Polishness as Religion: The Mystical Delirium of a Nationalist Artist
An incredibly gifted sculptor, Szukalski's radical worldview was the biggest scandal of 20th-century Polish art. His quasi-pagan worship of Poland was deemed nationalist, fascist, and even racist.
As an ardent patriot he attached a cult value to Poland. He apotheosised Marshal Pilsudski, for whom he even wanted to erect a pagan temple at the bottom of Kraków's Wawel Hill. He ardently opposed the role of the Catholic Church, promoting instead a return to Slavic paganism. An authoritarian personality, he was fascinated with fascism, his strong anti-Semitism undoubtedly verging on paranoia.
Stanisław Szukalski considered himself to be Poland personified, but he spent most of his life far away from the country, detached from its reality. Polishness, as he said, was his religion. But looking back at his oeuvre and life one might be tempted to say that it was also an obsession bordering on a serious personality disorder. As a matter of fact, mental illness is likely behind the awkward pseudo-scientific theory known as Zermatism which Szukalski developed obsessively during the last several decades of his life.
From Poland to America (and back again)
Born in 1893 in Warta (Wielkopolska), Szukalski was 13 years old when his family emigrated to the US. That same year, Szukalski, who was a child prodigy in sculpture, enrolled in Chicago's Institute of Art. Only a year later, he would return to Poland and enrol at Kraków's Academy of Fine Arts, where he was admitted in spite of his young age and the rather unorthodox approach he displayed during his entry exam – he famously sculpted the knee of the model instead of the whole body.
His encounter with the Polish education system proved troublesome and reverberated throughout his later career. Although he had managed to complete his education in the ancient Polish capital, he would later always refer to it as backwards and conservative.
During the next decade, which he would spend in America, Szukalski continued to sculpt and draw, experiencing at times utmost poverty – stretches of days during which he would not eat. Eventually he did make a brilliant career in the Chicago art circles, which at around this time included such artists as Ben Hecht, Carl Sandburg, and Clarence Darrow. As a result, two large monographs of his work were published: The Work of Szukalski (Covici-McGee, 1923) and Projects in Design (University of Chicago Press, 1929).
At this early stage of his career, Szukalski was already known to hold some very strong opinions, his high self-esteem verging on megalomania. Commenting on his art from this period, he is quoted as saying, ‘I put Rodin in one of my pockets, and Michelangelo in the second, and head towards the Sun’. Indeed, his output from this period was described as particularly dependent on the art of Rodin.
Szukalski's attitude towards art critics was particularly revealing, as he denied them the most basic right to utter any judgement about his art. In a display of this attitude, he famously threw one of the most established Chicago art critics, Count Montegals, down some stairs as he supposedly dared to poke Szukalski's sculpture with his cane while making a point.
Back in the Second Poland – reforming everything
Coming back in 1923 to the now resurrected Poland, Szukalski had quite a stable material situation (in 1923 he'd also married affluent young painter Helena Walker). He was also full of new ideas. His plan was to transform the face of Polish art and culture, which to his mind leant too heavily on Western ideas. Instead, he postulated a return to the forgotten ancient Slavic roots of Poland. The largely legendary Medieval history of the Piast tribe, the first Polish regal dynasty, and the early days of the Slavic pagan religion were seen as the right topics for the resurrected monumental sculpture and painting.
Looking for vitality and originality, Szukalski posited turning to the the authentic culture of the Polish folk, which to his mind preserved the 'uncontaminated' 'Polishness’. Simultaneously, he put forward an iconoclastic idea to abolish the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, establishing instead a new institution called Twórcownia, of which he would be the sole and only leader and teacher.
His own teaching method required dropping classical European drawing from models, and substituting it with painting from memory, which, as he argued, would endorse creativity and fantasy over slavish imitation. During this time he also demanded that his pupils stop oil painting.
