Struggle: The Life & Lost Art of Szukalski (2018)
Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski
Written by Stephen Cooper & Ireneusz Dobrowolski
I had never heard of the Polish-American sculptor and artist Stanislaw Szukalski (1893-1987) before I was using Netflix at my parents’ home during Christmas, when I chanced to be shown the trailer for the documentary film Struggle, which recently premiered on that service (and which, as of now, isn’t available anywhere else). I was immediately intrigued by the images of Szukalski’s work it contained and the little bit of his life story that it conveyed, which suggested that in addition to being an artist who some have called the “Michelangelo of the twentieth century,” Szukalski was Polish and a “mystic” who apparently had some sort of dark involvements in European politics during the 1930s – all things that were guaranteed to pique my interest. So I decided to watch it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Szukalski was an incredible artist who led a fascinating life, and was most certainly a man of the Right during the peak of his career. (Whether he remained one afterwards is a matter of debate, as I shall explain further on.)
This film, it should be mentioned, was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose father George, an artist, writer, and publisher active in the world of underground comics, had been a friend of Szukalski’s during his years in Los Angeles, and Leonardo himself had known Szukalski during his childhood. (George is also one of the primary interview subjects in the film.) Leonardo seems to have made himself a champion of Szukalski’s legacy in recent decades, having helped to publish books and sponsored exhibitions of his work, in addition to this film. I have not yet had an opportunity to research Szukalski’s life and work further, so everything I present in this article is derived from the film, and thus any errors or distortions that might appear herein are the fault of the filmmakers and/or those they interviewed – all of whom, admittedly, may have their own biases.
The film itself is largely based on the recollections and archives of Glenn Bray, a famous collector of pop art from Southern California who was a close friend of Szukalski’s during the last fourteen years of his life, and who shot nearly two hundred hours of video of Szukalski discussing his life and work in the years just prior to his death. Clips from these videos form a large portion of Struggle. In the film, Bray relates how he acquired a book of Szukalski’s work that had been published in 1923 from a Hollywood bookstore in 1968, never having heard his name before but immediately becoming fascinated by its images. In 1973, in a bookstore in Tarzana, he came across a poster of Copernicus that had been designed by Szukalski, and the proprietor informed him that the artist lived nearby, in Granada Hills. Bray, stunned to learn that Szukalski was not only alive, but living in Southern California, got in touch with the man himself by looking him up in the phone book (remember those?).
The film jumps around in the story of Szukalski’s life quite a bit, featuring interviews with Bray and several other people who had known him in California, as well as a few scholars of art and history, who combined narrate the film, but from here I will proceed chronologically.
Szukalski was born in the village of Gidle in Poland in 1893. When he was 7, he stared at the Sun for too long and had a hole permanently burned in one of his corneas – perhaps a harbinger of the fate he was to suffer as an adult. In later years, he claimed that he first began sculpting in order to impress girls whom he liked, and indeed always maintained that his main reason for being an artist was to attract the attention of beautiful women.
At age 12, with his mother and sister, he moved to Chicago to join his father, who was working as a blacksmith there. Szukalski’s father was a fierce defender of his son’s independence. While at school, his son invented his own heavily stylized version of the Roman alphabet and began to write in it exclusively – a style that resembled a sort of lost, ancient script. Szukalski’s teachers complained, but his father insisted that he be allowed to write in it as long as the letters were still legible. Szukalski was to continue to write in this script for the rest of his life. The strong sense of independence and resistance to authority that his father instilled in him was undoubtedly what led to Szukalski’s own intense self-assurance, which those interviewed in the film claim bordered on egomania. Szukalski was always completely convinced of his own genius and historical importance, even if this fortunately doesn’t seem to have extended to him looking down on others as a result.
Besides art, Szukalski was also obsessed with language from an early age, and he attempted to discern universal meanings by looking for correspondences between languages. His talent for art was noticed early on, and already as a youth he attended classes at the Chicago Institute of Fine Arts. When he was 14, his father sent him back to Poland to study in Krakow, where the authorities of the art academies were so impressed by his work that they admitted him without requiring any examination.
