Date:29. October 1910 – 13. November 1910
Place: Brno, Club of Friends of the Arts
Organizer:Friends of the Arts Club in Brno
Initiated by the painter Emil Pacovský, this exhibition was organized by a group of young graphic artists and painters who shared the same views. They were lead by František Kobliha, a well-known engraver and the oldest member of the group. The other members included Jan Konůpek, Emil Pacovský, Josef Váchal and Jan Zrzavý, Sursum's youngest and at the time completely unknown artist.
These artists banded together because they shared ideas about the content of artworks rather than their formal aspects. They believed that spiritual issues were neglected in both mainstream and avant-garde art. Inspired by turn-of-the-century Symbolism, they “strove for a new content and form in artworks” [Pacovský 1947, p. 17] and searched for a new spiritual depth, hence the name Sursum (up, upward in Latin) referring both to what was initially a loose group and its first exhibition. Pacovský took the name from the cover of the revue Meditace (Meditation) where he worked as an art editor and where he also met all the artists and subsequently brought them together. As he recollects in his memoirs, he wanted to bring the lesser known artists (except for Kobliha) “to life” and to the public's attention, a goal he accomplished to some degree through his organization of their first exhibition in Brno, even though references in the press were scarce.
According to the catalogue, the exhibition contained 52 artworks, mostly drawings and prints (etchings, wood engraving and woodcuts) and only nine oil paintings. Kobliha was represented by the largest set – 20 works, followed by Konůpek (16 works), Váchal (10 works), Pacovský (4 works), and Zrzavý (2 paintings). Sources suggest that Zrzavý's paintings along with some other artworks were damaged during transport and not exhibited [Šmejkal 1976, p. 4, note 7], but S. K. Neumann's review in Lidové noviny from November 12, 1910 does mention Zrzavý's paintings, placed in a badly lit exhibition hall.
The first mention of the planned exhibition of the young, Symbolist-leaning artists can be found in the Book of Minutes of the Brno Friends of the Arts Club which was the only art association that agreed to hold the exhibition. Records from September 20, 1910 say that Mr. Grus informed the Club members of the forthcoming exhibition of the “Prague group Sursum” [Brno City Archives, Fonds R 39 Brněnské umělecké spolky (Brno art associations)]. According to the memoirs of Emil Pacovský, the spiritus agens of the whole venture, it was not easy to find a space for the exhibition. None of the Prague art associations were willing to accommodate it; Krasoumná jednota (Fine Arts Union) ignored the request, Mánes declined, as did Umělecká beseda (Artistic Forum) and the Galerie Miethke in Vienna [Pacovský 1947, p. 19]. Finally, the Brno Friends of the Arts Club consented – upon the intervention of the architect Jaroslav Syřiště, a member of the Club's fine arts section – to provide space on Velké Square.
The Brno Club was a prominent institution at the time. It was headed by the composer Leoš Janáček and its fine arts section brought together famous figures such as Syřiště, Professor Josef Šíma, the father of the painter Josef Šíma, the architect Jan Mráček and the art historian and ethnographer Josef Vydra. The Club, which included musical and literary sections in addition to the fine arts section (the writer S. K. Neumann was among the Club's members), was a stimulating force on the cultural scene in Brno and surroundings. It is therefore not surprising that Pacovský turned to it with his request. Reviews of the exhibition in Moravian newspapers and magazines show that this was a good choice. The daily Moravská Orlice was the first to react: on October 3, 1910, three weeks before the show's opening, it called attention to the activity of the Brno Club's fine arts section and “the exhibition of works by the youngest Czech art group, Sursum.” The text called attention to the group's Symbolist orientation and listed in alphabetical order the names of all five exhibiting artists, declaring that “this young art group's debut in Moravia will arouse understandable stir and interest” [anonymous author 1910, p. 6]. On October 31, soon after the show's opening, the same daily published a short note about it and called attention to Váchal's colourful poster, which depicted a naked youth emerging from primordial chaos and reaching up (sursum) to pick an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. This poster appeared on numerous street corners in Brno but, as the anonymous writer for Brno's Lidové noviny reported on November 2, it was soon unlawfully confiscated by "officials of the State Attorney General's Office" due to its alleged indecency [Anonymous author 1910, p. 3]. Paradoxically, the scandal around the confiscated poster which was also part of the set of artworks Váchal showed at the exhibition, helped increase the show's attendance, leading to its one-week extension. This news appeared in announcements published in the daily Čas on November 16 and in Brno's periodical Moravská Orlice on November 18. These announcements show that Friends of the Arts Club reacted to the ban on the poster and appealed against its confiscation to the governor's office. Further important information about the exhibition can be found in the Friends of the Arts Club's Book of Minutes. The entry from November 23 specifies that the recently-finished exhibition of the Prague group Sursum “attracted approximately 320 visitors” and that “the deficit will not be too great.” The Club's printed Activity Report for the years 1900–1910 confirms this: on page 16, they write that the attendance was 327 persons and explain that the form of artistic expression along with the themes may have been too “unusual” for the broader public [Brno City Archives, Fonds R 39 Brněnské umělecké spolky].