While in Poland Szukalski naturally took part in competitions. His biggest successes include a Grand Prix in Paris and winning the competition for the monument to Mickiewicz in Vilnius (which, however, would never be realized). But his designs and sculptures were generally seen as extravagant, fantastical, or simply awkward. One of the critics of the time even questioned whether the sculptor should be offered commissions worthy of his talent, and he stipulated that it would have to be on certain conditions, among them:
That none of his statues is bigger than the Sigismund Column [Warsaw's biggest monument], that the number of hands and legs equals two, that no national hero would have another stick out, protrude or come out of the first one, and that, similarly, Poland would not be seen as leaping from another figure's head, heart, liver, spleen or whatever other bodily organ; lastly that no figure would have a tail.
But while his art exhibitions usually ended in scandal, the reasons lay not so much in the character of the exhibited art but rather the offensive character of his public utterances. It is in these public speeches, as well as in written articles, that Szukalski was at his most effective in scandalizing the cultural elite and warding off possible accolades. The style of these enunciations combined the most vulgar and aggressive invectives hurled against the representatives of the artistic elite, with a somewhat obsessive linguistic inventiveness – puns and echolalia.
Venerating the marshal – Poland as religion
As an ardent adherent of the concept of the resurrected Poland (which he consistently called the Second Poland), Szukalski venerated Marshal Piłsudski, who for him was an embodiment of the political and spiritual liberation. One of the most characteristic sculpture designs from this period, Politwarus, was conceived as a tribute to the historical Polish-Lithianian Commonweath and to the the victorious battle of Warsaw – this strange structure had Piłsudski's face.
However, the somewhat crazy idea which kept Szukalski most busy during the 1920s was the self-imposed task of turning Wawel, the historical hill in Kraków, into a pagan Slavic temple (which he called Duchtynia) and the centre of the nation’s spiritual life.
The central point of Duchtynia was supposed to be located in the underground vault of Smocza Jama (Dragon's Vault) where along with the cult statue of Piłsudski the Liberator, crowds of faithful would honour the cult statue of Svantovid – an ancient pagan god of the Slavic people and a symbol of a return to the abandoned Polish past. According to the design, the statue of Svantovid was to incorporate figures of a giant horse carrying the Marshal, Kazimir the Great, Copernicus, and Mickiewicz – that is, the four greatest Poles in history, according to Szukalski.
Another controversial monument to stand at the foot of the Wawel Hill, was a statue of Bolesław Probus, a Medieval Polish king credited with murdering the bishop Stanislaus (the future Saint of Poland). The king, as imagined by Szukalski, was represented in the act of stamping over the mitre of Bishop Stanislaus – a clear sign of Szukalski's anti-Catholic views and a likely point of contention in the arch-Catholic capital of Poland.
His other ideas for the reconstruction of Wawel, which included among others driving a hole in the historical walls of Saint Felix and Audactus Rotunda, stirred terror and protests among the Kraków circles of art historians, among them Alfons Bohusz-Szyszko, an influential architect and the director of the renovation crew of Wawel Castle.
Nationalism, fascism, anti-Semitism
But, as it turned out in the 1930s, while Szukalski's anti-Catholicism was largely negotiable, his anti-Semitism, another key ingredient of his controversial worldview, was not. One of Szukalski's designs for a new proposed emblem of the Second Poland, which he called Toporzeł (Axe-eagle), combined an axe and an eagle. In the 1930’s, he decided to return to the symbol, designing a new version which he called Topokrzyż and which now combined the axe and the cross. The symbol accompanied by the acronym GOJ (Gospodarczą Organizujmy Jedność – ‘Organize Economic Unity’) was envisioned as a visual tool in the economic battle with Jewish trade waged by Poland's nationalist circles in the late 1930s.
Just as awkward was the emblem Szukalski designed as as the symbol of what he called Neuropa – a quasi-federation of European countries, with the important exclusion of the UK, France and Italy (countries which Szukalski considered imperialistic and harmful to world peace). Of course Poland was to be Neuropa's political leader. The design included an image of an inverse swastika (called a gammadion by Szukalski).
