The majority of people come to accept that their youthful notions of greatness were just that: notions. While individually containing our own extraordinary elements, we are fundamentally ordinary human beings. Some work harder, or are dealt a better hand in life’s lottery – whether in the shape of skill or opportunity – but underneath it all we are fundamentally the same, complex bodies. Right?
It sounds like a grey but logical analysis, that is blasted out of that tepid water by the life story of Stanisław Szukalski – a self-proclaimed genius. Have you heard of him yet? More than 100 million Netflix subscribers now have access to a sensitive, highly personal narration of his life story ‘Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Stanisław Szukalski’, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. I’d never heard of the Polish sculptor, but the trailer was enough to pull me out of my New Year’s Day haze. What better way to kick-start the New Year, than with the rich lessons of an artist’s life?
This film succeeded in bringing me back to my senses. It elicited a strange turmoil. Should I like or despise this figure; pity or praise? Is his a cautionary tale or an exemplary one – do I trust it? Either way, I mourned his death at the end and felt profoundly reflective on the elements it raised. He was a child prodigy, a Polish immigrant in the US – never quite belonging in either – and a strangely charismatic megalomaniac.
Considering the number of people willing to liken him to a 20th century Michael Angelo, it might seem strange that we’ve not heard of him until now. But his life’s works were destroyed in the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Warsaw in the Second World War – having returned upon the promise of being given his own museum by the Polish Government. And so he journeyed back to the USA, where he was no longer taken seriously and embarked on a new life of relative obscurity in what he regards as “the cultural Siberia of America”, Los Angeles.
Without giving too much away, here are a few personal musings on Szukalski’s struggle:
Art and Populism
Part of the tension promised within the trailer is found in the discovery of Szukalski’s nationalistic beliefs, at a time when Europe was on the cusp of war. The narrators are divided on where this sits with them. It seems that his beliefs grew from a sense of belonging, while loving Poland from afar. But, mixed in with his mental extremities, his natural instinct or drive for original thought, and his unwavering passion, self-belief and charisma, this was potentially potent. In which case, the loss of his life’s work in the Second World War can be viewed as both tragic and perhaps harshly, karmic.
But there’s a clear line in the sand, which I was most fascinated with. His view point changes, his verbal and visual language as an old man is more inclusive, universal – and passionately so. Living life in LA as an ordinary person with uncelebrated genius, rejected as the ‘other’ by American society – ironically – neither Polish enough nor American enough in the States, he is visibly humbled. The ensuing, obsessive forty-year development of his pseudo-scientific theory known as Zermatism, consisting of a universal visual language and birth place on Easter Island, alludes strongly to this gear change and repentance.
It begs a number of questions, important today, on forgiveness and our ability to evolve. What does it take to diffuse extreme, populist ideas – how can we encourage this evolution? Equally, are our hearts big enough to make space for those who either have or have had bigoted viewpoints, in order for this evolution take place – and if not, can we learn? It also led me to ponder the impact of such views from individuals at that time. Regardless of their intention, to what extent are they to be considered accountable for the horrors of the Second World War for example, if indirectly. And with this in mind, are those who harbour comparable mentalities today willing to not only observe the similarities, but be prepared to shoulder the guilt of potential consequences, like Szukalski?
Thanks to the storytelling and revealing home-made videos of Szukalski, I empathised with his struggle, which felt necessary for him and I found hope in that. But by virtue of the documentary, we only get to meet the old Szukalski. Unfortunately, his earlier work that sought to transform Polish art and culture with Slavic-paganism and a new, nationalistic visual identity has been absorbed by Poland’s far-right.
Originality and Creativity
Perhaps the worst insult for an artist, is to label their creation an imitation. By definition, art is the expression of human creativity and imagination, appreciated for its beauty. And so it is expected that an art piece communicates the truths of the individual, in an original way. Szukalski was so innately programmed towards creativity, that when his teachers taught him the alphabet he instinctively created his own.
He was sent back to Poland at the age of thirteen to study sculpture at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts, where he had to learn form from models. This was at odds with his passionate belief that the creation of art should come from within, not without. By using models or painting from nature, art students were being encouraged to imitate, instead of being driven towards their innate creativity and fantasy. And thus he looked down upon European arts.
Despite his own misgivings about working from models, Szukalski says that when asked how he perfected his sculpture of the human form he “learned from his father”. But not how you might think. When his father was knocked down and killed by a vehicle as a youth, he carried the body to the morgue himself and requested to take it home. His request was granted and he claims to have taken it home to study and dissect in order to inform his craft. Gruesome, yes. Ironic, perhaps – he refined his craft with a study of his own creator and imbibed his work with his love for his father.
In 1920’s Chicago, he achieved relative fame for his originality and craftsmanship, featuring in exhibitions and print. Throughout his career, he continued to create new visual and written languages, conceptualising buildings and grand statues. Upon his return to post-war US, Szukalski was a hungry consumer of world cultures. Similarities have been drawn between his own drawings and the work of the ancient Mayans. While his desire, method and indeed creations were original they still maintained the scent of their inspiration – I’m certain he would turn in his grave at such an utterance.
