The Szukalski Struggle

The life and struggles of Stanisław Szukalski

One day, looking through the resources of Polish art, I came across Stanisław Szukalski’s works. This time my attention was caught by the acrylic painting “Showing the Way”. This is the artwork depicting the King of Saudi Arabia, Khalid and his son Fahd. Szukalski performed it on order in 1978. As soon as I saw this image the pieces of information began to emerge in the depths of my memory.

First of all, I reached for the film about Szukalski, realized by Leonardo DiCaprio “Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski”. The premiere of this movie was in December 2018 on Netflix, directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski and screenplay by Stephen Cooper and Ireneusz Dobrowolski.

I do not know why, but when the information about this film appeared, I did not pay much attention to it. Now, consciously, I decided to go back to the movie.

Genius or Madman?

Szukalski, considered by many to be a visionary of his time, for some reasons, disappeared for years from the art scene. By some, he was considered as a genius, by others as a crazy sculptor with an ego. There are also critics who believe that the discoverers of his talent really let him lose his head. Critics emphasize his pseudo-scientific views on the origin of humanity and nationalism as part of his youth artistic way. He was also the creator of the pseudoscience of Zermatism.
Well, sometimes genius is accompanied by madness. Watching the documentary about Szukalski and collecting the materials about him, I wanted to find out which of these theories are closer to the truth – a genius or a weirdo, and what Szukalski was struggling with?

When I watched the movie and explored his artworks, I saw a man whose life and artistic career were directed by events completely independent of him. Which at the end of his life led him to the struggle of the constant feeling of unappreciation and unnecessity.

Szukalski was overwhelmed by the sense of the great loss, as according to his assumptions his talent was underestimated. He saw the loss rather in the context of his life, as he was feeling the lack of opportunities for creating, than through the prism of a personal career.

He struggled with regret that the achievements of his life would be lost and that he would not be able to accomplish all his monumental projects. Szukalski’s life is a true material for a biographical film, not just a documentary.

You certainly can not understand Szukalski without delving into his fate, intertwined with the fate of his homeland. Szukalski was a live mixture of talent, great ego and the times in which he lived – the formation of Polish independence, escape to the USA during the Second World War, the fight against the communistic Polish government for the return of the survived works and peripheral life in Los Angeles.

A great talent that fell into oblivion. Fell because of the successes in the USA and in Poland, where he was hailed as a national artist – after being nothing in an adopted homeland. In my opinion, it is impossible to fully assess and understand Szukalski’s attitudes without even understanding the times in which he lived.

Watching the movie, we see an old man full of regret about the world that did not appreciate his artistic contribution to the development of humanity.

Stanislaw Szukalski
Stanislaw Szukalski

At the same time, a man of certain strength and self-confidence, a visionary, convinced of his importance to art. Sure, Szukalski was overwhelmed by the conviction that he is more valuable than other artists, such as Picasso, whom he, by the way, called the Pic-asshole.

Art was to bring content to him, to symbolize and serving ideas, free his emotions. It was supposed to evoke an unforgettable impression and not be a theory or decoration.

Szukalski was known for his indiscriminate criticism of works of other artists during visits to exhibitions and museums. He did not hide his thoughts and did not win because of that trait friends.

Overwhelmed by incomprehensible ideas, on the verge of nationalism and pseudo-scientific theories, obsessed with the Slavic issues and searching after the mother of all languages, he wanted to become the greatest Polish artist in history.

Most of these ideas were evolving in him. You can see how Szukalski changes after the Second World War. His nationalism gives way to cosmopolitanism, his approach to the Jewish question changes. This resulted in the attribution of some of his artworks to the Jewish people.

Looking at a certain distance on the artist’s life, one can notice several points that undoubtedly influenced the development of his personality and the fate of the artist.

His father – Dyonizy Szukalski. It was because of him that the family appeared in the USA. Great authority for the artist, the man with whom Stanisław was very connected. Dyonizy, who was involved in political affairs as a socialist, had to flee with his wife Konstancja from occupied Poland. They fled to Brazil looking for a better life. After a few years, they came back. Their financial situation was not the best one.

