Like a Dream! Emil Orlik in Japan

12.05.2020 - 18.10.2020

curator: PhD Anna Król exhibition design: PhD Anna Król Exhibition prepared in cooperation with: Nuremberg House in Krakow
[…]  without falling into poeticity, one might say: This is like a dream!! because here, in the East, a charming evening with its glorious mood vanishes before all this beauty settles down in one! which is why the brush and paints stay in the bag here.
Emil Orlik, 1900

In February 1900, I set out on a journey to Japan on my own. I worked much and gladly there, being filled with all the inspirations that this singular country and its high culture had to offer. At woodblock-cutters and printers’ workshops I learned the whole handicraft technique of the colour woodcut. Through my studies of old Eastern art and intercourse with Japanese artists I tried to gain an insight into the essence of the high art of China and Japan.
Emil Orlik, 1901

Emil Orlik (1870–1932), Czech artist of Jewish descent – painter, draughtsman, printmaker working in all techniques, theatre set and costume designer (e.g. for Max Reinhardt), poster artist, book designer and illustrator, bookplate artist, and teacher – worked in his native Prague, in Vienna and in Berlin. Associated with the Vienna Secession, Klimt’s Group, and the Berlin Secession, he travelled a great deal, to Japan, Africa, North America and other place. Active in every field of art, he was always driven by his great curiosity about the unfamiliar. Nevertheless, printmaking is at the centre of his oeuvre.

Orlik visited Japan twice, in 1900–1901 and 1911–1912. It was, however, his first journey, which lasted ten months, that proved crucial and deeply inspiring. He became acquainted with the Japanese colour woodblock printing technique, a relatively rare accomplishment among the Western artists of the time. He took instruction from the painter Kanō Tomonobu (1843–1912), whom he portrayed at work in his studio.

During his tour of Japan, Orlik made sketches in pencil and crayon, and created watercolours, woodcuts and lithographs, on subjects that caught his particular interest and incited his imagination. And what interested him was the life of ordinary people encountered by chance, situations and scenes like those seen in ukiyo-e prints but observed in real life.

While Orlik’s oeuvre is ample and diverse, our exhibition at the Manggha Museum shows primarily works relevant to Japan – From Japan and Japanese Inspirations – complemented by the part entitled Portraiture Firm, a unique collection of various notable figures and characters encountered by the artist. 

Although his works – drawings, watercolours and prints on various subjects, both Japanese and European – can be found in several Polish national museums while the greatest assembly of them, from the collection of Henryk Grohman, is held by the Print Room of the University of Warsaw Library, the artist and his work remain practically unknown in Poland.

Anna Król

Exhibition prepared in collaboration with the Nuremberg house in Kraków.

From Peter Voss-Andreae

It all started with Richard Strauss. In the summer of 1987, in a small Hamburg auction house, I discovered a portrait of Strauss, a drypoint etching signed and dated ‘Emil Orlik 1917’. An excellent print; I was delighted. My wife collects portraits of composers, so I had the perfect Christmas present for her.

As for Orlik, I didn’t know much about him. I had a hazy idea that he’d been a book designer and a bookplate artist. That he’d also been a brilliant portraitist I found out only with this depiction of Strauss. My appetite was piqued, and that purchase was soon followed by his portrayals of Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Eugen d’Albert, and others. But it didn’t stop with the musicians, or even other portraits for that matter. Over a period of 30 years I was able to assemble a sizeable collection of Orlik’s prints, from early etchings and woodcuts, created before the turn of the century, to some of his last etchings and lithographs from the early 1930s. A few years ago the opportunity arose for me to acquire a large Orlik collection from private hands, a major part of which was output from his first trip to Japan, including woodcuts, lithographs, and etchings from the portfolio From Japan (1900/1901), all excellent impressions, many of them dedicated to his friend Bernhard Pankok.

Anyone who has anything to do with collecting is exposed to the risk of obsession with completeness, and I’m no exception. Even with this quantity  – over 2,000 prints at this point – it will hardly be possible to collect all of Orlik’s printmaking oeuvre. Even if you believe that you’re to some extent acquainted with Orlik’s work, ever new pieces that you have never heard of continue to be discovered. There is still so much to do.

