Emil Orlik was born Prague on
21st July 1870 . At that time Prague was the capital of a province
of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus he was an Austrian citizen,
not Czechoslovakian as is frequently stated. His family, being
Jewish, lived near the Prague ghetto. His father was a master
tailor as was his brother Hugo. There was a large German speaking
community in Prague (called Bohemian Germans) including an artistic
circle which included friends of Orlik's such as Franz Kafka,
Franz Werfel, Max Brod and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Throughout his school years Orlik had been passionate about
drawing and on leaving school in 1889 he was allowed by his
father to go to Germany, hoping to be enrolled at the Academy
of Fine Art there. He was not accepted however, so he enrolled
at the private art school of Heinrich Knirr in Munich, where
a fellow pupil was Paul Klee. Orlik's target remained the Munich
Academy and he gained a place in 1891 under Professor von Lindenschmit
who soon recognised his talents and allocated him a small studio.
Orlik worked hard, copying old masters at the Munich Pinakothek,
constantly improving his techniques. In 1893 he won the silver
medal for two of his pastel drawings which were shown at the
academy's annual exhibition, with the honour of hanging near
works by Adolph von Menzel, one of the most prominent artists
in Germany. The Academy had a department led by Professor Raab
teaching copper engraving. Orlik enrolled for these classes
but was at loggerheads with the professor for branching away
from the curriculum, experimenting with all aspects of etching
and lithography. He was soon doing work beyond Raab's understanding.
In 1893 Orlik impetuously left the academy as he felt constrained
by conservative academic training. He wanted to start working
in more modern styles and was drawn to the Munich Naturalistic
movement and the circle around Wilhelm Leibl. After a year of
military training he returned to Prague in 1894 and painted
and made prints of his friends and surroundings there.
In 1896 Orlik returned to Munich to work with his fellow pupil
and life-long friend Bernhard Pankok on their first essays in
the making of colour woodcut prints. They had seen examples
of Japanese woodcut prints and were fascinated by them. He began
contributing illustrations to the journal Jugend. By 1897 Orlik
was such an accomplished print-maker that four of his small
etchings were chosen for publication in the prestigious art
magazine PAN. Also illustrated in PAN was a reproduction of
his first poster 'Die Weber', designed for the play of the same
name produced by Gerhart Hauptmann. Hauptmann was so impressed
by the poster that he invited Orlik to Berlin to visit his studio
and this was the first stepping stone to Orlik's involvement
in the theatre. He went on to become a leading set and costume
designer for many productions. Through his friend the writer
Maria Rainer Rilke came the opportunity to become a book illustrator.
By the end of 1897 Max Lehrs, assistant director of the Kupferstichkabinett
(Graphics Collection) in Dresden began to add prints by Orlik
to this important museum print collection. Lehrs can be considered
to be the 'discoverer' of Orlik and he bought may of Orlik's
prints for his own extensive collection. They were lifetime
friends and maintained a correspondence almost until the artist's
death. Much of the details of Orlik's travels and day-to-day
life is known from this correspondence, which has amazingly
been preserved. A book titled Malergrüsse (Artists Greetings)
was published by Prestel in 1981 illustrating and transcribing
the profusely illustrated letters and postcards.
In 1898 Orlik made his first journey abroad, visiting England,
Scotland, Belgium and Holland as well as making the first of
his many visits to Paris. There he came into contact with the
woodcut artist Felix Vallotton and in London with William Nicholson
who was making highly innovative woodcut posters and prints.
He recorded his travels in numerous etchings, lithographs and
woodcuts. On returning to Prague he established himself in an
atelier in an old tower with fine views over the picturesque
city. He retained this studio until 1904. But by 1899 he was
living in Vienna and showed works in the third exhibition of
the Vienna Secession, of which, as a member, he also contributed
to the group's publications on modern art trends, including
'Japonisme'. The Society was gaining in importance and visitors
came from abroad, including Käthe Kollwitz and Max Liebermann
from Germany, and Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
and Camille Pissarro from Paris. There was much interchanging
of ideas and discussion of Japonisme which was having such an
impact throughout Europe, particularly on Art Nouveau and Jugendstil
artists, and the Nabis school in Paris. At the same time artists
in America were also coming under this influence (notably Mary
Cassatt and Helen Hyde).
In February 1900 Orlik had great success with his first one-man
exhibition in Brünn in Austria, showing works in many media.
It was at this time that Max Lehr introduced Orlik to Marie
von Gomperz and her family. Her father, Max von Gomperz was
a wealthy industrialist and patron of the arts. He bought from
and commissioned many paintings and other works by Orlik. Marie
Gomperz and Orlik developed a life-long friendship documented
through their correspondence which continued until the time
of Orlik's death. The extensive Gomperz collection of his work
was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 1997. Orlik's
oeuvre reflects this patronage and friendship through many portraits
of members of the family and of their country estate of Oslawan
in Slovakia and its surroundings.
