An obscure artist was discovered, and quickly shelved.
These days most people in the established art world see art through the lens of politics, social issues, obtuse philosophy, rarefied art theory, and radical ideology. It took outsider, underground types of artists, cartoonists, and collectors — the variety the contemporary art cognoscenti turn their noses up at — to see the obvious with their own eyes. A visually literate person need only spend a minute with the drawing above to sense that Szukalski possessed extraordinary skill. And we all know skill is poo-pooed in favor of the grandiose idea: the IDEA of putting a shark in a tank; taping a banana to a wall; exhibiting one’s unkempt bed; canning one’s shit; and going all the way back to exhibiting a urinal tilted on its side. And this kind of drawing? Well, it’s considered fossilized dinosaur shit as far as the unwitting extremist ideologues of the art world are concerned.
There is a very large part of the art world that thinks the purpose of art is to further a revolutionary social agenda, and that anything that doesn’t accomplish that is at best irrelevant, and at worst upholding the status quo (and thus is part of the problem).
But for those of us who know how to draw, and can fathom the skill necessary to make something like the drawing above, it is, like it or not, far too good to ignore. Just pause, look at the strings in the harp that is the bow, note how their shadows fall across the forearm, and then are further cast onto the backdrop. That exacting level of intricacy is so accomplished that it’s intimidating.
This is Szukalski’s unique skill — and which he excels at more than any other I’m aware of — modeling imaginative forms in three dimensional pictorial space. In “The Ancestral Helmet” above, the artist places the woman’s eye precisely in the opened rear mouth of the face on the helmet. This is something a digital artist might accomplish with a 3D sculpt, after spinning it around in real time until the perfect angle emerges. But Szukalski, as a sculptor who learned to negotiate three dimensions in his teens, was able to rotate figures in his imagination, and then draw them not with line, but by laying down dots.
You can see the dots clearly in the drawing above.
Looking at just the images I’ve shared, if one hasn’t seen his work before, one would notice some other outstanding features. The figures are monumental, dramatic, stylized, and exaggerated. It would be impressive if they were naturalistic, but in veering from what exists, while creating the impression of space and solidity, he manifests his unique vision. That heroic vision, one would also sense, has an odd but familiar look about it. There’s an angularity reminiscent of Art Deco, but something grandiose, even propagandist about it. Something is being idealized, heralded as noble, the strong, the good, and perhaps the pure. And that’s where things get a little sticky. I detect a mid-century, East European feel about it, and that, in the extreme, raises some less than wholesome plausible connections.
There is even much evidence, in his obsession over his own wild theories, that he may have suffered from a mental imbalance.
The question of, “can we separate the art from the artist?” comes into play in Szukalski’s biography, though that may tend to a very predictable, knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t take into account the full scope or the man, or the art. It’s popular now to discover the worst thing we can about an artist, extrapolate that it permeates the fiber of his being and poisons his oeuvre like a cancer, and then we demand his works be purged from the canon. It may strike some as curious that in the realm of contemporary art theory, the notion of inclusion features an excess of condemnation and exclusion. We might do better to be less eager at the guillotine, and instead look for the good in the lives of others, and appreciate their accomplishments and gifts. What makes Szukalski great is specifically that his vision is so out of sync with the dominant strains of 20th century art, both in terms of style and content, but is nevertheless highly developed, compelling, and expertly crafted.
[People are a bit dim in recent times when it comes to the issue of art and morality. Their thinking on the topic is as nuanced as a refrigerator light: ALL ART MUST BE CORRECT, OR ELSE IT IS GARBAGE! For a take with a few more firings of neurons in the noodle, you can brush up on my article: Is Immoral Art Bad Art?]
I only discovered Szukalski a few days ago, while combing through the Netflix archive for something to watch. Everything seemed the same old stories, until I happened upon an art documentary about an artist I’d never heard of. Before I spoil the plot, I highly recommend this film. Here’s the trailer:
I had no problems with this documentary. It built in complexity; showcased the art very well; rounded out the character warts and all; and ended strongly on a human note. I can’t compete with it in a blog post. I can only add my own angle on it, and a few salient observations.