Szukalski’s fascination with fascism manifested itself in his design for a monument of Benito Mussolini, one of numerous unrealized monumental projects from the inter-war period. The monument, called Remussolini, showed the naked Duce stylized as the Roman mythical wolf (with an hound’s tail and the twins hiding under his chest), standing on all fours with one of the hands outstretched in a gesture of Fascist greeting.
According to one of Szukalski’s letters dating from the late 30s, during this time the sculptor was approached by the German administration, which asked for his ideas for monuments honouring Hitler. According to the letter, Szukalski acquiesced and did send in his projects, although no materials have survived which could prove such a collaboration.
Szukalski's nationalism with its essential ingredient of anti-Semitism found its ultimate expression in the only literary piece written by the artist. The drama called Krak (1938) was set in the early Medieval and largely mythical Polish past, and written in a curious and at times ridiculous archaic variety of Polish. The story employed the local legend of the dragon which lived in the cave under Kraków's Wawel Hill, and inspired terror in the local population.
In the course of the story the dragon is revealed to be a mechanical device conjured by the tribe's elderly to keep folk disciplined. In a quite ridiculous vision of history the priests pay tribute to a foreign god called Hjeh Weh (a rather obvious allusion to Yahweh, the god of Israel; and Szukalski's illustration in the book leaves little doubt as to the identity of the priests). But their regime is ultimately toppled by the messianic figure of Krak who leads a revolt of the youth against the rule of the elderly.
This fantastic tale may have also had an allegorical aspect, and can be seen as a manifesto and a call to action for a real fellowship which actually existed since the late 1920s. Formed by Szukalski, Szczep Rogatego Serca was a group of his pupils who adopted ancient Slavic-styled nicknames (like Stach z Warty), and wore Slavic styled uniforms designed by Szukalski. Under the leading rule of Stach-Krak, they were devoted to their guru's strife with the old servants of the West, a fight that should lead towards the new Slavic culture.
In 1939 Szukalski left Poland for the US (he was an American citizen). He left behind all of his works and designs, most of which disappeared or were destroyed during the war. He would not return to Poland until 1957. For the rest of his life he nourished a very negative opinion of his compatriots, while at the same time continuing to boast of his Polishness and love of the country.
"They consider me a heretic, when in fact I'm deeply religious, though this is a religion of my own. My religion is Polishness," he was quoted as saying.
In April 1940, Szukalski witnessed something that would change the whole future course of his life. While listening to a radio broadcast about the German invasion of Denmark, one snippet of information in particular caught his ear. The American correspondent was reporting from Bohuslan in Sweden. Szukalski was at first dumbfounded, as the name struck him as of Slavic origin, hiding a meaning which he would soon reconstruct as Bogu Slan (‘sent from God’). But what was a Slavic place name doing in Sweden, which was never inhabited nor occupied by Slavic peoples?
Szukalski spent the next day studying the geographical atlas of Europe, the oldest he could borrow at the University Library in Westwood. The results of this research were shocking. Szukalski found a myriad of supposedly Slavic (Polish) place names scattered around the whole Scandinavia, Europe, and the whole world.
This turned out only the beginning of a painstaking process of research which stretched over many decades of Szukalski's life and which resulted in a peculiar pseudo-scientific theory, which he referred to as Zermatism.
In order to document and illustrate this theory, the artist wrote some 42 volumes of text filled with deliberations on prehistorical, mythological, anthropological topics. The text, amounting to over 25,000 pages, was written in Szukalski's decorative ‘Slavic’-styled handwriting which he developed in the 1930s. Additionally, the book includes some 14,000 illustrations, some of which were made with the use of magnifying glass, and actually would require the use of one if wanted to contemplate it in detail.
The work, which bears ‘an apprehensively pompous’ title – The Whole World is My Due (Należy mi się cały swiat) – is currently in the collection of Archive Szukalski and was described by the artists's monographer Lechosław Lameński as ‘an absolutely unique work, having no analogies in the 20th century art.’
Zermatism and Protong
So what is this work actually about? According to Szukalski's theory, the first humans originated on Easter Island and survived the Great Flood, then went on to create their new civilization in Zermatt, Switzerland (hence the name of the theory). This population spoke one universal language which Szukalski called Protong (or Macimowa – Mother-Tongue). This was was essentially the ancient Polish dialect, ‘its form so archaic as to be devoid of any rudiments of grammar’.