Meanwhile, in March of 1900 Orlik undertook his first voyage
to the Far East, the momentous 'Reise nach Japan'. He wanted
to learn at first hand and at its source how to master the techniques
which were of such fascination to him. He absorbed much knowledge
from the artists, woodblock-carvers and printers with whom he
worked. He wrote many letters with descriptions of his travels
in Japan to friends in Europe and Reiner Maria Rilke contributed
an article to the magazine 'Ver Sacrum' relating the descriptions
written to him by Orlik. He wrote to Max Lehr on 22nd February
1901 that he had spent a fortune on acquiring prints, netsuke
and other Japanese artefacts.
As soon as Orlik arrived home in November 1901 he had to prepare
for an important exhibition of his work to be held at the prestigious
Cassirer Gallery in Berlin in December. During the following
year Orlik had a series of one-man shows in many venues, including
one at the Rudolphinum in Prague at which the entire exhibition
was bought by the Prague Kupferstichabinett.. At the XIIIth
exhibition of the Vienna Secession he showed 16 works, all of
Japanese subjects, alongside works by Max Klinger. His name
now appeared in the index of the Berlin Secession, together
with those of Klimmt, Monet and Camille Pissarro. Many articles
appeared in various publications about his Japanese travels,
the artefacts he brought back and his work. He travelled again
to England and Paris, where the work of Cézanne made
a great impression on him.
At the end of 1904 Orlik was appointed head of the department
for graphic art and book illustration at the Academy of the
Museum of Applied Arts in Berlin, the teaching post he retained
until his retirement in 1930. Among his many pupils who gained
fame in their own right was George Grosz who wrote admiringly
of Orlik's teaching in his autobiography.
Orlik had met the author Lafcadio Hearn in Japan. Hearn had
assumed Japanese citizenship under a Japanese name and he lectured
at a number of universities writing many books on the country
and its culture which were widely read in England and America
and greatly furthered knowledge in Europe of Japanese life,
philosophy and art. Orlik both translated Hearn's books into
German and illustrated them.
Over the next few years Orlik was indefatigable in holding
exhibitions in many venues and in working in theatre design.
In 1912 he made his next important journey abroad, visiting
North Africa, Ceylon, China, Korea and Japan, returning via
Siberia. In Egypt he executed an outstanding series of etchings
later published in a portfolio Aus Aegypten.
Returning to Germany he continued to play a leading role in
the Berlin Secession until 1913 when he and Liebermann both
resigned. Book design became an important part of Orlik's oeuvre,
as well as ex libris labels for literally hundreds of friends
and book collectors. Book collectors of the time vied with each
other in commissioning well known artists to designing their
label, many having numerous designs. In all, Orlik designed
136 ex libris and although about a dozen were made gratis for
close friends, the work was lucrative. He was paid up to 500
marks each, a considerable sum in pre-World War I days.
Orlik was also called upon to design colour posters for exhibitions,
theatre productions and even commercial products. He produced
hundreds of posters most of which are today highly sought after
After the war he continued working at a frantic pace, exhibiting
at many venues throughout Europe. He also became interested
in photography, experimenting with the use of light. He was
one of the pioneers in the use of photographs as studies for
graphics and paintings, particularly for his portraits of leading
celebrities. He claimed that photography permitted him to obtain
the essence of his endeavours towards the perfect portrait.
His earliest essays in photography were made around 1917, but
by the mid-twenties he produced brilliant photo portraits of
Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and many others.
In December 1923 Orlik made his last voyage out of Europe.
He received a commission to paint the portrait of a sitter in
Cincinnati. His passage and a two month's stay in the U S A
were provided. While in America he had an exhibition in New
York. The City fascinated him and he wrote to Gerhart Hauptmann
: "After overcoming the first confusion it is a completely
different world. The city is amazing. The dollar rules here!".
He said he found it easier to get used to China than to New
After his return to Europe he continued to work intensely and
his fame increased. He became one of the best known artists
of the day. He continued travelling in Europe - to Spain, Italy,
England and France. Portrait commissions and graphic work kept
him busy till the time of his death from a heart attack in Berlin
on 28th September 1932, nine days after his great friend Max
Slevogt. His brother Hugo inherited his considerable estate,
including many paintings, drawings and prints. During his many
visits to Paris he had acquired a fine collection of works by
his friend Henri Matisse and by many other prominent artists,
including Cézanne. Hugo Orlik and his family perished
during the war at the hands of the Nazis. The only survivor
of the family was an aunt who, after the war, regained some
of what was left of Emil's effects.
In 1963 the first post-war German exhibitions of Orlik's works were held in Berlin and Stuttgart and then in 1977 there was a major retrospective in Austria. Interest in his work was rekindled and his stature and importance once again recognised. Many books about Orlik and his works have been published and once again he has taken his place in art history as an important painter and ground-breaking print-maker.Credit: Allan Wolman, London UK