The film was released in 2018, and two years later the artist still hasn’t been recognized or promoted to the point where I’d ever heard of him. I checked online to see how my least favorite online art magazine (because it subordinates all of art and art history to a contemporary political agenda), Hyperallergic, covered it.
They didn’t. He is only mentioned in passing in articles about other topics [in the Crumb piece, “and works by forgotten artists (Gene Deitch, Stanislav Szukalski)”]. He is persona non grata. Who needs another dead white male artist, and particularly a painter or sculptor, in the canon?! Best to squash him by giving him zero attention.
How about ARTFORUM?
Shut out! Not even a film review. Nothing!
How about good old Art in America/Artnews?
No, again. Neither the film nor the artist merit any attention. They are not even worth shooting down. This oversight, however, is the shortcoming of these official art institutions, not the brilliant documentary, nor the amazing lifetime achievement of the artist. It isn’t that the material isn’t good enough — au contraire mes amis — but rather that the official art world made a decision to suffocate it, while tucking its own head up its posterior.
I mean, what fuckwittery is going on here? Sure, Szukalski was arrogant, eccentric, a white male artist “genius”, and there’s a little dark corner in his past, but nearly his entire works of drawings, paintings, and sculptures were destroyed in the Nazi bombing of Warsaw in 1939. He was buried in the rubble of his studio for 2 days. He went off his nut a bit (who wouldn’t under the circumstances?), but his skill is phenomenal, and the story is fascinating. But no, no sir and mam and their, let’s just flush the whole thing down to make room for the next performance/protest of Gauguin, fruit taped to a wall to cover. The same year of the documentary, 2018, three of these publications covered artist Michelle Hartney putting her own placards next to Gauguin paintings in a museum, announcing his misogyny. Attacking great art is more important than discovering lost great art. The literary equivalent would be celebrating text on signs at a book burning as headline literary achievement, while ignoring a stack of books by a rediscovered novelist. The art world is less concerned with actual art than it is with constructing and controlling a self-serving narrative., Close, Picasso, Waterhouse, Balthus, or whoever else it’s time to take down. That and there’s
An article in Contemporary Lynx (I never heard of it, either) stated:
Szukalski … became a surprising hero for a bunch of mediocre post-hippies.
From such a lofty perspective, in which another neglected great artist, Robert Williams, is a mediocre post-hippy, than surely so am I, because I also think Glenn Bray, who rediscovered Szukalski, made a major find [and nobody worships Szukalski as a hero. Give us a break].
Sometimes it takes an artist to know an artist when he sees one.
Mediocre post-hippies kinda’ designates people who still love painting, or are real painters themselves. It also includes Ernst Fuchs, if you know who he is.
“When I saw the works of Szukalski. This was astonishing you know. What a sense of beauty and spiritual eroticism… Szukalski was the Michelangelo of the 20th century. And probably also of an age to come.” ~ Ernst Fuchs.
Painters?! Artists?! Phew! Enough of this antediluvian crap! Art has moved on! People are pinning protest placards next to paintings in museums, and strapping bananas to gallery walls!
If you aren’t going to watch the film, can’t right now, don’t mind spoilers, or just like more input and reinforcement, here are some highlights from the documentary, including screenshots.
Szukalski was very opinionated about other artists, and it’s not apparent that he liked any of them.
Clever. Uh, I did a quick Google search to see if he coined “Pic-Asshole”, but, y’know, sometimes my mind doesn’t automatically go to the rock bottom, in which case it hadn’t occurred to me that all the links would be for pictures of assholes, literally speaking. I’m guessing he didn’t come up with Pic-Asshole, and I’m a Picasso fan, but I still like it.
This kind of thing is refreshing. Nowadays artists dare not criticize other artists (except for moral transgressions, in which case the gloves are off and the iron fist is on), for fear of damaging the viability of a gallery’s product. It’s bad business. And if you were to criticize the art of someone in a protected class, and you belonged to the unprotected class, you might next be seen in a suit of tar and feathers, humiliated in the public square, you cretin, you. Me, I miss when artists like Francis Bacon said Pollock’s paintings looked like “old lace”. Now it’s as if artists have nothing to say, or it all has to be upbeat pablum, or they just regurgitate the party line, comrades.