After studying in Poland, Szukalski returned to Chicago, and quickly became a prominent and respected member of the arts community there, being frequently discussed in the newspapers. By 1916 he had acquired something of a reputation for being a “bad boy” of the art world, attacking academic art teachers and critics for being “parasites” who understood nothing about genuine art. This extended even to physical attacks on critics, and he threw one who had taken a negative view of his work down a flight of stairs during this period. And during an exhibition of his work at the Chicago Art Institute, its authorities objected to a painting of his which was critical of British imperialism and asked him to remove it. (Szukalski, unsurprisingly for a Pole during the period when it was still under the thumb of the Russian Empire, was a harsh critic of empires, which he believed to be rootless and lacking in genuine culture, and thus destructive of other, more authentic cultures.) Szukalski didn’t take kindly to this suggestion and proceeded to physically destroy the gallery.
Another notable incident followed the death of Szukalski’s father at around this time, when he was killed in a car accident. When Szukalski gained custody of his father’s body, he proceeded to dissect and analyze it, and produced a number of works based on his examinations. While this may sound rather gruesome, it is clear in the film that Szukalski’s father was the person he admired more than anyone else in his life, and that for him this was an act of love rather than an exercise in morbidity. His father’s death left him in dire financial straits, however, and he struggled for some years thereafter, sometimes having trouble feeding himself. Nevertheless, he persevered.
Szukalski’s style could be said to be a combination of the mythological with eroticism, primitivism, the heroic, and a dose of Surrealism. He was attracted to the primitive art of the world’s cultures most of all, having a particular fascination for Mesoamerican art, a motif which frequently appears in his work throughout all its periods. He considered Mesoamerican art important because he regarded it as being a pure, ethnic form which arose out of its people independently, rather than its having been imposed on them by a conquering culture. He despised modern art, however – in Bray’s videos, Szukalski speaks derisively of Picasso, referring to him as “pick asshole” and as a “castrated failure,” and friends relate how he was similarly dismissive of Matisse and other luminaries of the modern art world, whom he called “fartists.” This was perhaps due to a perceived lack of higher meaning in such work – in the later videos, Szukalski insists that “concept makes you a great artist,” and his own work was certainly dominated by strong thematic content of an almost neoclassical nature. He was likewise obsessed with mythical creatures whose existence is denied by all but the fringe, such as the Sasquatch, Bigfoot, and Yetis, and these also make appearances in his art. And he was preoccupied with pagan subjects and gods, one critic in the film referring to his work as being like a sort of “temple art.” Szukalski was unique in that he always rejected the idea of creating work from living models, preferring to rely on his imagination alone to come up with ideas.
In 1917, Szukalski made one of his most famous statues, Struggle, which he said, anticipating René Guénon, was about the struggle “between quantity and quality,” metaphorically depicting the struggle of ordinary people against the geniuses, whose special role the former resent. The statue was thought to have been destroyed in Poland during the Second World War, but resurfaced in the 1990s, apparently only having been looted.
In 1922, Szukalski married his first wife, a wealthy socialite by the name of Helen Walker, which temporarily put an end to his financial troubles. They had one daughter, Kalinka, who became estranged from Szukalski in later life. Walker’s money enabled Szukalski to publish the first books of his work. The marriage was short-lived, however, as Walker proved to be frigid. But shortly thereafter he met his second wife, Joan, to whom he was to be married for the next fifty years, until her death. After a miscarriage, she was left barren, and Szukalski had no other children.
Poland declared its independence from Russia in 1918 (and shortly thereafter fought off attempts by the Soviet Union to reoccupy them), and Poles were free to determine their own destiny for the first time since the eighteenth century. Szukalski was intrigued by the new possibilities in his homeland, believing that it was time for Poland to develop a uniquely form of Polish art, given his view that only authentic and pure ethnic cultures are valid, with the legacy of the ancient Slavic world being one of the most ancient and purest of all (similar to the Mesoamerican art that he loved, taking a view not unlike that of another nationalist sympathizer of the same period, D. H. Lawrence, as reflected in his novel The Plumed Serpent). He began to make frequent trips back to Poland after 1918, believing that it was his destiny to help “make Poland great again” – which ushered in the nationalist phase of his life. This aspect of his work is clearly disturbing to Szukalski’s friends in the film, given that they claim to have been unaware of it during his lifetime. George DiCaprio goes so far as to say that if he had known about it, he would have felt “compelled to warn [his] friends away” from him.
