Stanisław Szukalski was a painter and sculptor who also developed the pseudoscientific historical theory of Zermatism, positing that all human culture was derived from a post-deluge Easter Island and that mankind was locked in an eternal struggle with the Sons of the Yeti. He illustrated this theory in his works.
A painter and sculptor who also developed the pseudoscientific-historical theory of Zermatism.
Szukalski was born in Poland in 1893, the son of a blacksmith, and a prodigy in sculpture who had his first art exhibition at age 14. His family emigrated to the United States, where the young genius became a rising star among the Chicago intelligentsia.
At the age of 13, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. His extraordinary talent drew the attention of a sculptor, Antoni Popiel, who resided in the United States and persuaded Szukalski’s parents to send him to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. After studying there for three years under Konstanty Laszczka, he returned to Chicago in 1913.
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Szukalski’s early works were mainly busts testifying to the artist’s grandiose style, which merged the decorative flourishes of Art Nouveau, the emotional theatricality of Romanticism, and multiple currents of early 20th century European Modernism – Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism as well as Pre-Columbian art.
After 1914, the sculptor developed imaginative figural compositions whose eclectic character remains highly enigmatic. He introduced an extensive deformation of the human body carved with a virtuosic attention to anatomical details. He sought to imbue his works with increasingly complex philosophical concepts which soon led to his sculptures being incomprehensible unless accompanied by authorial comments. This applied to a number of works exhibited at the Zachęta Gallery in 1923 as well as to the project of a monument to Adam Mickiewicz in Vilnius which was awarded first prize in a competition in 1925. The project featured intricate symbolism: the monument depicted the poet as a naked man sitting on the top of a pyramid and feeding an eagle with his blood.
Despite receiving a distinction, the project triggered a wave of protests and the plans to build the monument were eventually abandoned. From then on, the Polish artistic community was divided into two camps – supporters and detractors of Szukalski’s art.
In 1925, he participated in the International Expositions of Modern and Decorative Arts in Paris, where he won numerous awards. However, his success was criticized by the Polish press because Szukalski, representing Poland in the exhibition, did not even live there.
After his European travels (1926-1928), Szukalski arrived in Kraków, where he had a retrospective exhibition in 1929. During the opening of the exhibition, the artist made a speech in which he launched a vicious attack on prominent members of Kraków’s artistic circles and the teaching methods at the Kraków Academy of Art. He condemned the state of Polish art which, in his view, imitated western patterns in a slavish way and had lost its native character. Soon after he organized a group of his enthusiastic artistic followers into the Szczep Szukalszczyków herbu Rogate Serca (Tribe of the Horned Heart). Their primary aim was to dissociate themselves from Western influences and to embrace the national or even ‘racial’ Slavic motifs in their art.
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The artist arrived again in Poland in 1936, supported financially by the Minister of the Treasury. He had finally found a patron who rented him a studio and got him commissions satisfying his artistic pursuits. He completed several sculptures (most notably the monument of Bolesław Chrobry), decorated the façade of the Silesian Museum building and a local government building in Katowice. At the time, he also put forward the idea of erecting a sculptural-architectural venue called Duchtynia which was to be located at the bottom of the Wawel Dragon's Den and was to become a place of worship of the Slavs.
Szukalski came to Poland with all his belongings encouraged by the prospect of building a museum devoted to his art. However, the idea was cut short by the Siege of Warsaw in 1939. He managed to escape to America to live in California with his wife, but his entire life's work was lost, either bombed or stolen during the war. He spent the rest of his life in obscurity, obsessively working on a theory that all human culture was derived from a single origin on Easter Island after the biblical Deluge of Noah, and that the language of these original societies was similar to Polish.
During the last years of his 75-year-long career Szukalski’s major projects were Prometheus (1943) designed for Paris in homage to the French partisans and a gigantic and complex structure that he wished the U.S. would give France to reciprocate for the Statue of Liberty – the Rooster of Gaul (1960). In 1971, his work and existence were rediscovered by Glenn Bray, who became his patron and who later issued two publications: Troughful of Pearls (1980) and Inner Portraits (1982). Szukalski died in Burbank, California on 19th May 1987. A year later, his and his wife's ashes were scattered at Rano Raraku, the sculptors' quarry on Easter Island, by his close friends.
In December 2018, a documentary called Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Irek Dobrowolski was released worldwide on the streaming service Netflix. Praised by critics, it was an attempt to bring a new and much larger audience to the little-known artist.
Autor: Piotr Szubert, Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw, February 2003, ed.&transl. GS, April, 2016; additions by AZ, Dec 2018
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