Dyonizy was looking for the opportunity to be able to contain the family, which at that time were already of two children, Alfreda and Stanisław. He left for South Africa. There he took part in the Second Boer War against the British Empire. The political views of Dyonizi will be reflected later in Stanisław’s views. After returning from Africa, his father had a chance to buy some land in Poland. The situation of the family still did not improve much. Dyonizy decided to move to the United States this time, where he took all his family.

Between America and Poland

Stanisław attended school in Radomsko, Poland. As a very young boy, his first steps in art were in sculpting figures. Which he handed out to the local favourite girls. But it was in the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was first time recognized as a great talent in sculptors. However, later his skills will be recognized as a great talent for sculpturing at the Art Institute of Chicago.
He studies further artistic studies in Poland. The father, at the instigation of the Polish sculptor Antoni Sublima, sends a 15-year-old boy to Krakow. We can imagine this youngster away from the family during a great journey through the huge Atlantic. It was not the first time when Stanislaw learned how to be independent.

Stanislaw Szukalski, Struggle
Szukalski In Krakow 1936

Krakow and first successes

In Krakow, Stanislaw undertakes examinations to which, despite his young age, he is exceptionally admitted. He is accepted, first recognition from the professors was in the words “There is something special about him”.

Recognized by others as exceptionally talented and seeing himself as a genius, Stanisław had the honor of being in touch with the greatest artists of that time. He was rebeling against the traditional teaching system. And he even was suspended in the student’s rights. You could say that he was seduced by his own ego.

Jacek Malczewski, one of the greatest Polish artists of the era, took him under his protection. After some time, forced by the situation Szukalski matured for the decision, and he apologized to the professors. Eventually, he returned to the Krakov Art Academy. His works are rewarded and staged equally with other great artists.

The first rewards for the sculpturing he received in 1910. He organized his first exhibition in 1912. Another success was during the presentation of his sculptures in 1913 at the exhibition along with the works of mature artists. Around 1914, he created sculptures in bronze: the Orator, the Bust of David and the One-Handed Man in the Wind.

Let us remind that he was a young 20-year-old artist at that time. Probably this whole situation strengthen Stanisław’s ideas of his absolute uniqueness. Certainly rightly. But the maturity of the personality didn’t accompany the ego. In the following years the overly bloated ego did not bring him supporters or allies in the artistic world.

Young Stanisław Szukalski
Young Stanisław Szukalski (With courtesy of Netflix)

Again America

In 1913, his father’s fate affected his life again. The artist, worried about his father’s condition and family situation, returned to the USA. He was doing odd jobs and continued his studies at the Chicago Art Institute. He was receiving awards and had the chances to organize exhibitions. At that time he created the first sculptures in bronze. It was then, the artworks as Work, Dream, Man’s Fall, Fight of quantity with quality or Atlantis were created.
A few months later, Dyonyzy was killed by a car. In DiCaprio’s documentary, Szukalski described himself the dramatic situation that he went through. He described how his father was lying on the street, how he carried his body, how he could not let his body be taken away. After years Szukalski will be asked where he learned anatomy for his sculptures, he would answer that it was the body in his hands that taught him human anatomy. It was a great personal tragedy for the artist.

Tagore. Szukalski. NAC
Tagore by Szukalski. NAC, 1929

With the death of his father, his material situation deteriorates even more. Stanisław was starving, he tried to seize any work, he even worked in slaughterhouses. Nevertheless, he happened to meet significant figures for the Chicago Renaissance and finally entered the artistic circles.

Among others, Ben Hecht, who met Szukalski in 1914, and who wrote about the artist in his autobiography “A Child of the Century”: “For twenty years my friend … experienced disasters which would have killed off a dozen businessmen. Sickness, poverty and hunger yipped everlasting at his heels. … during his struggles he heard only the catcalls of critics and the voices of derision. Yet when I saw him in 1934, I saw a man who had feasted on power and whose eyes smiled with triumph.”