Why is Orlik still unknown to a wider audience? Many have never even heard his name. I believe the answer is simple. Orlik was, in the best sense of the word, a conservative. He was not an avant-gardist. His ‘silent’ art was drowned out by the ‘loud’ revolution of the new art movements at the start of the 20th century.

Orlik was extremely versatile: a painter, draftsman, printmaker working in all techniques, stage and costume designer (e.g. for Max Reinhardt), poster artist, book designer and illustrator, bookplate artist – the list goes on. There is hardly anything that he didn’t try his hand at, always driven by his great curiosity about the unfamiliar. Nevertheless, printmaking is at the centre of his oeuvre.

The young Orlik’s earliest etchings are dated to 1891/92. They were more than just finger dexterity exercises. Even the very early sheets show his mastery of that technique. In addition to etching, Orlik also began at quite an early age to use the woodcut technique, an art that had almost fallen into oblivion in 18th- and 19th-century Europe. Inspired by Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) and William Nicholson (1872-1949), Orlik dedicated himself to woodcutting before the turn of the century. His portfolio of Small Woodcuts, which contains 34 works from the years 1896-1899, some of them in colour, sums up his earliest attempts in this technique. He also became familiar with Japanese woodblock prints, which he found fascinating, and he decided he wanted to master that art as well.

Desirous of knowledge and eager to learn, in the spring of 1900 Orlik set out for Japan to receive training from local masters. His woodcuts and lithographs were also printed there. It would be going too far to describe in detail his Japanese trip here. Suffice it to say that at the time such a trip was truly an adventure, because Japan had until not long previously been almost completely closed off and inaccessible to travellers from the West. In the spring of 1901 Orlik came back to Prague with a rich booty. His prints went on display and he became a much sought-after and well-known artist. In 1904 his portfolio From Japan came out in a print run of 50 sets intended for a small circle. All the sheets inside, nine etchings and six lithographs, were in colour. In addition to his Japanese woodcuts, these works form some of the most important series in Orlik’s oeuvre. One can sense how deep an insight into the Japanese world Orlik managed to gain in a period of one year, both emotionally and artistically.

Despite being employed as a teacher by the state educational institution at Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum, Orlik continued to go on long journeys throughout the rest of his life, travelling to China, Korea, Egypt, Nubia, and (again) Japan. The trips resulted in numerous works, especially etchings, those from Egypt and Nubia being particularly noteworthy.

In Berlin, especially in the postwar years, this active, life-loving Czech who did not shy away from entertainment, was a recognized celebrity in his own circles and a much sought-after portraitist. His countless portraits of major figures of the worlds of art, theatre, music, literature, film, cabaret, and politics form a kaleidoscope of the intellectual, cultural, political, and economic life of the Weimar Republic.

Orlik, the son of a Jewish master tailor from Prague, died on 28 September 1932, at only 62 years old. And yet one feels inclined to say: Thank God! Most of his relatives were murdered at Theresienstadt.

It is a great joy for me that the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Kraków has shown an interest in Orlik’s works and is now showing the exhibition Like a Dream! Emil Orlik in Japan. What other place could be more appropriate?

To offer the viewers a more comprehensive picture of Orlik’s achievement – going beyond his works relating to Japan – the show also includes other prints from various periods of his work.

I was amazed to learn that this was the first exhibition of Orlik’s work in Poland; I could hardly believe it. All the more reason to wish the exhibition at this museum much success and many visitors, who, I hope, will discover and appreciate Orlik.

I would like to thank all those whose efforts have made this exhibition possible. In particular I wish to thank Ms Anna Król, its curator and the author of the catalogue. My equally heartfelt gratitude goes to Ms Renata Kopyto of Nuremberg House in Kraków. She was the one who initiated the first contact, and her intermediation in the development of the plans for this project last year was a crucial contribution to its successful completion.

Peter Voss-Andreae



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