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The ‘Big Bang’ of 1920s Photography

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The Sprengel Museum in Hanover currently presents an exhibition of works by avant-garde photography artist Otto Maximilian Umbehr, alias Umbo. The showcase continues until 12 May 2019.

Born in Dusseldorf as Otto Maximilian Umbehr, Umbo (1902–1980) studied at the State Bauhaus art school in Weimar from 1921 to 1923 – an experience that profoundly influenced his visual style. His black and white photographs are characterised by stark contrasts of light and shadow, along with unusual excerpts and perspectives. The expressive and poetic nature of his images set him apart from the New Objectivity movement that was so prevalent in 1920s Germany, pursued most prominently by August Sander, Albert Renger-Patzsch and Karl Blossfeldt. The museum’s curators have likened Umbo’s work to a “Big Bang in the evolution of modern photography”. Following the relatively recent rediscovery of his oeuvre, Umbo now counts as the most important Bauhaus artist besides László Moholy-Nagy.

The core centre of Umbo’s work was Berlin of the 1920s – a dynamic media metropolis with a rapidly evolving film, music, theatre and cabaret scene mostly fuelled by Eastern-European immigrants. His images offer glimpses into the city’s courtyards, family kitchens and overflowing tenements. At the same time, he also dedicated himself to creating photomontages and collages.

In 1943, Umbo’s studio and archive were destroyed in a bombing raid on Berlin. Despite his attempts to resume his life as an avant-garde photographer after the war, his work slipped into oblivion. It was not until 1979, shortly before his death, that the Spectrum photo gallery in Hanover presented Umbo’s first solo exhibition in a museum context. In 1995, German art historian Herbert Molderings organised a seminal retrospective of the artist’s oeuvre.

With the exhibition ‘Umbo. Photographer’, the Sprengel Museum now presents some 200 photographs and numerous documents from the artist’s estate. For several decades, the estate was preserved and maintained by Umbo’s daughter, Phyllis Umbehr, and Rudolf Kicken, owner of the Kicken Gallery. In 2016, the estate was purchased in a joint acquisition by the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, the Berlinische Galerie and the Sprengel Museum Hanover, supported by the tireless efforts of numerous partner organisations.

The showcase was compiled from a collection of more than 600 photographs and a vast selection of related archive material – allowing for an exhaustive appraisal of Umbo’s extraordinary oeuvre. The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue.


For further information visit Sprengel Museum

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