Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Emil Orlik after Japan

Once Emil Orlik came home again from Japan, even though he had gone there to learn how to make woodcuts in the workshops, the woodcuts he made were few n number. Instead he embarked on a long series of portrait etchings. One of the first is one of the most famous, his portrait of Gustav Mahler, a typically articulate image that is probably no better than many of the others. When he first met Orlik in a cafe, Mahler thought him too talkative, amonst other things. Perhaps he was unaware that the man with the sketchbook had mastered one of the visual idioms of Japan.

The first image here, though, shows someone who was a part of the same circle of Secession designers and artists. If Orlik knew Kolo Moser well, it is still less portrait than design. For all the sophistiocated work he had produced while in Japan, back home he reverted to cutting and printing that lets the medium speak for itself. He takes such a different approach with etching, it is hard to credit that he made his portrait of Moser only about a year after the one of Mahler, although again I wonder whether portrait is quite the right word.

Orlik knew Bernard Pankok (above) before he went off to Japan. In fact, it was with Pankok that Orlik began to make his first woodcuts once he had pulled out of the Munich Academy of Fine Art. The image certainly suggests the artistic milieu of the man but the usual analysis of character we might expect from an etching is missing. Instead Pankok hunches over the image that he is creating. It is an image of the artist, cramped and concerned only with his work. It is some long way from the dramatic refinement of Mahler.

With Pankok and Moser, the image is deliberate and bold; it takes up the whole space. For Mahler, there is no such intimacy but the differentiation is intense. Where the pressure gives out at the bottom left hand corner in the Pankok, the sepia tone is graduated with care for Mahler. It isn't the colour of the paper you can see, it is the colour of the image. The strict represenatation of Mahler's face stands out agains the smudge of his bow-tie and the scrawl of his waistcoat and jacket. It is an image of intelligence and refinement rather than artistic passion. It was also also someone he barely knew.

It strikes me that, by and large, he opted for woodcut when it came to someone that he knew and knew well. It doesn't matter how sophisticated their way of life might have been, his colleagues and friends from the Secession were rendered raw and square. There weren't many of them, more's the pity. There were far more of the portrait etchings. I must admit, I don't know who the one above shows but coming from 1901, it is one of the earliest. Even so he has the elegant spatial arrangement off pat. With the woodcuts we look everywhere, with the etchins, it is the eyes the nose, the ears we look at. The blank jacket, the dark cravat, the beautiful planes of the forehead and the beard, all lead us one way. It has tremendous finished concentration, there is nothing provisional, raw or creative about it.

Reluctantly, I have to admit his woodcut of the great designer Josef Hoffmann isn't one of his strongest, but there are so few of them around, it has to go in. The one of the Swiss artist, Ferdinand Hodler is more powerful and affecting. Perhaps it was the peasant build and personal tragedy that makes it that way, but I have already given Hodler alot of space and now it's more interesting to look at two more works that in some ways use a dual appraoch.

 I assume the art critic and writer Hermann Bahr was known to Orlik. He would certainly be one of the wider circle in Vienna and this etching is considerably less formal than the others here. With the vivid pose, the questing eyes, the untidy hair, it is vigorous and appealing. After visiting an exhibition of Frank Brangwyn's etchings in Vienna, it was Bahr who said he had wanted to look into Brangwyn's soul and, yes, there is something both intemperate and ludicrous about Orlik's etching of him. But there it is. We come to the 1906 woodcut portrait of the art patron, Max von Gompertz, who I don't know very much about. But again, Orlik shifts his approach to offer something much more like a formal portrait. Like Hodler, and unlike all the others here, he faces left and looks downwards. It's all those kinds of choice that Orlik made, whether conscious or not, that provides the sensitivity beneath the chatter.



  1. Charles,

    as far as his portraits are concerned, I must say that I like Orlik's etchings much better than his woodcuts (even if generally I find woodblocks more interesting). Your posting is about Orlik's works from the period after his return from Japan, but do you know his "Japanerin im Winterkleid, Profil"? It's stunning and combines his masterhip in portrayal with the Japanese influences he picked up during his trip in a very convincing way, I think.

    By the way, there are two very interesting exhibitions on Orlik here in Germany at the moment - one in Regensburg (I'm going to see it the day after tomorrow) and one in Hamburg. I suggested to Gerrie that we (him, you and me) could meet in Hamburg and see it together. He liked the idea, but it is probably quite difficult to organise something like that when everybody is busy... Or what do you think?


  2. Well, I would very much like to see both exhibitions, though I can't see it happening, but thanks for letting us know about them. I am in the middle of thinking over next winter's trip to the Caucasus, north Cyprus and Istanbul, so probably the budget won't stretch to Hamburg this spring.

    Work about Orlik in English is very limited and there is alot more I would like to know about him. I have a nerve, really, writing what I do. I assume the Japanerin im Winterkleid is the woodcut I have put up on the next post - stunning, as you say, and new to me. With this post, I just wanted to play off the prints he made in the four of five years after he came back. I agree, the portrait etchings in the end are alot more satisfying but the woodcuts have a directness and emotional impact the etchings often lack. I just think it is fascinating and telling the way he switches from one to the other. It was that mastery that gained him the post in Berlin.

  3. Charles,

    the Japanese woodcut by Orlik in your next post is very charming, indeed. However, it is not "Japanerin im Winterkleid". You might want to check , there you will find it under the category "Japan". Just in case you're intereted, of course...


  4. Who the "the one above" is I tried to find out but still haven't. But the etching is definitely from 1922 so quite late (not 1901) and the first name could read Fransz, Josef or Jasek. Great portrait, nice puzzle, royal face, a composer maybe ?

  5. Well, that's funny, because Orlik had changed his style of drawing by 1922 and it was more in line with the Neuesachlichkeit. Apart from that the clothes would have been very old-fashioned by that date.

    But even if I am wrong on that print, I think you might have missed the point of the post all the same. Orlik used varied spatial arrangements when he came back from Japan and placing the subject off-centre in that way was typical of his earlier work - think Koson, Japanese, you know.