Hindu threads

In 1917, Szukalski met the Nobel laureate, the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore. Rabindranath was a prose writer, philosopher, composer, painter, and teacher. Szukalski, at his invitation, was to organize an institute of fine arts in India. Szukalski also carved a portrait of Tagore, the copy by an Indian sculptor – was placed at the University of Calcutta.

According to the Tagore proposal, the artist tried to get to India at the invitation of Rabindranath. Unfortunately, the repeated fate of Szukalski happened, everything seemed to be according to the plan but at the very last moment, decisions independent from him ruined the artistic development.

First, his visit was prevented by the war in India and then by the British embassy who refused to issue a visa due to political views. This mutual reluctance, the Empire to Szukalski and Szukalski to the Empire, will be reflected in the artist’s works.

Such circumstances were in a way a synonym of his life. Whatever Szukalski decide to do, it’s destroyed either in an embryo or after the realization of the project. This is what happens with the full of impressive designs of monuments, buildings, medals and coins. Something was always on his way, either making it impossible to implement or just destroying artistic achievements.

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Personal happiness, rest and further successes

Finally, after years of struggling with reality, there was a breakthrough. The personal and financial situations of Szukalski’s life improved. In 1923, he married Helena Walker, an artist and daughter of Dr. Samuel J. Walker, an outstanding member of the Chicago community.

Chicaco Society Egagement H.Walker And Szukalski

The New York Times
MAY 28, 1922: SZUKALSKI TO MARRY CHICAGO SOCIETY GIRL; Engagement of Miss Helen Walker to Sculptor of Tortured Figures Causes a Stir.
May 27, 1922: Stanislaus Szukalski, a long-haired radical Polish sculptor, “son of a blacksmith, arrived here today and announced his intention of marrying Miss Helen Walker, daughter of Dr. Samuel J. Walker, a prominent physician.
In this abstract, we see the clash of two worlds. The artist was described: “a long-haired radical” and a daughter of local high society. Szukalski was perceived as the Cinderella who met the princess.

NYT, Chicago Society

Newlyweds were travelling around Europe. The sculptor gained international recognition and prizes. Spouses lived in Italy and France. This applied more successes. He was able to take a break or focus on work.

In 1925, at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Paris, the artist received the Grand Prix for sculptures in bronze and the Honorary Diploma for architectural designs and the Gold Medal for stone sculpture.

He is also appreciated in America. The famous “Vanity Fair” wrote about him: “with his talent, he put Chicago on the art plains and in sculpting he is like Dante and Edgar Allan Poe in literature”

However, his personal life did not work so well in spite of the coming to the world of Elżbieta Kalinka, his daughter. In fact, not much is known about her. We get some information in DiCaprio’s movie.

Leonardo in his documentary raises the issues of incompatibility of spouses in their marriage life.  He suggested that it was about sex which that was not important for Szukalski and completely irrelevant to Helen. They divorced in 1938 and after a year he married his daughter’s kindergarten teacher – Joan Lee Donavan.

I did not find any information about contacts between him and his daughter. Elżbieta Kalinka disappeared from Stanisław’s life. Perhaps, what I can not be sure, such broken, because of the divorce, relations with a few-year-old daughter were never to be renewed.

I am convinced that divorce also affected the image of the artist, in the eyes of the apex of contemporary social society. Perhaps many doors were closed in front of Szukalski.

Szukalski Krakow 1936 Exhibition 2
Szukalski exhibition in Krakow 1936

Polish national artist - back in Poland

Another event that influenced the development of Szukalski’s personality and his talent was the arrival to Poland in 1929 at the invitation of the Polish government.
Polish independence lasted only 11 years. The young state after years of non-existence wanted to have its national artist. Stanisław Szukalski undertook this mission. He was feeling honoured, appreciated and very much sensing his historical mission.
He brought all his works to the National Museum. The artist received orders and task for the workshop. His personal life with his new wife, Joan, was also thriving. It was one of the happiest periods in the life of the spouses.

Szukalski exhibited 98 drawings and 34 sculptures in Krakow. He gathered a group of students from the Krakow School of Decorative Arts and the Art Industry, who later attempted to imitate Szukalski’s art. He lectured and gave speeches. He resented because of imitating Western designs. He criticized the way of teaching at traditional universities.

