Emil Orlik

Emil Orlick photographed by Nicola Perscheid, before 1905
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

The Prague-born painter, graphic artist and artisan craftsman won renown as a reformer of poster art with his prolific oeuvre of printed graphic works, and was further active as a costume designer and set decorator. He lived in Prague, Vienna and Berlin, and – inspired by Japanese woodcuts and his varied travel impressions – provided groundbreaking impulses especially to Modernist graphic art in Europe.

Emil Orlik was born on 21st July 1870 into a Jewish family in Prague. Following his graduation from high school, he moved to Munich to study at the local art academy. Initially, he attended the private painting school run by Heinrich Knirr from 1889. From 1891, he studied at the Munich Academy under Wilhelm von Lindenschmit, and was a guest student at Johann Leonhard Raab’s academic copperplate engraving school.

In 1894, Orlik returned to Prague to join the Austro-Hungarian Army as a one-year volunteer. He had close ties to the theater, became friends with Rainer Maria Rilke and Gerhard Hauptmann, joined the Bohemian association of visual artists Verein Deutscher Bildender Künstler in Böhmen and started to work for the periodical Jugend.

Orlik oriented his style on the graphic works of Adolph Menzel and Wilhelm Leibl. From 1897 onwards, he released his first etchings in the magazine Pan, his well-known poster advertising Hauptmann’s play Die Weber [The Wavers] as well as book illustrations for Rilke and Arthur Schnitzler. At the same time, he moved into a studio in Prague, though his stay in the city was interrupted in 1898 by a study trip, lasting eleven months, to England, Scotland, Holland, Belgium and France, as well as by frequent travels to Vienna and Berlin. In 1899, he was accepted as a member of the Vienna and Berlin Secessions, and exhibited several woodcuts at the “IV. Ausstellung” [4th Exhibition] of the Vienna Secession. The association’s magazine Ver Sacrum published Orlik’s graphic works in 1899, as well as an article on the artist by Rilke titled Ein Prager Künstler in 1900.

In 1900, the artist had his first exhibition at the Moravian Museum of Industry in Brünn [now Brno]. That same year, he embarked on a one-year trip to East Asia, which led him to Japan via Italy, Egypt, Yemen, Ceylon and China. There, he learnt the technique of color woodcuts, which was inspiring new trends in Europe at the time and would have a lasting effect on his graphic oeuvre. He adopted East Asian techniques and pictorial compositional principles, gave lectures on Japan, released the portfolios Kleine Holzschnitte [Small Woodcuts] and Aus Japan [From Japan] in 1900 and 1904 respectively, and made reference to his formative trip to Japan in his own bookplate with the depiction of a Noh dancer. He presented several of his woodcuts and lithographs in Berlin at the Berlin Secession and the art salon of Paul Cassirer, and in Vienna at Kunstsalon Pisko and at the “XIV. Ausstellung” [14th Exhibition] of the Vienna Secession.

The artist became more widely known through an article, written by Julius Leisching, published in the magazine Die Graphischen Künste in 1902: “Among collectors and art enthusiasts, Emil Orlik has long since established his reputation as a superb exponent of book art, and creator of bookplates and posters.”

From 1903 to 1904, Orlik relocated his studio to Vienna, where he moved in the circles of the Secessionists Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, and met the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler. His works were presented in the Secession’s “XX. Ausstellung” [20th Exhibition] in 1904 at the Ver Sacrum room next to graphic works by Carl Moll and Hugo Henneberg. Together with the Klimt-Group, Orlik left the Secession in 1905. The same year, Moll organized a solo exhibition of his works at Galerie Miethke, and Orlik briefly led the class for graphic art at the School of Arts and Crafts of the Imperial-Royal Austrian Museum of Art and Industry. Later, he worked with the Wiener Werkstätte for Cabaret Fledermaus.

Having been appointed in 1905 as head of the class for prints and book art at the School of Arts and Crafts in Berlin, Orlik moved to the German capital. There, he continued to design books, posters and bookplates, created wallpapers and fabrics, executed portraits of members of Berlin society and also turned his attention to set decoration and costume design.

Orlik subsequently participated in exhibitions all across Europe, traveled extensively and visited fellow artists and friends, including Hodler and Hoffmann. In 1912, the artist embarked on his second trip to East Asia, which took him to Egypt, Nubia, Sudan, Ceylon, China, Korea, Japan and Siberia. He subsequently created etchings of his travel impressions, which were published in 1921 in the portfolios Reise nach Ägypten [A Trip to Egypt] and Reise nach Japan [A Trip to Japan].

In 1914, Orlik created murals for the exhibition “Deutsche Werkbundausstellung” [Cologne Werkbund Exhibition], and was hired in 1918 as a press artist covering the German-Russian peace conference in Brest-Litovsk. In the early 1920s, Orlik, his fellow artists and friends Max Slevogt and Bernhard Pankok, as well as the collector Josef Grünberg, founded the association Gesellschaft für graphische Versuche SPOG (the initials of their names) to experiment with new techniques. He further drew actors and audiences in Berlin theaters, while his portrait drawings of contemporary luminaries from culture, science and politics “Größen aus Kultur, Wissenschaft und Politik” were published to great acclaim in 1920 and 1926. In 1924, he traveled through North America, and increasingly took on portrait commissions.

Emil Orlik’s life and work was shaped by his travels, exhibition participations and activities as a lecturer. He not only created pioneering innovations in the area of graphic art but also explored the medium of photography, publishing his findings in his anthology Kleine Aufsätze [Short Essays].

In 1932, he retired from his teaching activities, and died on 28 September of that year in Berlin. He was laid to rest at the New Jewish cemetery in Prague.

Literature and sources

  • Emil Orlik: Anmerkungen über den Farbenholzschnitt in Japan, 26.10.1901, in: Die Graphischen Künste, 25. Jg. (1902), S. 31-34.
  • Julius Leisching: Emil Orlik, in: Die Graphischen Künste, 25. Jg. (1902), S. 21-30.
  • Emil Orlik: Aus meinem Leben. Kleine Aufsätze, Berlin 1924.
  • Heinrich R. Scheffer: Emil Orlik. www.exlibris-austria.at/20_kuenstler/20_orlik_emil.html (05/11/2020).
  • Wien Geschichte Wiki. Emil Orlik. www.geschichtewiki.wien.gv.at/Emil_Orlik (05/11/2020).
  • Orlikonline. www.orlikonline.de/biography/ (05/11/2020).
  • Rainer Maria Rilke: Ein Prager Künstler (Orlik), in: Vereinigung bildender KünstlerInnen Wiener Secession (Hg.): Ver Sacrum. Mitteilungen der Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs, 3. Jg., Heft 7 (1900), S. 101-114.
  • Wiener Zeitung. Oliver Bentz, Emil Orlik, der »Kopfjäger« mit dem Zeichenstift. www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/reflexionen/vermessungen/2068154-Emil-Orlik-der-Kopfjaeger-mit-dem-Zeichenstift.html (03/08/2022).
  • Andreas Beyer, Bénédicte Savoy, Wolf Tegethoff (Hg.): Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon. Die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, Band XCIII, Berlin - New York 2017, S. 458.
  • Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs Secession (Hg.): Ver Sacrum. Zeitschrift der Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs, 2. Jg., Heft 4 (1899), S. 29.
  • Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs Secession (Hg.): Ver Sacrum. Zeitschrift der Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs, 2. Jg., Heft 9 (1899).