The title of Cecora refers to the Battle of Cecora in 1620, when Polish forces led by the Grand Hetman of the Crown, Stanisław Żółkiewski, fought against Ottoman-Tatar troops. Szukalski’s work shows the head of the Grand Hetman in a very particular way.
Stanisław Szukalski is treated as a legend. His vivid biography is often mythologized, whereas his original and incomparable works have always raised controversies and comflicting opinions. The artist was showed his exceptional artistic talent from his youth and joined classes at the Art Institute of Chicago as a 13-year-old. Two years later he was sent by his father to study at Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków where he studied under the supervision of Konstanty Laszczka. It was then that he started his artistic career, receiving numerous prizes and commendations, and exhibiting alongside artists as famous as Jacek Malczewski and Stanisław Witkiewicz.
Being engaged mostly in sculpting, he paid less attention to drawing and painting. An important part of his work was theoretical and went far beyond artistic matters, entering the area of philosophy of history and linguistic studies. He pursued his ideas within an artistic movement called the Tribe of the Horned Heart (Szczep Herbu Rogate Serce). Szukalski was an incredibly controversial figure on the artistic scenes of Warsaw and Kraków and a subject of scandals that often resulted from his uncompromising evaluation of those communities.
Szukalski tried to combine artistic and academic work (or rather, pseudo-academic work). His search illustrates the area of interest and ideas of the sculptor. He created a concept according to which all humans once spoke the same language named it ‘Macimowa’, which was similar to Polish. He even created a dictionary of the language and wrote down his theory in forty-two volumes that contained fourteen thousand illustrations. Szukalski is also an author of an original concept of the history of philosophy that reflected on the history of Poland. He sought for his heritage in various far away and exotic places. He argued that Polish ancestors primarily lived on Easter Island, then moved to the islands of Lachia and Sarmatia, from where they headed toward Zermatt in what is now Austria (near Matterhorn) and only later came to the land of contemporary Poland.
He was published in Krak, amongst others, where he focused on propagating national values through constant criticism of the Polish academic community for the cosmopolitan character of its art and its educational system, modelled on the foreign French culture. As a counterpoise for this model Szukalski proposed the establishment of ‘Twórcownia’, wherein young artists would be educated based on national patterns, history, and culture. In Szukalski’s concepts we hear echoes of the then-popular theories of primitivism, whose common denominator was a supposed return to pure, elementary sources of expression uncontaminated by the classical canon and the centuries-old culture. His ideas are deeply imbued with extreme nationalism. Szukalski never tried to hide his ideological engagement and easily matched a general interest in history with his diagnosis of the actual political situation.
In his works we find many portraits of national heroes: ancient and contemporary, imaginary and real, that in its entity is reminiscent of a hall of fame. The artist chose Józef Piłsudski to be his spiritual leader as the latter was thought to be able to convert Poland into the centre of political and cultural life in Europe and create ‘Neuropa’ – a community of all European countries ‘with the exception of England, France, Germany and Italy’. In his vision of history Szukalski conjoined different époques, creating visions of, what he believed, the most important figures, like for instance Bolesław Śmiały and General Bój-Komorowski. This list should be completed by Cecora, as this work of art refers to the battle in 1620 when Polish forces led by the Grand Hetman of the Crown, Stanisław Żółkiewski, fought with Ottoman-Tatar troops. This total failure and bloody slaughter of Polish troops launched a war between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the invading Ottoman Empire that was ended one year later with the battle of Khotyn (1621), when the invaders were defeated and stopped. Żółkiewski gained fame for his incredible bravery during the battle of 1620, when he did not flee in the face of unconditional failure and is said to have spoken these memorable words:
I will fight till the end, and even after my death my dead body will stop foes from getting to to my homeland.
He did die in the fight and his head was apparently impaled on a pike and sent to the sultan.
Szukalski’s work represents the head of the Grand Hetman in a very particular way. It is a massive and dense block with facial lines being visible and numerous minor ornaments being spread over the figure. This unusual aesthetic that brought a particular feature to Szukalski’s work was inspired by the art from pre-Columbian America, above all Incan and Mayan sculptures. Cecora is made of gold-plated bronze and seems more likely to be an archaeological find, a precious object left by an ancient civilization than a sculpture of an artist from the twentieth century.
One can find more detailed information about his life and work in: E. Kirsch, D. Kirsch, G. Di Caprio: Struggle: The Art of Szukalski (Last Gasp, January 2001).
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, September 2010, translated by Antoni Wiśniewski, March 2016
- Stanisław Szukalski
gold-plated bronze, 1927