Rather than picking holes in a masterful artist, I’m interrogating where that line is drawn between imitation and original art. If it is at the point whereby a piece is truly alien, unrecognisable, it is fair to say there are few truly original artists – or perhaps, it’s more that their originality is passing, relevant only at the point of conception. Either way, Szukalski would definitely feature and perhaps his obscurity is testament to this – like truth, perhaps originality only exists before it is fully seen or understood? Szukalski was not understood, making his friendship with Glen Bray, who insisted on making hundreds of videos of him seen in the film, all the more meaningful. This also leads me to question whether our mental make-up affects our ability to achieve the slippery, lusted for title: original. Was it his mental health that made him great?
Sanity, individuality and infamy
Beneath Szukalski’s white-haired, blue-eyed charm was a mind unlike any that most have come across. He seemed to love the opportunity to host, lecture, and profess his own genius. He did so naturally, easily as though he’d been waiting forty years to reclaim his fame. His authenticity is appealing, his passion gripping and his occasional emotional wavering compelling. But ultimately, there are plenty of moments when you have to wonder as to his mental composition.
His obsession first with reinventing Polish culture and then through creating volumes and volumes of material for his theory, Zermatism is quite unique – it was named ‘The Whole World is my Due’ and included 25,000 pages of handwritten text and 14,000 illustrations. Meanwhile, his absolute belief in himself as “the greatest” and his resulting hostility to other artists – or indeed art critics that dare judge his work – ultimately sabotaged his ability to build the necessary network to succeed in the art world.
He was so oppositional that his exhibitions often ended with scandal due to his own offensive behaviour – his pet peeve was weakness and so he asserted his every notion with passion. A level of paranoia was evident when it came to his conspiracy theory, that a hairy Yeti-like creature had coupled with humans, resulting in a good race and a bad race, the Yetisyns – with the likes of Vladimir Putin being regarded as the latter.
It is these quirks that make Szukalski fascinating. But just as they provoked the creation of his art, they also doomed his work and career. He was an extreme character, but interestingly his decision to work on Zermatism took away the need to seek approval – enabling him to create alone, consistently, without any friction from the outside world. I wonder if this was a coping mechanism, a self-exile, or perhaps a maturing of his self-awareness? Either way, his quirks were enthralling as the DiCaprios and Glen Bray found. But perhaps the tragedy of an artist suffering the loss of his life’s art was more compelling?
What is success, anyway?
What is art, if it’s not seen – and are you an artist if you’re no longer creating? Szukalski’s personal success as an artist is unique in that his belief in himself is unshakeable – an enviable trait and a necessary one in order to continue making. He has achieved success as an artist, but the world has not woken up to it. That is his perception. The loss of his earlier works does not impact his ability to claim his successes. It is an idea seemingly shared with the producers and participants on film. It is surely part of his magnetism – dare you, could you argue with him?
This isn’t always the way, though – take Alberto Giacommeti for example, who set fire to his drawings, repeatedly painted over his work with frustration and struggled to see the beauty in his creations. It highlights the importance for us to define our own successes, that we hold the key to their celebration. Success for Giacometti will have looked very different to Szukalski’s, and we shouldn’t expect them to look the same. In a world where comparisons are consistently being drawn against digital representations of ‘real’ life, the vigour with which Szuklski owns his success is inspiring – if a little extreme.
But here we are, over 100 million Netflix subscribers, with the potential to indulge in Szukalski’s struggles, to hear the story he so wanted to tell and bring his perceived success to life and close the loop. With the eyeballs and admiration of millions of people around the world, the child prodigy will be celebrated once more. Surely, his own eyes would be sparkling with glee at the very prospect.
An extraordinary human being
Szukalski was undoubtedly an extraordinary human being, gifted with immense skills, cloaked in the guise of an ordinary old man – perhaps that was part of his magic, or danger. Unlike most, he never came to accept that he was any less than extraordinary – despite living an outwardly normal life. True to his beliefs, his sense of reality came from an internal existence, he rejected the external world to the point of re-inventing our entire history. There’s something quite delicious about that, deliciously crazy. But worrying, too. Let’s not forget the danger of providing megalomaniacs with a platform to grow power, no matter how charming they may seem.
Given the world we live in, even our private spaces are invaded by external stimulation – how does this affect our own creativity, our flight towards the extraordinary? Perhaps our constant consumption of information nurtures, but risks dampening our ability to conjure truly original thoughts. The hope remains, that ordinary folk can aspire to ‘greatness’, too – despite the noise. Be strong like Szukalski, retreat when you need to and always believe in yourself.
Watch The Life and Lost Art of Stanisław Szukalski – decide for yourself. This only skims the surface of weird and wonderful lessons to learn from Szukalski, for better or worse.