In Poland during the 1920s, Szukalski, at the time an expert self-promoter, quickly became hailed as a national genius, and he proved to be very popular in the Polish media. His exhibitions drew tens of thousands of visitors. He presented Poles with a type of art that was a fusion of the Mesoamerican and ancient Slavic traditions, developing his own idealized interpretation of Slavic history and mythology and projecting it into a vision of a sort of archeofuturist Poland which merged historical elements with a futuristic aesthetic. He was also clearly interested in Fascism, as evinced by the fact that an important statue he produced in 1932, Remussolini, featured a stylized Duce giving a Roman salute. During this period, he formed a society of Polish artists which he called the “Horned Heart,” viewing it as a sort of tribe. The members of this society tried to produce works in Szukalski’s style, and in some cases they even imitated his personal appearance.
Poland during the 1920s and early 1930s was under the rule of Jozef Pilsudski, who dominated a government which, while ostensibly nationalist and authoritarian, sought a multicultural Poland which would include Ukrainians, Germans, Lithuanians, Jews, and other minorities as part of its demographic fabric. Szukalski rejected this notion, holding that only an ethnic Pole could be a true member of the nation, and even going so far as to maintain that Catholic Poles could never be true patriots. (Attacks on the Church and its clergy were a prominent part of Szukalski’s beliefs.) Pilsudski’s regime wasn’t receptive to his message, however, and eventually Szukalski abandoned Poland in frustration and returned to America, moving to Southern California.
In 1914, while in Chicago, Szukalski had befriended Ben Hecht, a Jew who was at the time an aspiring writer. By the 1930s, Hecht was a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and attempted to interest Szukalski in working in Hollywood. Szukalski rejected this, however, preferring to remain focused on his career as an artist. Hecht later recounted his relationship with Szukalski in his autobiography, A Child of the Century, and even praised him as an anti-fascist symbol, which indicates that Hecht had no knowledge of his friend’s activities in Poland at the time. (It’s worth noting that Hecht went on to be a crucial supporter of the fledgling State of Israel during the years of its formation, encouraging terrorist attacks on the British and helping European Jews to emigrate there.) Szukalski seems to have had some contact with Hollywood, however, as Bray mentions that he once said that he had worked on the landscape designs for the original King Kong.
Szukalski continued his work in Los Angeles for a period, continuing to hold exhibitions, until 1935, when Pilsudski died and the Polish government began to move toward a much more strongly ethnonationalist position which was more in tune with Szukalski’s own vision for the country. Excited at his renewed prospects to become a figure of historical importance in his homeland, he returned and took up residence in Warsaw, so assured of his role that he brought all of his existing work that was still in his possession with him. The Polish state warmly embraced him, seeing him as a national answer to the rise of National Socialist art in rival Germany, granting him a massive number of commissions and setting up a government-funded studio and a national gallery dedicated to his work. One of Szukalski’s most important new projects was a three-and-a-half-story-tall statue of Boleslaw the Great, the first King of Poland.
The clearest indication of Szukalski’s ethnonationalist sympathies offered in the film is the journal Krak, which his Horned Heart society published, containing many contributions from Szukalski himself. In its pages, Szukalski outlined the tenets of his own form of Polish nationalism, in which he clearly rejected Communists, Jews, and the Church as part of the Polish community, and attacked his own enemies for being Jews or Jewish agents, writing that the presence of Jews was undermining Poland’s rebirth. Although Krak only ran for twelve issues and had a small circulation, this appears to be the most damning piece of evidence against Szukalski in the eyes of liberals, although some scholars interviewed in the film state that the journal had very little effect on Polish society, given that it was already strongly anti-Semitic and nationalist.