OK, it’s not just funny that he lived in Burbank, which is one of the more plebeian destinations in the world, but check out that signature. He invented his own design for the letters of the alphabet when he was a kid, and insisted on using it for the rest of his life. This reflects a lifelong sensibility of his, which is an insistence on being true to one’s inner voice, doing things one’s own way, and even discovering or inventing one’s own reality.
“If you want to create new things for this world, never listen to anybody. You have to suck your wisdom, all the knowledge, from you thumb. Your own self.” ~ Szukalski.
He did some Rodin-esque works.
Not Rodan, Rodin!
There’s a legend about how Szukalski learned anatomy, which is pretty disturbing, if it’s true.
It is my father. He’s been killed by an automobile. I drive the crowd away, and I pick up my father’s body. I carry it on my shoulder a long time to the country morgue. I tell them, “this is my father”. And I ask them this thing, which they did allow. My father is given to me, and I dissect his body. You ask me where I learned anatomy. My father taught me. ~ Szukalski
I don’t believe this story. Where would he have performed this dissection, and over what period of time would he have done it? And who has the stomach for that, especially when dealing with one’s own father. I think the artist was given to Dali-esque self-promotion, and wanted to be viewed as a mad artist extraordinaire. All that kind of stuff is arrogant bordering on megalomania by today’s standards, and his technical ability was no doubt achieved early, and through years of extensive training.
All this posturing, conceitedness, and delusions of grandeur may rub me the wrong way, but as an artist myself, on some level I see other artists as competition (in a good way), and I’m not going to fool myself by disqualifying competitors on extraneous grounds. The way to beat Szukalski is to render imaginary beings in 3D pictorial space better than he does, not to find some excuse to eliminate him from the competition.
I see art to a degree like MMA. A lot of people hate Conor McGregor, or Khabib Nurmagomedov, or scoff at the Brazilian jujitsu fighters that thank Jesus after winning championship matches. Scoff or hate all you want, they won. We can say that Floyd Mayweather, because of his abusive conduct towards women, is a bad person, but we can’t say he wasn’t, in his professional career, undefeated. To milk this analogy further, if someone’s kung fu is better than mine, my moral agenda doesn’t do anything to change that. And while skill is derided in art these days, as is the imagination, that’s because we’ve lost our eye on the ball. Ability matters in art. And I can admire someone’s ability even if I can’t stand them individually, which isn’t to say I dislike Szukalksi, just that it doesn’t really matter. Art history is not a record of saints, but of people who created great works of art. Morality is ir-F’ing-relevant in the arena of real art, and I consider myself a very moral person.
He did some really cool graphics.
There’s a collection of around 200 letters he wrote to one of his loves (I forget which), and each one contains an erotic drawing:
He was mainly a sculptor, though I am more impressed by his drawings, because it’s harder to translate a 3D object into imaginary pictorial space on a flat plane than it is to model it in physical reality (which is why Michelangelo’s sculptures are so much more realistic than his paintings).
“Art cannot be proper. Art must be exaggerated. Bend down until your spine cracks. You must exaggerate the likeness.” ~ Szukalski
And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for:
Szukalski, in the ’30s, put out some pamphlets while we was living in Poland, and was a Polish nationalist. They had antisemitic sentiments! Note above the insistence that Jews be removed from Poland. Indeed, at one point in his life, a kind of authoritarianism appealed to him, and he idolized Polish heritage. This is the type of snippet of evidence that justifies burning what precious little of his work remains, and purging his vision from our collective imagination. I wouldn’t do it, but I understand the tendency.
It is worth keeping in mind that not long after these pamphlets circulated to an estimated dozen or so people, his studio and nearly all his drawings, paintings, and sculptures were obliterated in a bombing raid on Warsaw. Roughly a fifth of the city was destroyed, and a quarter-million people died. He was trapped under the rubble of his studio for two days, and witnessed the Nazis machine-gun one of his sculptures. He may have learned his lesson, plus a couple more.
