John Heartfield’s career in the German theater (stage designs, costumes, playbills, promotions) spans a period of nearly half a century. As a young stage designer, an incident with Heartfield’s sets inspired Bertolt Brecht, his collaborator and lifelong friend, to explore exciting new theater techniques.
After Heartfield’s forced return to the police state of East Germany (1950s and 1960s), he lacked an outlet for his political montages, as well as a target as clear as the Nazi Party. His work with montage was, in effect, brought to a close.
It was replaced with a renewed and reshaped passion for his work for the theater. He contributed to productions of the Deutsche Theater and the Kammerspiele. He also worked with the Berliner Ensemble.
Explore this section of the Exhibition and discover the Heartfield’s costume designs, stage backdrops, projections, scenery, machinery, and props.
“Heartfield’s sense and understanding of the theatre never let him forget that human beings are the focus of everything that happens on the state. That is why it is useless to look for the sensational, the forced original in his décor. To him, the message was always more important than the effect. Content and substance of the play always remained essential for him. To translate it into the idiom of stage design, to make it visible and perceptible, was his priority. To this end he employed all the possibilities and effects of the theatre and exploited stage technology to its full capacity. […]
Heartfield stage designs were austere where abundance was not missed, and lavish where austerity would have detracted. He stylized where realism gave priority to the character of the play over artistic invention. His décor always testified to both his acute power of observation and though the breadth of this imagination, which never induced him to become lost in the frivolous, the picturesque, the merely illustrative. The sense of the whole remained dominant, with neglecting the characteristic detail in the process. Irrespective of the extent to which he used backdrops, scenery, machinery, and props, in his stage settings Heartfield made the environment visible without distracting attention from the action on stage. In uniting space and actors, groups, and plane, he made the stage design a part of the action. As a stage designer, Heartfield was and remained a partner of the author, the director, and the actors.”
Hugo Getting, “Heartfield an den Reinhardt-Bühnen (1977), in Roland März, ed., John Heartfield Der Schnitt entlang der Zeit. Selbstzeugnisse-Erinnerungen-Interpretationen, pp. 208-20.