In an interesting footnote to Szukalski’s nationalist period, Szukalski himself relates that he was contacted at this time by a Third Reich minister named Fischer, who said that there were people in the Reich who were admirers of his work, and he asked Szukalski to submit designs for monuments dedicated to Hitler and Goering. Unsurprisingly for a Polish ethnonationalist on the eve of the Second World War, Szukalski didn’t take the request seriously, and he claims that he submitted a design of Hitler dressed in a woman’s ballet costume. Szukalski says that they answered him with a polite rejection.
In 1939, however, Polish ethnonationalism suffered a fatal collision with German ethnonationalism, and Szukalski’s dreams of a renewed Poland came crashing down with it. He and his wife were still in Warsaw during the German bombing of the city in September of that year, and Szukalski fled to his studio, desperately trying to protect his statue of Boleslaw the Great, which was still in progress. The studio ended up collapsing around him, and he was trapped under the rubble for two days until he could be dug out. Having taken American citizenship during his years there, he took refuge in the US embassy, and was able to escape the city as the Germans arrived to occupy it. He and his wife made it back to America with only three suitcases. Given that he had moved all of his work there, nearly all of Szukalski’s art, apart from a few pieces that were in American collections, was lost during the war, either destroyed in the fighting or looted. Most now survive only in photographs.
This marked the end of Szukalski’s involvement with Poland during his lifetime. Given his prominent role as a nationalist before the war, the Communist government which emerged in the aftermath was uninterested in having him back. The film does mention that in 1957, Szukalski was invited by the Polish government to submit a design for a monument commemorating the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, but that it wasn’t accepted.
Upon their escape from Poland, Szukalski and his wife returned to Southern California, where they were to remain for the rest of their lives. The film remains vague about what Szukalski did between 1939 and his discovery by Glenn Bray in 1973, a period of nearly thirty-five years. It is mentioned that Szukalski took a job with a producer of rocket engines called Rocketdyne, but given that, according to Wikipedia , the company wasn’t even founded until 1955, it’s clear that this couldn’t have been Szukalski’s only source of income during his post-war years.
Thus, Szukalski vanished into obscurity. In the video clips shown in the film, he blames this on what he says was the bias that Americans at the time had towards European immigrants, and laments being exiled to the “cultural Siberia of America” that is Southern California, claiming that it is where he “died” as an artist. It still seems there is some piece of the story that is missing. From the 1910s until the mid-1930s, when he left, he had a successful career in art in both Chicago and Los Angeles. What changed between 1935 and 1939 that made it impossible for him to resume it? One might think that it was his nationalist beliefs that drove the crowds away, but it is established in the film that no one in America knew about this until after his death. The explanation may in fact be unremarkable, but the film glosses over it, for whatever reason. But having become persona non grata in his homeland, and being ignored in his adopted country, in one of the video clips in the film, Szukalski laments that he found himself as “a patriot without a country.”
After Glenn Bray got in contact with Szukalski in 1973, he set about introducing him to his friends in the Southern California underground comics scene. Although knowing nothing of Szukalski’s illustrious background, many of Bray’s friends quickly recognized his artistic genius. Szukalski remained friendly with these people, but for a while he tried to remain aloof from their world, making it clear that he didn’t regard their type of work, which was strongly transgressive and subcultural (and countercultural), as serious art. Bray relates that Szukalski refused to consider allowing him to publish his work at first, believing that important publishers in other countries would eventually approach him. But by the late 1970s, when it became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen, Szukalski finally relented, and Bray published the first book of Szukalski’s work to appear in nearly half a century: Behold the Protong. His work found its way into the magazines of the underground comics world, such as Robert Crumb’s Weirdo, which even Szukalski’s friends in the film say was a bit like chalk and cheese, with the Michelangelo of the twentieth century hobnobbing with what one describes as “the lowest phylum of art.” While this gained him a certain cultish notoriety in art circles, it was a far cry from the recognition he had received during the first half of his life.
It was during the latter part of his life that Szukalski developed an idea he termed “Zermatism,” by which he sought to construct the lost primordial culture that he believed lay at the roots of all the world’s present-day civilizations (a notion not dissimilar to the Traditionalists’ concept of the Primordial Tradition). Toward this end, he examined the primitive art of all the cultures of the world, seeking to decipher the language of symbols that he believed this lost civilization had used prior to the Great Flood, which he termed “Protong.” He was convinced that this civilization had originated on Easter Island, a place he never had the opportunity to visit during his lifetime. Szukalski left behind fifty-four volumes of bound research documents which he claimed demonstrated the truth of his theory.
