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Szukalski’s legacy

Written by: Roger Creus Vila

How are the Polish far-right, Slavic neopagans and Leonardo DiCaprio related? This article will explore the interaction between art and politics as set by the prodigious sculptor Stanisław Szukalski and how his oeuvre’s influence has been projected in current nationalist trends. 

They consider me a heretic, whereas in fact I’m deeply religious, but this religion is my own, different one. My religion is Polishness.

Stanisław Szukalski

Szukalski (1893-1987) was a Polish-American visual artist who ventured to explore the limits of art during convulsed times. Despite being dubbed “The Greatest Living Artist” by the Polish government in 1934, he fell into obscurity after his artistic output was largely destroyed in the German razing of Warsaw. It was not until the 1980s that he was coincidentally rediscovered by Glenn Bray, an American art collector, who acknowledged his talent and re-exposed him to artistic circles in the United States, which included a young Leonardo DiCaprio (who would later produce an authoritative documentary on his life). However, when digging into Szukalski’s artistic output, Bray also found out about his involvement with fascist political associations in interwar Poland, as well as about his former antisemitic statements. Szukalski had even been commissioned to make statues for Mussolini and Hitler. It is thus ironic, almost Icarian, that Szukalski’s artistic career was halted due to the destruction commissioned by fascist forces. Even if he abandoned such ideologies after the war, embracing multiculturalism and issuing apologies, records of his earlier works and doctrine have allowed certain nationalist groups to claim Szukalski’s figure ever since. Szukalski’s character thus has to be studied holistically, as developing alongside changing moralities. This article will examine how identity politics and nationalism affected his artistic style and investigate his work’s impact on both Slavic neopaganism and the contemporary Polish far-right.

Statue of Remussolini: Szukalski depicted the Duce as a Roman mythical wolf

Regardless of Szukalski’s abandonment of his fascist and antisemitic views, he never ceased to be a nationalist. His words, “I am a Pole – that fact summarises most of my ‘biography’”, held up until the end of his life. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the exaltation of Polish figures and history was a recurring theme in most of his pieces. However, when looking at Szukalski’s early works, other influences can also be distinguished, such as Rodin’s. That would not be relevant were it not for the fact that his artistic aspirations, closely tied with the political, consisted of developing a national Polish art style, opposing the subduction to Western European influences Poland had undergone since the adoption of Christianity. Szukalski was a devoted anti-Catholic, following that Polish nationalism at his time, unlike that of nowadays, was largely anticlerical and saw religion as an obstacle to the pursuit of national spirit. To help him develop an artistic style that adhered to such guidelines, he founded the Horned Heart artistic school, which rejected Modernism by drawing inspiration from an imagined early Slavonic society with superior moral values, and from Polish national heroes. Szukalski’s school, although innovative in technique, bore close resemblance in its beliefs to those of Zubrzycki, an interwar Polish architect who incorporated elements inspired by the Early Slavs, believing that all European identity derived from them. Both attempts at reclaiming an imagined past can be classified within the greater tendency of Polish nationalism towards the search for a meaning that justifies the existence of the nation, a trend that arose as a reaction to the disappearance of the Polish state in 1795, but survived even after its reestablishment.

However, Szukalski’s works did not just rely on pre-Christian Slavonic archetypes. Rather interestingly, he intertwined Mesoamerican elements to further reinstate his rejection of Western European mandates in art. This indigenisation of his work served a double purpose: On an artistic note, he created something disruptive and innovative that could easily be recognised as his style, and on a political note, he adopted an idea of nativeness that was not frozen in the past but instead was the result of a self-constituting process; native was something one could become. For Szukalski, this was central, as it resolved further issues in Polish nationalism. By divorcing nativeness from its exclusive nature and making it something one could aspire to, he could envisage an indigenous Polishness separate from the individual, which survived across times as the ethnic composition and borders of Poland fluctuated. His interesting take on nativeness has been largely embraced amongst the circles of Polish neopaganism (Rodzimowierstwo). The symbology of Szukalki’s work suits the nature of the mainly nationalist collective, even if only a tiny portion of it aligns with extreme ideologies. The compatibility between Szukalski and the Rodzimowierstwo is primarily due to their both having drawn inspiration from Jan Stachniuk’s Zadruga movement, an interwar nationalist socio-economic movement based on the ancestral Slavonic communities.

An engravement by Szukalski, combining Slavic pagan figures with Mesoamerican artistic elements

The effect of Polish nationalism on Szukalski cannot be perceived as unidirectional, as they were mutually constituting and in constant interaction. Megalomaniac that he was, Szukalski envisioned becoming a hero for his motherland, fulfilling his state-building quest to make Poland prominent in the world order through art and rhetoric. He believed that a nation was sustained by its heroes – claiming that “if for the moment there are not any, the nation remains if people preserve and cultivate the memory of previous”. Therefore, Szukalski worked for the Second Polish Republic, projecting and building several monuments in his distinct folk style, aiming to instigate a new national identity. The regime for which he worked (Poland under Piłsudski) did not endorse most of his views, as it celebrated the diversity of minorities, especially Ukrainians and Jews, instead of pushing them to assimilate into Polish culture. As a matter of fact, Szukalski himself only explicitly stated his antisemitic views in the last years before the Second World War by collaborating in publishing a periodical called ‘Krak’, albeit with a minimal readership. In it, he called out what he believed hindered the progress of the Polish state: “We are eternal victims of Providence (including that of other nations) pushed around by other peoples (…) what we have is a Semitic Providence. Therefore, we are only her Slaves.” Be that as it may, these statements stand in stark contrast with artistic work he did later in his life, as his surroundings changed and he abandoned such ideologies. For instance, in the 1950s, he produced a medal depicting a menorah with an inscription in Hebrew that translates to ‘the nation of Israel is alive’. Whilst that showcased his ideological redemption, Szukalki’s legacy might rather be remembered for the Toporzeł, an emblem he created for the Krak journal emulating the Polish coat of arms that the far-right has appropriated it in contemporary Poland.

The Toporzeł emblem is now used in ultranationalist demonstrations
in contemporary Poland

In conclusion, in Szukalski’s universe, the only thing remaining static throughout time was his identity as a Pole. His changing morals raise questions on how his legacy ought to be celebrated. Szukalski is nowadays claimed both for artistic and nationalist purposes, and while these are not incompatible, the pursuit of the latter taints the magnificence of the former. If anything, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which one can divorce his works from the nationalist and fascist views he held. It will remain the public’s decision to determine whether Szukalski’s evolving morals can redeem him enough to prevent the obliteration of his work and achievements by cancel culture.

Image Credits (by order of appearance)

  1. Stanisław Szukalski in Kraków 1936, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe Poland (public domain)
  2. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:5410_Szukalski_wystawa_w_Krakowie_1936-3.jpg
  3. Remussolini by Stanisław Szukalski, displayed at 8th Exhibition of Jednoróg Artists’ Guild in the Fine Art Society building in Kraków, 1935-1936, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl  (NAC)
  4. Copernicus by Stanisław Szukalski, displayed at 8th Exhibition of Jednoróg Artists’ Guild in the Fine Art Society building in Kraków, 1935-1936, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl  (NAC)
  5. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stanislaw_Szukalski_Boleslaw_Smialy.jpg
  6. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AWERS_KATYN_MEDAL.jpg
  7. Toporzeł by Stanisław Szukalski, displayed at 8th Exhibition of Jednoróg Artists’ Guild in the Fine Art Society building in Kraków, 1935-1936, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl  (NAC)

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