At last, he founded his own art school, so-called “Twórcownia” and an artistic group called “The Horned Heart”, whose main postulate was to cut off Western influences and establish into national, Slavic roots in art.

Szukalski wanted Poland to have its own native art after years of occupation by three countries. He criticized copying trends from the west.

He referred to the Slavic roots, he issued appeals for the reconciliation of the Slavs, among others to Ukrainians, Slovaks, Czechs, Russians and others.

Boleslaw The Brave
Boleslaw The Brave 1972

Los Angeles - the beginning of the oblivion

The artist was also involved in writing as a result of which in 1938 he staged the play “Krak, Ludola’s son”.

Stanisław Szukalski, seduced by the narrative independence of the young state, begins a dangerous flirt with nationalism and anti-Semitism. He is a co-creator of the nationalistic newspaper Krak, in which aggressive slogans appear. I am convinced that, after many years, this episode will contribute to the rejection of Szukalski by the American art world.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 is, in my opinion, one of the most eventful events that completely re-evaluated the artist’s views and also shattered his further artistic career.

During the air raids, the artist’s studio was completely destroyed. Many sculptures and drawings have been destroyed or lost. Almost all the achievements of the artist have been lost. Stanisław himself barely escaped. It was actually the beginning of his fall.

Szukalski and his wife hid in the American embassy. They managed to return to the USA with a few suitcases. Szukalski had nothing.

In 1940 he and his wife settled in Los Angeles. They sometimes lived on the edge of poverty. In addition to the dirty jobs he managed to find, he wrote over 40 volumes of typescript about the mysteries of the origin of humanity and the language, including Zermatism.His family was living in a one-room house. The movie shows how small this room is. Cluttered space, scarcely enough room for the remains of his sculptures, drawings and books. There is no room for where to continue artistic work.

The Los Angeles authorities granted the artist a pension of 250$ US per month, which barely allowed the rent to be paid. The artist tried to get income for selling drawings or postcards or from occasional medal events.

Friends are trying to help Szukalski. However, the attempts fail. Museum curators are enchanted by his sculptural achievements, but at the same time do not want to get involved in the artist’s promotions. Nobody was interested in showing Szukalski’s works in galleries. The artist was considered too politically involved, for not cooperating, but criticizing the artistic world, for the lack of adequate facilities in the USA and for being crazy. Stanisław Szukalski also tried to deliver his works from Poland to the USA. However, the communist government was not willing to cooperate with someone who fled from Poland to the USA. The relations between the two political blocs were solely hostile.

S.Szukalski In Front Of The Scultpure, Kraków 1936. Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe
Szukalski Drawing
Szukalski Speaks At The University In Krakow

Convinced of his exceptional talent, and unable to find a job or bring his works from Poland, that could become his surviving, he fell into deep bitterness.
Looking at this man who with tears in his eyes says into the camera that he is a stranger in the USA even though he is a citizen of this country, that they laugh at his name, that Poles are guilty of losing his works – I see a man painfully treated by the fate. “I am a patriot without the country” – he shouted with tears in his eyes.
Sculptor more and more often fell ill. He felt underestimated by both his homelands. After the death of his second wife, his situation had deteriorated. Joan was his good guardian spirit, she cared for Stanisław. They were both very close to each other. They never argued. This death was a very painful loss for Szukalski
In spite of this situation he still worked, even after several hours a day, he drew and wrote and carved.
The weakening artist was sent to hospitals or to social welfare institutions. He died on May 19, 1987 in a hospital. Glenn Bray took Szukalski’s death very badly.
It was Glenn who fulfilled the last will of the spouses and on July 30, 1988 their ashes were scattered on Easter Island, on the island which according to Szukalski was the beginning of humanity.