In one of the videos, Szukalski states that he produced 174 sculptures and hundreds of other paintings and designs over the course of his life. His second wife passed away in 1980, and he himself died in 1987, at the age of 93, from a stroke. He bequeathed what remained of his estate to Glenn Bray, who still supervises it to this day. Szukalski was cremated and his Southern California friends scattered his ashes on Easter Island. Although a number of books of his work have been published since his death, he remains obscure in the United States, although perhaps the release of this film will begin to rectify this situation.
The question Counter-Currents readers are probably wondering about is, did Szukalski remain a nationalist after he left Poland? In the film, his friends exhibit a great deal of hand-wringing over what they later learned about his activities in Poland. George DiCaprio states at one point that they had had no idea about it until after they had already begun work on this film, saying that Szukalski was always reticent to discuss that period of his life, and with others claiming that he never expressed a nationalist idea in their company. DiCaprio is the harshest of them all, exhibiting regret that he had helped to promote his work at all. Presumably this film was produced against the backdrop of the rise of Donald Trump and the “Alt Right” in recent years and the accompanying hysteria this produced in rarefied bastions of the radical Left like Southern California, and thus DiCaprio seems to have inculcated the idea popular in those circles that any form of association with the “radical Right” renders all of one’s accomplishments and activities null and void, given that he is apparently willing to dismiss his years of intimate friendship and his admiration for Szukalski’s work over this. But this is nothing new, as many of those reading this can no doubt attest. DiCaprio seems to believe that Szukalski deliberately concealed his past, even claiming that he “fooled the rest of us.” But the question that lingers in my mind is whether or not Szukalski was being deceptive in later life, or if his views genuinely did change, and he kept quiet about his time in Poland out of shame. Or, perhaps he was simply concerned about the “victors’ justice” which continues to be visited upon anyone who had anything to do with European nationalism during the interwar period, to this day.
The film – unsurprisingly, given that it’s a Hollywood production, and needs to redeem its subject somehow – goes to great lengths to prove that Szukalski changed after the Second World War. His friends state that he “believed in humanity” and “didn’t believe in boundaries,” and that he reevaluated his attitude toward Jews. There does seem to be some evidence for this besides their testimony. In one of the video clips, Szukalski talks about the need to “love all nationalities” and to be open to strangers – but there is no essential contradiction between this and an ethnonationalist, ethnopluralist position, provided that one acknowledges that those of European descent are entitled to this love as well. A post-war sculpture of his is shown depicting a menorah and bearing a legend in Hebrew reading “The Nation of Israel is alive” – interesting, but not necessarily proof that Szukalski’s view that Jews are a subversive force had changed.
There are a few indicators from his friends’ testimony that he was not completely reborn after the war. Szukalski’s continuing dismissal of American culture – a common feature of the European Right – is evident throughout the film. Both before and after the war, he insisted that America had thus far failed to produce its own form of genuine art, and lamented the horrific state of our popular culture, claiming that Americans have created nothing authentic and that so far, its culture is worthless. “We are being destroyed from within,” he states about it in one of the videos. In an attempt to remedy this, Szukalski created a plan for a monument which he wanted built on Texas’ border with Mexico, Promerica, which would feature an Aztec priest blessing the designs of an American engineer – apparently seeing hope for America in the synthesis of its technical prowess with the traditional Mesoamerican legacy.
One of his friends further relates that one of the first things he would say to anyone upon meeting them was to ask him or her, “What’s your nationality?” However the person answered, Szukalski would proceed to find reasons to run that country down. His friends attest that he always had more respect for Europeans, however. Bray further adds that even when they were preparing Behold the Protong, Szukalski insisted on including Remussolini in it, suggesting that he did not reject his nationalist work even late in life. It is also mentioned that one of Szukalski’s last productions was a monument commemorating the Katyn Massacre, when the Soviet Union massacred thousands of members of the Polish elite in 1940, demonstrating that he never lost his hatred of Communism or his love for his people.