In addition to the unsigned announcements and reports likely authored by people from the Brno Club's circles, only two reviews of Sursum's first exhibition were published: an informative essay by Emil Pacovský in the Catholic art and literary review Meditace, and a comprehensive, unsigned review entitled “Symbolists,” printed in Brno's Lidové noviny. In his review, Pacovský defended the artists' approach that contrasted with contemporary artistic trends, discussing the spiritual focus and pointing to the originality of the group's agenda. He also mentioned the difficulty of finding space for the exhibition. The more important of the two reviews, published anonymously in Lidové noviny, has been attributed to S. K. Neumann, a member of the Brno Club's literary section. The author analyzes all the artworks individually without criticizing the artists (he praises František Kobliha in particular). On the contrary, he appreciates the artists' determination to exhibit in Brno, a provincial city. He also reflects on the relevance of the turn-of-the-century Symbolist influence. He remarks encouragingly: “Open minded people know that while Symbolism as a temporary, once-modern movement has been outdated, symbolism as an expressive tendency remains topical. It has born charming blossoms, tender and delicate. If they are often unapproachable to common understanding, it is the lack of insight rather than symbolism itself that is to blame” [Neumann 1910, p. 2]. However, the reviewer is critical of the work's artistic execution and their immature technical quality (except for wood engravings by František Kobliha): “This exhibition generally abounds in courage and dexterity, excitement and experiment. Art, however, is still rare here.” [ibidem, p. 3]
Because of the unusual art and the controversial poster, “the Club was punished by the withdrawal of the provincial subsidy” [Larvová 1996, p. 25]. This was probably the reason why Pacovský wrote a letter to the Club, thanking it for organizing the exhibition and for introducing the young artists to the culture-going public [Pacovský 1947, p. 19]. Although the response to the Sursum exhibition was minimal and none of the works sold, the show is still significant. It drew attention to the artists of the emerging “second symbolist generation” which dissented from the then-current trends. At the same time, the exhibition proved the vitality of symbolism not only in visual art but also in literature.
Anonymous author 1910: Anonymous author, Výstava sdružení „Sursum“, Moravská Orlice, XLVIII, 1910, no. 264, 18. 11., p. 6
Anonymous author 1910: Anonymous author, section Denní zprávy, Sursum, Lidové noviny XVIII, 1910, no. 301, 2. 11., p. 3
Pacovský 1947: Emil Pacovský, Umělecké sdružení Sursum, Okénko do dílny umělcovy IV, 1947, no. 2, pp. 17–23
Neumann 1910: Stanislav Kostka Neumann, section Umění, divadlo a literatura. Symbolisté, Lidové noviny XVIII, 1910, 12. 11., pp. 2–3
Šmejkal 1976: František Šmejkal, Sursum 1910–1912, Krajská galerie v Hradci Králové, edice „Práce galerie“, 1976, p. 4, note 7.
Larvová 1996: Hana Larvová, Sursum, in: eadem (ed.) Umělecké sdružení SURSUM 1910–1912 (exh. cat.), Galerie hlavního města Prahy – Památník národního písemnictví, Praha 1996, p. 25
Otto M. Urban, Umělecké sdružení Sursum 1910–1912, in: Otto M. Urban – Filip Wittlich (edd.), 100 let od otevření Obecního domu v Praze (exh. cat.), Obecní dům, Praha 2012, pp. 111–121
Jan Konůpek, Život v umění, Praha 1947
Josef Váchal, Paměti Josefa Váchala dřevorytce (ed. Milan Drápala) Praha 1995, pp. 181–182, 201–203 and 231
Brno City Archives, Fonds R 39 Brněnské umělecké spolky: Kniha protokolů ze schůzí výboru Klubu přátel umění v Brně a Zpráva o činnosti Klubu přátel umění za léta 1900–1910 [Brno Art Associations: The Book of Minutes from the Meetings of the Friends of the Arts Club and the Report on the Activity of the Friends of the Arts Club in 1900–1910], Ant. Odehnal: Brno, s. a., p. 16
Anonym, Sursum, Lidové noviny XVIII, 1910, no. 301, 2. 11., p. 3pdf
Anonym, oddíl Umění, Moravská Orlice XLVIII, 1910, no. 249, 31. 10., p. 5pdf
Anonym, Výstava sdružení „Sursum“, Moravská Orlice, XLVIII, 1910, no. 264, 18. 11., p. 6pdf
Stanislav Kostka Neumann, Symbolisté, Lidové noviny XVIII, 1910, no. 311, 12. 11., pp. 2–3pdf
Emil Pacovský, Klub přátel umění v Brně uspořádal..., Meditace III, 1910, pp. 723–724pdf
Anonymous author, Čas XXIV, 1910, no. 316, 16. 11., p. 4
Anonymous author, Moravská Orlice XLVIII, 1910, no. 225 (příloha), 3. 10., pp. 5–6