Szukalski, Kopernikus, 1973
Szukalski, Kopernikus, 1973

Evaluation of Szukalski's art and his artistic heritage

In the early years of his creating life, the artist was influenced by Young Poland’s modernism. Particularly noteworthy were the busts, at which he was able to skillfully show the characteristic features of his models. These were often small format works, moody with soft modelling.
Later, his work begins to combine many styles. There are elements of modernism as well as expressionism, cubism and futurism. Many of his works have folklore features or reminding similar to the art of pre-Columbian America.

Especially in the USA after 1915, his expressive compositions, symbolic sculptures, patriotism and eclecticism of styles met the great interest. The American press wrote that his artworks are full of life and imagination.

According to art critics, Szukalski possesses a unique ability to combine styles of different eras or even different cultures. For example, he combined American Indian style with Slavic elements. Images of poets, kings or politicians looked like Aztec leaders or priests in a modern version.

However, despite the fact his art seemed cosmopolitan, it was still accompanying his strive for creating Polish art. Perhaps in a mix of these styles, he wanted to find something that would be characteristic and unique. Therefore, he boldly used elements deeply rooted in the early Polish folk and pagan traditions.

Szukalski Katyn Front
Szukalski Katyn Back

After the Artist’s death, Glenn Bray dealt with artistic legacy. He and his wife, Lena Zwalve, administered and maintained artist’s achievements, for example, in the form of photographs and manuscripts under the name “Archiwa Szukalski”. Currently, Glenn works in the foundry in Hollywood, which deals with the production of subsequent editions of Szukalski’s works.

The artist’s surviving works are owned by the heir and the Polish Museum in America, the National Museum in Warsaw, and the Upper Silesian Museum in Bytom.

However, Leonardo Di Caprio became a valuable collector of sculptures of Stanisław Szukalski. In 2000, he funded a posthumous and retrospective exhibition of sculptor’s works. The exhibition took place at Laguna Art. Museum in Laguna Beach, entitled “Struggle”.

Examples of the most important sculptor’s works in the last years of his 75-year-old life:

  • Struggle – the hand carving is finished
  • Monument to Bolesław Chrobry, the first Polish project – destroyed in a bombardment.
  • The monument to Adam Mickiewicz – the greatest Polish poet – did not come to fruition
  • Prometheus (1943), designed for Paris in tribute to the French partisans;
  • Copernicus – Polish astronomer
  • Gaul’s Rooster (1960), a gigantic and complex structure that he wanted the US to give France in thanksgiving for the Statue of Liberty.
  • Katyń (1979), a monument commemorating the deaths of over 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals killed by the Soviets during World War II;
  • a monument to John Paul II, intended for the city of Venice (1982).
Remussolini By Stanisław Szukalski, 1935 36

Szukalski is not an unambiguous character. Great talent is often accompanied by a pinch of madness. Eclecticism and combining of the ideas were very popular in the artist’s sculptures, but not necessarily in the ideas, he proclaimed.  The whole was made of contradictions. This man can not be described in one word.

He stood on the verge of several realities: pre-war, war and post-war. And in none of them, he was allowed to settle in for longer, grow in roots and develop. Fate insisted on throwing logs at his feet from which he failed to build the stairs to success.

These logs he often threw by himself through the lack of humbleness and excessive criticism of current trends in art. Living in an adopted country, he felt a second-class citizen. His real homeland turns away from him like from a “pariah”. Like many other artists before and after him, Szukalski is alone in his struggle with the grey and often brutal reality, in his fight for being allowed to create.

Knight By Szukalski.NAC
Cecora By Szukalski
Sada Kichi by Szukalski.NAC

We can multiply the assumption of why DiCaprio and Ben Glenn were interested in Szukalski. Leonardo is a collector, Ben is in possession of an archive and works in a company dealing with casting versions of Szukalski’s sculptures.
Paying attention to the sculptor’s art is certainly in their interest. However, why it should be important compared to the fact that they enable Stanisław Szukalski’s art to see the daylight again. The most important is that this undoubtedly talented artist has a chance to re-enter the consciousness of art lovers. It is a pity that it happens so many years after his death.


Photos we attached to the article are used for a non-commercial reason. They serve to illustrate the content of the article.

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5 Comments. Leave new

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  • Beata Piechocka
    May 7, 2019 9:06 pm

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