Polishness as Religion: The Mystical Delirium of a Nationalist Artist
#photography & visual arts
small, Polishness as Religion:
The Mystical Delirium of a Nationalist Artist, Stanisław Szukalski attending his exhibition in Kraków, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC), szukalski_wystawa_zacheta.jpg
An incredibly gifted sculptor, Stanisław 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 Piłsudski, 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.
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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 few decades of his life.
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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 their whole body.
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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 former Polish capital, he would later always refer to it as backwards and conservative.
Over the next decade, which he spent in America, Szukalski continued to sculpt and draw, experiencing at times utmost poverty – stretches of days during which he would not eat. Despite his struggles, he eventually forged a brilliant career in the Chicago art circles, which around this time included artists such 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:
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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 after he supposedly dared to poke Szukalski's sculpture with his cane while making a point.
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Coming back in 1923 to the now resurrected Poland, Szukalski had quite a stable material situation (in 1923, he'd also married the 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 Mediaeval 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.
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Looking for vitality and originality, Szukalski posited turning to 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 (editor's translation: Place of Creation), of which he would be the sole and only leader and teacher.
His own teaching method required dropping classical European drawing based on 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 painting using oils.
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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 national bard Adam Mickiewicz in Vilnius (which, however, was never realised). 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:
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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 scandalising 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.
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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 political and spiritual liberation. One of the most characteristic sculpture designs from this period, Politwarus, was conceived as a tribute to the historical Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and to the the victorious Battle of Warsaw of 1920 – 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.
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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 Piłsudski, Kazimierz the Great, Copernicus, and Mickiewicz – namely, the four greatest Poles in history, according to Szukalski.
Another controversial monument to stand at the foot of Wawel Hill was a statue of Bolesław Probus, a Mediaeval Polish king credited with murdering Bishop Stanisław (the future Saint of Poland). The king, as imagined by Szukalski, was represented in the act of stamping over the mitre of Bishop Stanisław – a clear sign of Szukalski's anti-Catholic views and a likely point of contention in the arch-Catholic capital of Poland.
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His other ideas for the reconstruction of Wawel, which included driving a hole through the historical walls of Saint Felix and Audactus Rotunda, stirred terror and protests among Kraków's circle of art historians, among them Adolf Bohusz-Szyszko, an influential architect and the director of the renovation crew working on Wawel Castle.
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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 1930s, he decided to return to the symbol, designing a new version which he called Topokrzyż and which now combined an axe and a cross. The symbol accompanied by the acronym GOJ (Gospodarczą Organizujmy Jedność – ‘Organising Unity through the Economy’) 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 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).
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Szukalski’s fascination with fascism manifested itself in his design for a monument of Benito Mussolini, one of numerous unrealised public projects from the inter-war period. The monument, called Remussolini, showed the naked Duce stylised as the Roman mythical wolf (with a hound’s tail and the twins Romulus and Remus 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 1930s, the sculptor was approached by the German administration during this time. They apparently had asked for any ideas he might have for monuments honouring Hitler. According to the letter, Szukalski acquiesced and did send in his designs, although no materials have survived that could prove such a collaboration.
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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 Mediaeval 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.
During the course of the story, the dragon is revealed to be a mechanical device conjured up by the tribe's elders 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 youth revolt against the elders' rule.
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This fantastic tale may have also had an allegorical aspect, and can be seen as a manifesto and 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 would adopt 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 they believed would lead towards the new Slavic culture.
After World War II broke out 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 fostered a very negative opinion of his compatriots, while at the same time continuing to boast of his Polishness and love of the country.
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They consider me a heretic, when in fact I'm deeply religious, though this is a religion of my own. My religion is Polishness.
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?
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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 of Scandinavia, Europe, even 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.
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In order to document and illustrate this theory, the artist wrote some 42 volumes of text filled with deliberations on prehistorical, mythological and 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 a magnifying glass, and actually would require the use of one if wanted to contemplate it in detail.
The work, which bears the ‘apprehensively pompous’ title The Whole World is My Due (Należy Mi Się Cały Świat) is currently in the collection of the Szukalski Archive and was described by the artists's monographer Lechosław Lameński as ‘an absolutely unique work, having no analogies in 20th-century art’.
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So what is this work actually about? According to Szukalski's theory, the first humans originated on Easter Island and survived the Great Flood. They 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 their common roots becoming 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.
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Need proof? For example, 'Babylon' is broken down into the Polish words Baby Łon (meaning '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 to Szukalski was obviously linked to the 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’, which translates as ‘he comes from the dead submerged homeland’. By the way, the same applied to 'Zeus'.
Other volumes of this 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, and archaic images of women (three volumes). The most preposterous deliberations pertain to the genesis of the direction of the eagle head in Poland's and other countries' national emblems (hint: it depends on the direction of the deluge's waves).
The research also brought him to another controversial theory, namely that all Germans were nothing but... Germanised Poles.
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During his research Szukalski also came 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 names for representatives of the ape race).
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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: Vladimir Lenin, Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Niccolò Machiavelli, Winston Churchill, Farouk I of Egypt, Arthur Schopenhauer, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro.
The ‘Sons of Yeti’ were also responsible for introducing various '-isms', like fascism and communism, which for Szukalski were responsible for all the evil in the world.
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During these years, Szukalski found little time to sculpt – though he did continue to design large and largely unrealistic monuments, like an enormous 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:
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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 DiCaprio, father of Leonardo, and immediately became a close friend of the family. The 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 DiCaprios 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 remained an admirer of Szukalski's art. In 2018, even DiCaprio produced a documentary released on the streaming service Netflix about the artist's life called Struggle: The Life and Work of Szukalski, bringing his Polish grandfather's strange ideas and impressive artwork to a larger global audience.
Sources: Lechosław Lameński, Stach z Warty Szukalski i Szczep Rogate Serce, Lublin 2008; written by Mikołaj Gliński, 16 May 2016; additions by AZ, Dec 2018
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