It’s perhaps too easy to fault people in the past for thinking or believing one of the popular strains of thought that ran through their communities. We tend to be more comfortable in our teens saying things like, “I would never have believed in witches.” We can all judge the veterans who committed horrendous acts during the Vietnam war from the comfort of our cubicles, safe in the knowledge we would never have burned down villages or raped the young women. This all presumes that we have an innate nature that is not constructed or vulnerable to the overriding beliefs of our times. I think it is more moral and enlightened to acknowledge that under completely different circumstances, especially overwhelming ones, we wouldn’t be the same people, and we would act differently.
Ask yourself if you are relatively in sync with the dominant beliefs and moral standards of the society you live in. If the answer is yes, than in the past, in certain environments, you very well might have advocated burning witches or expelling Jews from the homeland, since that was the cultural norm and perceived moral good of the society in question. If you are shooting potholes in the dominant narrative from the periphery, you might be able to make a better argument for how you would have behaved in another time and place. But if you follow the herd now, and we imagine your character would miraculously be constant, you would have followed the herd then. In the future, today’s high moral standard — with its twitter mobs, call-out culture, censoring of art, and overarching demonization of the west and colorless people — will rightly be perceived as ethically lacking.
As far as is apparently known, the artist didn’t harbor ethnic authoritarian beliefs in his later life, though he did insist he was a patriot of both Poland and America, and better the two than just one. In fact, he became obsessed with his own bizarre theories, such as that all people, language, and culture originated in Easter Island. He believed he’d discovered the original human language, which he called Protong, and which he uncovered through finding similarities between all other languages.
He spent 40 years compiling his extensive volumes of research into the true history of the people of Earth. This also includes his even more outlandish belief that there is a subgroup of people, descendants of the Yeti (yes, Bigfoot), who are the source of all evil in the world. No, it wasn’t racist, except against the Sasquatch, because even Winston Churchill was among the Yetizens, seeing as Szukalski viewed him as an imperialist.
I’m reminded of David Icke, and other conspiracy wingnuts, and that they share an underlying drive to figure things out for themselves, even on the most grand scale. What do you do if you have that inclination, but it’s already been done? Would that there had been someone to steer Szukalski away from this manic obsession, and back into art.
Friends say he was sane, but I’m not sure that they’d disagree that some of his screws could have stood a bit of tightening. In light of his patently ridiculous beliefs — which he dedicated half his life to developing, and with copious illustrations — we might excuse some of his earlier wrong-thought, especially if, as it appears to be, he outgrew it and adopted more humane, if lunatic, beliefs. He doesn’t appear to have harmed anyone. How is it possible for us to develop a broader and more just understanding unless we come from a narrower and less just one? And does this greater vantage of justice tolerate people making mistakes in their judgement or ability to measure reality?
At very least Szukalski was a consummate illustrator.
His sculpture is generally held as even better (though I prefer his drawings).
Even his personal encyclopedia of the genesis of all people and culture, in its monumental scope, is a sign of the magnitude of greatness. His work, taken in the aggregate, is an astounding achievement in art, whether it fits in with twentieth century giants like Pollock or Warhol, or if he held the proper beliefs at all times, or even sometimes (OK, probably never). His work is so obviously intrinsically excellent, on the face of it, that he deserves a place in the pantheon of art, even if he is, in the eyes of the contemporary art rubric, just another dead white male (and one with a record of some of the most reprehensible convictions!). Does art function to expand our horizons or to solidify an agenda? Clearly, as evidenced in the complete refusal from the established art world to acknowledge Szukalski’s prior existence, their paradigm is too narrow to accommodate him. For many of the rest of us, however, Szukalski ads to the scope of what visual art is capable of accomplishing, both technically and in terms of envisioning and manifesting one’s personal reality. Whatever his faults, and however and whoever might appropriate his art today for their purposes (there are some unsavory examples), I can’t and wouldn’t go back to the story of art in which his contribution is absent.
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