Together with two friends we planned a day’s outing to Regensburg to see the retrospective for Ré Soupault. Admittedly, I had never heard of her before, but the text in the flyer sounded intriguing.

Ré was obviously a woman with her very own mind. Born in 1901 as Erna Niemeyer – same age as my grandmother! – she was a student at the Bauhaus, where she was very much influenced by Itten, whose ‘Vorkurs’ she took twice. However, she got sidetracked into being technical assistant to Viking Eggeling for his “Diagonal Symphony”, the first abstract film. She never graduated from Bauhaus officially because she disliked the change towards a more functionalized orientation after Bauhaus moved to Dessau. She then started working as a fashion journalist for a Berlin fashion magazine, went to Paris as their correspondent and reported on the latest French fashion trends for the modern German woman. Eventually she started her own fashion business as “Ré Sport”, developed what she called the “transformation dress” and wanted to make wearable fashion for the modern working woman.

"transformation dress" by Ré Soupault

When her financial partner died in a car accident, she had to close her shop, however. She met French surrealist Phillipe Soupault and started traveling with him on his reporter trips through Europe. She picked up photography along the way, taking the pictures for his stories in Spain, Norway, Paris and other places. After their marriage in 1938 they moved to Tunisia where he was building a radio station, she took photos, most famous among them her pictures from the ‘reserved quarters’, where women without any family connection (and often without any other income than prostitution) lived.

Catalogue page with pictures from "reserved quarter"

During the war her husband got arrested and was imprisoned for six months. After that they left Tunisia for Algiers on a bus and had to leave everything behind, including all her photographic equipment. Parts of her belongings were recovered by a friend who found them for sale at a bazar a few years later.
Eventually they went to the States, where she started working as a translator. They traveled to South America, too, and there she ‘shot’ her famous self-portrait at a Buenos Aires fair: shooting, and hitting dead center, she took a picture of herself .

shooting her own picture: Ré Soupault

After the war the couple separated, but she eventually went back to Europe, working as a translator (she translated Romain Rolland and Lautréamont, who had up to then be considered intranslatable) and for various radio stations, producing radio reports on a wide array of topics. She had kept contact with her husband and got back together with him, and with the help of his German publisher the photographs from her photographic period were published.
These are just the briefest outlines of her long and restless life, taken from the wonderful catalogue that accompanies the exhibiton – she died in 1996, aged 95, having experienced that her creative work was beginning to be recognized.

Catalogue to the exhibition

The exhibition in Regensburg is a well-documented introduction into her life, her various kinds of work, and her multiple connections with the crème de la crème of the avantgarde.
What strikes me about her, is that she did not let unfavourable circumstances bring her down. She left, closed that period of her life, started again, something new, and again she turned out to be very good at what she was doing. Filmmaker, fashion reporter, fashion designer, photographer, translator, radio reporter – what a list of occupations! And obviously she had a talent not to worry about the past – she simply closed that period of her life for herself and went on. Which is one reason why her photographs, after her friend had recovered them on the Tunisian bazar, remained unrecognized for forty years – she had not bothered to really open the box which held what was left of her negatives.

Another interesting photographer emerging from a box, although much more seems to be known about her than about Vivian Meier.
The exhibition is still on until the 4th of September. Well worth seeing!

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