But the most interesting piece of counter-evidence for me is Szukalski’s Zermatism. The film relates that as part of this mythos, Szukalski believed that in primordial times, ape-like creatures had raped beautiful human women, leading to the rise of a “corrupt sub-race” which he termed Yetis. Many modern humans are in fact descended from Yetis, he believed, and are behind many of the modern world’s problems, such as Communism. The film, naturally, ignores this comparison completely, but this idea bears a striking resemblance to the tenets of Ariosophy, the mystical racialist doctrine which arose in the Germanic world at the turn of the twentieth century and had influence on “Nazi occultism,” in which it was held that racial mixing between Aryans and apes had produced the lesser races. People in the film discuss how Szukalski was fond of measuring people’s arms to determine if they were Yetis or not, believing that Yetis had short arms. The film only mentions this in passing, but it seems that Szukalski continued to adhere to some sort of racial doctrine even late in life, despite Bray’s rather hollow claim that he believes that the purpose of Zermatism was to “bring people together.”
The film also mentions Szukalski’s post-war design for a gigantic memorial to the “martyrs of all countries,” in which a hero from every nation in the world would be represented, as proof that he was “done with nationalism.” Even if we accept this as true, these sorts of grand universalist designs are typical of those intellectuals on the Right who saw their pre-war nationalist hopes dashed, but nonetheless survived the trauma of the Second World War. One thinks for example of Ernst Jünger, who styled himself as something of a cosmopolitan “citizen of the world” after the 1930s, calling for the elimination of nation-states. But one of the things that must be observed about these strivings toward redemption is that even in this, these thinkers and artists remained quintessentially Western. Who, other than someone of European extraction, would conceive of a monument honoring all nations? This is the classic downfall of Western thought, which often believes that other civilizations are quintessentially the same as ours and differ only in the details. One can understand why those who witnessed their nations being destroyed as a result of chauvinism might end up dreaming of a world where all men are brothers. But after seventy years of witnessing the results of trying to put this dream into practice in America and Western Europe, we can now safely say that such dreams are as utopian as that of the classless society. And regardless, the conclusions a thinker or artist comes to in later life do not necessarily obviate the value of his earlier ideas, and this is just as true of Szukalski as anyone else.
This seems to be the view in Poland today, actually. The film states that, contrary to America, where Szukalski is seen as an underground cult figure, in his home country he is associated with “the idea of the homeland and paganism,” and that he is understood as a sort of nationalist prophet. It is further stated that he is a “hero to the pagan Right.” No details are offered, other than “scary” stock footage of nationalists marching in Poland in recent years, and the scholars who are interviewed are quick to state that Polish nationalists “misunderstand” Szukalski. It is more likely the case that they simply don’t like the fact that the Polish Right emphasizes Szukalski’s nationalist period. In any event, based on this film alone one can’t determine the extent or specifics of Szukalski’s influence on the contemporary Polish Right, but it’s something about which I plan to speak to my friends in nationalist circles there.
Struggle is well worth watching for anyone with an interest in either art or the relationship between art and nationalism. It is as a well-crafted and long-overdue introduction to Szukalski’s life and work, and hopefully will do much to put him back on the map of art history, where he belongs. Nevertheless, I am quite certain that the film is flawed due to the simple fact that it relies almost entirely on the testimony of those who knew him in Southern California. Szukalski was 80 when he was introduced into the underground art world there, and the peak of his career had already passed decades before that. It is quite evident that if Szukalski is remembered, it will be primarily for his pre-war work. A few Polish scholars are briefly interviewed in the film, but otherwise the perspectives of his countrymen are almost completely lacking, and by their own admission Szukalski’s California friends had a very incomplete picture of the man as a whole. Therefore, Struggle should be seen as an introduction, rather than the final word, on Szukalski.
I certainly plan to follow up my viewing of Struggle by seeking out more information on him, and if I find more that is noteworthy I will certainly write it up for the benefit of Counter-Currents readers. But in the meantime, it is certain that Stanislaw Szukalski earned his place alongside the great artists of the Right of the twentieth century.