Wednesday, 27 October 2010

O was for Orlik: the search for a master

First Emil Orlik (1870 - 1932) failed to get into the Munich Academy of Fine Art then in 1893 he left without completing his course. Three years later he was back in the city, making woodcuts with fellow student Bernhard Pankok (1872 - 1943 - that's Orlik's 1903 portrait of him below the anarchist). The revolutionary was his first published woodcut, the ostler standing in, I would say, as Orlik's model.

As uncompromising as he was stylish, this ostler came from An Alphabet by the British artist William Nicholson (1872 - 1949). This was published in 1898, the same year that Orlik made his woodcut and also the year that he visited Nicholson in London. Nicholson was two years his junior, in fact, already married and with a failed project behind him. In 1894, he had set up the Beggarstaff Brothers with his brother-in-law James Pride (1866 - 1941), aiming to produce commercial posters in the way Toulouse Lautrec had done. Flop it was, but it was the first recognisably modern work in British printed art. The stark simple images were the result of necessary technical restraints because they needed to be produced cheaply but the effect on Orlik was just as graphic. (Despite eventual success with his book of woodcuts, Nicholson just put them behind him. You wonder what he made of his visitor from Prague.)

I'm not certain when he made his greyhound below but here he out-Nicholsons his mentor. He dispenses with colour altogether and concentrates on line, the vocabulary is more Nicholson's than the obvious loan in the anarchist print. Now Orlik is fluent.

He also had a model for the co-operation between artists that had come about in the 1890s. Co-operation and craftsmanship had as much a part to play in his father's tailoring business in Prague as it did amongst bohemian artists knocking together periodicals in Munich. The men below all look as though they are stitching shadows; one man reads, the others sew and listen; quietly this really is a wonderful piece. (Compare the use of areas of black with the Nicholson woodcut).

The tailors stand in absolute contrast to the bench of unemployed in a London park. The London types might be Nicholson but the ad hoc descriptiveness is not. Orlik is attempting the naturalism of the times. Social comment is more Nicholson; Orlik is strong on milieu but we still note the smoking chimney in the background. His observation is also acute. You still find Londoners in snazzy trousers striding down The Strand today.

Orlik had been far from idle. He was gaining some succes. His work was going into print rooms and being collected but he saw the kind of mastery he was after half-way around the world and March, 1901, saw him in Genoa, setting sail for Japan, and not just any old woodcut pilgrim but the very first. Once there he achieved a kind of self-translation that very few artists would attempt: he learned the conventions of woodcut production in a printmaker's workshop where three people were involved in the process. The people, heads down, occupied in their work, the words on the wall, are familar. Even the madder he might have seen in a Beggarstaff poster. What is new is this: subtlety, refinement.

Gone is the sparing use of colour and the awkward line. These Mount Fuji pilgrims in the straw capes and hats surge forward across planes of oriental red.

In the same way, he breaks with one convention to work on another. His Temple Garden of 1901 is as littered with symbolism as a Gaugin glimpse of Tahiti. You understand that his stay in Japan was not only about learning a craft from a master because this print is quite unlike the previous two in feel.

Even more enigmatic is the gravel garden below, the break with realistic colour complete. He has moved from Hiroshige to Erte, articulate in everything. So, somehow it shouldn't be

surprising that two years after his return he could turn out this quite masterly etching of the painter Leopold, graf von Kalckreuth (1855 - 1928). Calm, distinguished, the subtle modulation hardly monochrome at all. It is almost photographic in its confidence and a million miles away from the humble preoccupations of his Prague tailors.

Hardly surprising as well that the year after he made this print, he was offered the position of head of graphic art at the Museum of Applied Art in Berlin. His portarit of Kolo Moser (1868 - 1918) also dates from 1903, telling in the way he chooses woodcut for the stylish designer and possibly about the nearest he gets to Lautrec. One minute he speaks German, the next it's Japanese.

And finally in 1904, in this portrait of the broad-backed, bull-necked Ferdinand Hodler (1853 - 1918), we also see him gradually turning away from it all. Creased neck, receding temple, tangled ear, this is the artist no longer young, turning leftwards and away from us, to all the images that lie behind him - masterful images indeed.

1 comment:

  1. A couple of comments. First, Orlik left Europe for Japan in 1900, arriving in Japan in May of that year.

    Second, it is known that Orlik had the assistance of Japanese carvers and printers in producing his Japanese prints, although the level of Orlik's personal involvement for most of those prints is unclear. Based on the fact that Orlik's woodblock prints upon his return are much cruder in comparison to his Japanese prints, the time he spent traveling to various cities in Japan, the large number of woodblock print designs created on that trip, and the relatively large number of other works of art that he produced on his trip, and it would seem likely that he relied on Japanese printers for the printing of his prints and relied on Japanese carvers for the carving of at least the color blocks.

    The black and orange woodblock print by Orlik comes from a 1902 catalog of the XIVth Exhibition of the Vienna Succession (Klinger-Beethoven). It contains 2 prints by Orlik (the other depicting two women under a Japanese pine tree), along with 14 other woodblock prints by Kolomon Moser, Karl Moll, Ernst Stohr, Ferdinand Andri, Friedrich K├Ânig, Max Kurzeweil, Rudolf Jettmar, Maximilian Lenz, Wilhelm List, Elena Luksch-Makovsky, and Felicien Mysrbach. All of the prints in the catalog are printed in the same black and orange. The catalog also featured black and orange stylized monograms for each the artists. Orlik's print is based on his own earlier wood intarsia design called "Einsamkeit" (Loneliness), suggested, as I recall, from a scene from Dante.