Ré Soupault was born Meta Erna Niemeyer on 29 October 1901 in Bublitz, Pomerania (now Bobolice, Poland). After the First World War, the young woman seeks intellectual freedom and escapes from family ties in chess, playing the piano and joining the ‘Wandervogel’ youth movement. Her only glimmer of hope is her drawing teacher, ‘the sole sensible person’. The latter shows Niemeyer the Bauhaus Manifesto, drafted by Walter Gropius. Its promotion of solidarity among artists and artisans in an equal rights community, building a future together, reflects her own desire for a new worldview. She quickly decides that, ‘I wanted to be part of it’. She eventually has her chance in 1921: Meta Erna Niemeyer applies with her work to the Bauhaus in Weimar and is accepted. Here, she becomes acquainted with Otto Umbehr, who later goes on to become an established avant-garde photographer under the name ‘Umbo’. Niemeyer and he remain lifelong friends.
Deeply impressed by Johannes Itten’s colour and form theory, Niemeyer attends his preliminary course twice. The Persian Mazdaznan doctrine pursued by Itten and other Bauhauslers interests the young woman so much that she also studies Sanskrit in Jena for two terms. Each week, she cycles from Weimar to Jena and back. From this study, she derives her life motto: ‘Greed is the root of all evil (lobhah papasya karanam)’. On a carpet loom at the Bauhaus, she weaves the Sanskrit words of wisdom into abstract colour compositions.
During a visit to Berlin she again meets the former Bauhausler Werner Graeff, who introduces her to the Swedish experimental filmmaker Viking Eggeling. After participating in the first major Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar in 1923, – taking part is a ‘matter of honour’ for every Bauhausler and she paints some pictures ‘very quickly, just so that I don’t arrive empty-handed’ – Niemeyer becomes Eggeling’s assistant. Fascinated by Eggeling’s enthusiasm for his project, she works for the sick and penniless filmmaker for a year to complete the film ‘Symphonie Diagonale’.
Ré eventually moves to Hanover with Kurt Schwitters, who gave her the nickname ‘Ré’. When the Bauhaus relocates to Dessau in 1925 and moves towards functionalism, Ré decides not to return to the Bauhaus, but to remain in Berlin. Here, she again comes into contact with the Dadaist Hans Richter, whom she had already met in Weimar in 1922. They marry in 1926; their home becomes a meeting place for the avant-garde, among them Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Werner Graeff, Paul Hindemith and Mies van der Rohe. Under the pseudonym Renate Green, Ré Richter becomes a writer and illustrator for the magazine ‘Sport im Bild’, published by Scherl-Verlag. The marriage breaks down in 1927 and they divorce in 1931.
In 1929, Ré Richter moves to Paris to work as a correspondent for Scherl-Verlag. At the Café Dôme on Montparnasse, she meets up every day with the bohemians of Paris and Berlin: ‘Everybody called by at least once a day. I was there every day with Man Ray, Kiki [de Montparnasse], [Tsuguharu] Foujita, [Alberto] Giacometti, Léger and [André] Kertész.’ At a birthday party for Kiki, Ré Richter meets the American millionaire Arthur Wheeler, with whom she establishes the fashion company ‘Ré Sport’ in 1931. Before her marriage to Hans Richter, she had already designed the very first culottes for the fashion designer Paul Poiret. Her subsequent designs for sporty everyday wear were designed to appeal to the contemporary young woman, who wished to be fashionably dressed, but in a practical and comfortable way. Man Ray photographed the first collection of twenty designs. With her design for a dress that could be transformed from office wear into an evening gown with a few adjustments, brightened by some accessories, Ré Richter revolutionises the fashion world. Following Wheeler’s sudden death and the subsequent withdrawal of financial backing, Ré Richter closes down her business in 1934.
In 1933 at a reception at the Russian Embassy in Paris, she meets the surrealist Philippe Soupault. He had just divorced his second wife and Ré Richter had just given up her business; they were both therefore at a loose end and decided to do some travel reportage together. Ré Richter’s photographs, taken with her 6x6 Rolleiflex, were to be published alongside Philippe Souault’s literary texts. In the years thereafter, the two of them continue in the same vein, travelling to Germany, Switzerland, England, Scandinavia and Tunisia. They marry in 1937. In 1934, Ré and Philippe Soupault relocate to New York. Here, they meet up again with many of their European friends, including Kurt Weill, Fernand Léger, André Masson, Herbert Bayer, Hans Richter and Marcel Breuer. The couple separate after the end of the war; he moves back to Europe and she remains in New York and earns a living writing travel reports for ‘International Digest’ and ‘Travel Magazine’.
In 1946 Ré returns to Paris, where she sets out on a career as a translator. Two years later, she moves to Basel. In 1950 Ré Soupault acquires a Rolleiflex on the black market, with which she produces her final photo reportages in displacement camps. In 1954, her most significant achievement in translation is published: ‘Das Gesamtwerk’ by Comte de Lautréamont, which was considered untranslatable before then. In 1955, Ré Soupault returns to Paris for good. Until the late 1980s, she writes essays for radio broadcast. She keeps in touch with Philippe Soupault over the years and, in collaboration with him, publishes ‘Märchen aus fünf Kontinenten’ (1968) in Paris, which is still available today in a number of languages. In 1967, they make a film together about Wassily Kandinsky. In the early 1970s, Ré and Philippe Soupault move into one house together, in which they maintain separate flats.
From the late-1980s, old negatives dating from the 1930s and 1940s are rediscovered and published successively in illustrated books. These are followed by exhibitions of photographs from Ré Soupault’s travels and numerous photographic self-portraits. Ré Soupault passes away on 12 March 1996 in Versailles. [AG 2015]
· Manfred Metzner (2011): Ré Soupault. Vom Bauhaus in die Welt, S. 9–23, in: Inge Herold, Ulrike Lorenz, Manfred Metzner (Hg.): Ré Soupault. Künstlerin im Zentrum der Avantgarde, Heidelberg.
· Manfred Metzner (2009): Ré Soupault. Bauhaus – die heroischen Jahre von Weimar, Heidelberg.
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