Emil Orlik Biography

Emil Orlik

Austrian / Czech.



Emil Orlik was born the son of a tailor on July 21, 1870, in Prague, then the capital of a province within the Austro-Hungarian empire. He first studied art at the private art school of Heinrich Knirr, where one of his fellow pupils was Paul Klee. Other friends at this time included Franz Kafka, Max Brod, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Starting in 1891, Orlik studied at the Munich Academy under Wilhelm Lindenschmit. He later learned engraving from Johann Leonhard Raab and proceeded to experiment with various printmaking processes, including woodcut, which he and his friend, Bernard Pankok, experimented with in 1896.

Orlik left the Academy in 1893. He performed his military service for a year before returning to Prague in 1894. He relocated to Munich in 1896, where he worked for the magazine Jugend (Youth). He spent most of 1898 travelling through Europe, visiting the Netherlands, Great Britain, Belgium, and Paris.

Emil Orlik’s prints and techniques went through extensive changes as he traveled internationally, learning new methods wherever he went. Known for his portraits of a wide variety of well-known individuals including Josephine Baker, Albert Einstein, and Marc Chagall, Orlik was an artistic chameleon, never sticking to one genre or style but studying many. His prints catalog his travels, creating a kind of pictorial diary of the years 1892 to 1900 in particular. Many of his works, often produced in color, appeared in the European periodical PAN, along with the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, Kathe Kollwitz, and Max Klinger.

Japanese art and culture fascinated Orlik. He was aware of the impact Japanese art was having on European art and decided to visit Japan. In 1900, he traveled to Japan and spent a year studying Japanese woodblock cutting and printing. His studies of the Japanese culture led him to the art of Utamaro and Hiroshige. Orlik studied the language before his departure and within four months of his arrival he was proficient enough in Japanese to converse with the artisans whose work he admired and under whom he studied.

Orlik never limited himself to popular subject matter. He studied any scene that inspired him, major events or everyday life. He produced fourteen lithographs of the trial of Arthur Schnitzler and his fellow actors’ reinactment of the banned play, “Aus dem Reigin,” for which Orlik was a defense witness. After the trial, Orlik began working for the theater as a designer of costumes, stage sets, and posters.

He kept all his early woodblocks and, in 1920, he published his celebrated portfolio Kleine Holzschnitte (Small woodcuts) in an edition of 100, which also contained the text of his descriptions of each of the prints. The portfolio contained thirty-four woodcuts, eighteen of which were printed in colors. The complete portfolio is now very rarely found. It included such delightful items as Aus London and the superb color woodcut Schneiderwerkstatt bei Orlik in Prag (the Orlik tailoring workshop in Prague), which depicts his father and colleague’s busy sewing.

Orlik was also commissioned to design color posters for the Best-Litovsk Peace Conference at which Russia and Germany ended their conflict. He produced seventy-two lithographs, including a number portraits of Leon Trotsky. Around this time he also began to study photography, and by the mid-1920s was photographing celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich and Albert Eintstein.

Emil Orlik died of a heart attack on September 28, 1932. His brother Hugo was willed the estate, and with it the numerous works of art Orlik had collected throughout the years.  Hugo Orlik and his family perished in WWII at the hands of the Nazis, and the only survivor was an aunt who regained what little was left of Emil’s effects. To this day Orlik’s work is still exhibited throughout the world.   

This biography has been assembled from several sources, including the website for Emil Orlik's prints: http://www.orlikprints.com/home.html