Delight in imagery
The stage and costume designer, graphic artist, poster designer, illustrator, and painter Volker Pfüller died on 23 October 2020. The list of his occupations, impressive though it is, does not even cover it all – he also produced sculptural works, unknown to most. The theatre-based occupations top the list here not only to reflect the interests of the present magazine. Pfüller himself admitted: “My successes in theatre were internationally acclaimed. But many people in the West didn’t even know I was a graphic artist.
” Yet all his life, Pfüller remained active as a visual, graphic, and commercial artist. That is what he studied, and that is what he did with great passion, knowledge, and expertise.
Pfüller’s presence during rehearsals is unforgettable: Sitting with his sketch book, he would be constantly drawing – heads, constellations, actors, the directorial team. It is thrilling to leaf through those sketch books now. They contain so much more than ‘just’ rehearsal scenes: He also wrote down texts, copied signs, sketched striking facial expressions, and here and there jotted down a phone number or other note-to-self. Some figures are instantly recognizable – the actor Christian Grashoff, the director Alexander Lang –, others compel the viewer to join in the search for the right line, the right form.
Having studied graphic art, in 1967 Volker Pfüller designed his first stage set – for Frederico García Lorca’s ‘Doña Rosita bleibt ledig’ at Potsdam’s Hans Otto Theater. The same year, the first book with his illustrations – an edition of Gustav Schwab’s ancient myths and legends (Antike Sagen) – was published by the East German children’s book publishers. Numerous of his illustrations had previously appeared in the East German women’s magazine Sybille and the weekly Wochenpost. Following a few stage-set projects at small theatres, in 1970 he embarked on his first cooperation with the Deutsche Theater in Berlin – Helmut Baierl’s ‘Der lange Weg zu Lenin’, directed by Adolf Dresen. Originally planned to be filmed, the material was adapted for the stage by Dresen and his dramaturges Maik Hamburger and Alexander Weigel. Pfüller later said he, too, had acted more as a dramaturge than as a set designer on the project.
It was not until Pfüller’s first cooperation with Alexander Lang in 1979 that all his various qualities came into play: as a visual artist, conceptualist, and as a careful reader and ‘translator’ of the literary source into the director’s concept for the stage. Conditions at the time were still basic: “We did Wotan at the same time as Wallenstein. And Wotan was a dinky little production, nobody took it seriously. Alex brought along a kind of shoebox and said: ‘It should all fit in here.’ That, of course, appealed to me because I’ve always loved small stages,” (Pfüller, 2019). This ‘dinky’ production gained international acclaim after a successful tour, backed by the crucial Soviet agencies: “And then Wotan was a big hit in Moscow, which was of course a major boost.”
But it was their second production together, Büchner’s ‘Danton’s Tod’, that marked a breakthrough for both Lang and Pfüller. The intense, expressive, and completely extraordinary style of the actors, who by now had become a close-knit team of initiates around their director, Lang, gained a perfect complement in the Punch-and-Judy-style stage and the costumes that hinted at, but did not copy, historical influences: “He took a lot of criticism for that, but I thought it was a super achievement, really, really great.”
Until 1989, Pfüller then worked exclusively for and with Lang – on a total of 14 productions, no few of which wrote theatre history. From 1985 on, they also survived the transfer from East to West Germany, proving their worth in performances adapted by actors of the Munich Kammerspiele and the Hamburg Thalia Theater, where Lang staged productions.
Temperamentally, they couldn’t have been more different – the high-energy director, bubbling over with ideas and suggestions, and the reserved stage designer, quietly watching and sketching. In their heyday it was wonderful to see them interact: Lang, skipping from the control desk to the (rehearsal) stage, would turn to the stage designer, head bowed over sketchpad, exchange a few words, walk to the front, re-arrange things, jump back again, lie down to look at the scene from a different angle, go back and forth again and again, catch the stage designer’s eye, who would then get up to have a head-to-head with him – there was artistic tension in the air, it was crackling with energy, everyone was involved in the creative process.
That is the way Brecht’s ‘Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe’ took shape at the Berlin Deutsche Theater. Staged at the time as an outspoken reckoning with the inner circles of East German government, today it can be read as a parable on the Trump era in the U.S. It is also the way ‘Herzog von Gothland’ was made, in a kind of double feature with Goethe’s ‘Iphigenie’, which marked the rediscovery of dramatist Christian Dietrich Grabbe, and the legendary Trilogy of Passion with ‘Medea’, ‘Stella’ and ‘Totentanz’ – each with Katja Paryla and Christian Grasshoff as the protagonists; and a similar double feature of ‘Phaedra’ and ‘Penthesilea’ at the Munich Kammerspiele that followed. These truly era-defining productions garnered much applause but were never uncontroversial. Nevertheless, they cemented Lang and Pfüller’s reputation as a dream team of the stage, even beyond the communist bloc.
Pfüller’s work for theatre did not, however, end with stage and costume design. He also worked closer to the genre in which he trained, designing theatre posters. They attracted a lot of attention even back in communist East Berlin. Regarding the communist era, it is interesting to note that many who grew up in East Germany remember above all those brash, brightly coloured posters. But when Pfüller worked with Lang in Munich for the first time in 1984 and subsequently designed one season’s posters for the Munich Kammerspiele, it was less the colours that caught people’s eyes than the graphic design – they were no longer used to hand-drawn posters in the West, where photographic posters were the norm. More so than his book illustrations, Pfüller’s posters brought his visual language and its aesthetic impact – rich with his stupendously broad knowledge of history,printmaking, and poster design – into the public sphere, free of charge and in the open air. He himself once remarked in typical self-deprecating manner: “I’ve made a few posters; they were nothing but figurines.”
For over 30 years, Pfüller also designed the posters for the theatre 89 in Berlin. They became the trademark of the small independent theatre: “Where a Pfüller poster appears or motif is displayed, you can, with a bit of luck, expect theatre 89,” it says with good reason on his website. Yet he always remained true to his core profession, illustrating. “My life seems to consist of episodes. Sometimes I devote myself entirely to drama, sometimes to books, sometimes I devote myself to painting, and each time it feels quite normal.”
Volker Pfüller and his art – magnifying, exposing, revealing the truth behind reality’s masks and mugs – will be missed. But he will live on in the memories of those who were lucky enough to see his design on stage and he will live on – as is the privilege of the graphic artist – in his countless works of art.
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