It is from this common proto-language that all (sic!) other languages of the world evolved, as to the point of the common roots being unrecognisable. This helps to explain why the great majority of the names of geographical locations (towns, countries, rivers, etc.) around the whole world can be decoded as transformed Protong names. This leads Szukalski to quite fantastic etymological arguments, which reveal such names as Babylon, Sumer, Rome, London, and Zimbabwe (to name just a few), as ancient Polish names.
Need proof? For example Babylon, is broken down into Polish words Baby Łon [Old Woman's Womb], which according to Szukalski, shows you that the first human civilization was named in honour of women. A woman, by the way, was also a personification of Easter Island, called by the locals Mataveri (which is Polish for Mother of Faith [MAtka Wiary].
The same method could be applied to names of historical and mythical figures, for instance Jesus (Je z Us) which in Protong means ‘Jest z śmiertelnie Uśpionej’ – ‘he comes from the dead submerged homeland’. By the way, the same applied to Zeus.
Other volumes of the monumental work were devoted to such topics as the marks (tattoos) on the faces of tribes, which according to Szukalski were a relic of the Flood, or the archaic images of women (three volumes), the most preposterous deliberations pertain to the genesis of the direction of the eagle head in Polish and other national emblems. (Hint: it depends on the direction of the deluge's waves).
The research brought him also to another controversial theory, namely that all Germans were nothing but... Germanized Poles.
The conspiracy theory and the Yetinsyns
During his research Szukalski came also to quite shocking anthropological conclusions. He believed that the whole history of mankind is marked by incessant strife between two very different races: that of the good, sensitive and intelligent mankind and that of the evil, witless apes, the latter being responsible for all destruction.
Contrary to the evolutionary theory proposed by Charles Darwin, Szukalski believed that the two races could and did interbreed – which happened primarily through rape. The terrifying offspring of this inter-racial violence was called Jetisyny, that is the sons of Yeti (Yes, Yeti, known also as the Big Foot, the Abominable Snow Man or Sasquatsch were just different name for the representatives of the ape race).
The Yetinsyns were distinguished through their bodily features, like cone-shaped heads and having almost no neck. Szukalski believed he could identify the Yetinsyns among famous figures, known from history. Among the more significant representatives, revealed by Szukalski as ‘Sons of Yeti’ were: Lenin, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Machiavelli, Churchill, Faruk, Schoppenhauer, Khrustchev, and Castro.
The ‘Sons of Yeti’ were also responsible for introducing various -isms, like Fascism and Communism, which for Szukalski were responsible for all evil of this world.
Last years: Stanisław meets Leonardo
During these years Szukalski found little time to sculpt – though he did continue to design large and largely unrealistic monuments, like a monumental one called the Rooster of Gaul which was intended as the American nation's reciprocation for the Statue of Liberty.
While the scope and preposterous nature of his last major project may suggest that Szukalski was in some distorted state of mind (some of his colleagues and collaborators had suspected him of paranoia as early as the 1930s), this is not corroborated by those who knew him during this time. As Jim Woodring put it:
"He harboured sentiments that seem fascist and racist, and which were based upon his most patently absurd theories. He was almost certainly wrong about a lot of things; but as anyone who spent any time with him can tell you, he wasn't crazy."
In 1983 Szukalski became acquainted with George Di Caprio, father of Leonardo, and immediately became a close friend of the family. Young Leonardo supposedly spent some time in his youth with the old man whom he would later refer to as ‘his Polish grandfather’. His friendship with the Di Caprios would last until the artist's death in 1987. In 2000, the famous actor helped to finance a retrospective exhibition of his art entitled Struggle at the Laguna Art Museum in 2000 and remains an admirer of Szukalski's art.
Sources: Lechosław Lameński, Stach z Warty Szukalski i Szczep Rogate Serce, Lublin 2008; written by Mikołaj Gliński, 16 May 2016