Stanisław Szukalski’s career was not an easy one, and the history of his popularity is even stranger. From fame to infamy, and then to finally regaining recognition as one of the most interesting Polish artists of the twentieth century. Even a few years ago, Stach from Warta (Szukalski’s pseudonym) was known only to a small group of experts. The breakthrough came with the presentation some of his concepts (“ideologically safe”) at the Późna Polskość exhibition [Late Polishness] arranged at the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. Later, a documentary film was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Netflix. And last but not least, an excellent album dedicated to Szukalski has been published by Evviva L’arte.
The Szukalski album opens with a biographical introduction of the artist by Lechosław Lemański, and is followed by a philosophical afterword by Wawrzyniec Rymkiewicz. At present, this is both the most detailed study of the artist’s work, and also the most fascinating examination into his unhappy life. Indeed, Szukalski did not have much luck in his life. Just as new perspectives opened up for him, when some of his bold ideas had a chance to be realized, the outbreak of war mercilessly brought all his plans to naught.
Szukalski was born in 1893 in Poland, in the city of Warta in the Łódź region, by the Warta River. His father, a socialist activist, had wandered around the world for years and came only after huge turmoil to the United States, where he managed to bring his family. Thanks to this, Stach from Warta was educated and came to understand the world in the spirit of the American Dream, of big cities and of Art Deco. He grew up in a period when America began spreading its wings and discovering its own identity. Stach, with his American experience, was sent to Poland by his father to continue his education in his homeland. It soon turned out that he was exceptionally skillful and gifted: even before the First World War, his works were being exhibited alongside such prominent painters like Olga Boznańska, Julian Fałat and Witkacy (Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz). His father’s illness, though, forced him to return to the States.
Szukalski was only able to return to Poland in the late 1920s, garlanded with fame gained in the US and Western Europe. He drew together the Szczep Rogate Serce group (Tribe of the Horned Heart), aiming to implement his postulates. Szukalski wanted to create a new national form. These ideas gained immense support within the circle of Marshal Józef Piłsudski. The more these leaned towards hard authoritarianism, the more popularity their author gained on the right side of the Sanation bloc.1 After Marshal Piłsudski died, the project of the Toporzeł, a Polish emblem created by Szukalski, gained wide recognition among Piłsudski’s supporters, and shortly thereafter Szukalski received new commissions. His ideas for a national form, as noted above, came to naught with the outbreak of war. In September 1939, German bombs buried all of his projects, including a life-size monument of Bolesław Chrobry, Poland’s first king.
Downcast, sick at heart, Szukalski went back to the US, where he continued living, convinced of enormous injustices that had befallen him. As a refugee coming from another era and sidelined, he devoted time and energy to creating a new major project: Zermatism, his pseudoscientific-historical theory. According to Zermatism, all people descended from the Easter Islands with the Lechites, the (alleged) ancestors of Poles. Over time, Szukalski began to maintain that the first language of all people was Polish. The project was quickly referred to as pseudoscience, and notes collected by Szukalski in forty-two volumes have not yet been published. Their author died in 1987, practically forgotten. However, archival film materials show that he remained convinced of his genius for the rest of his life.
Szukalski was an extraordinary man, but in some sense he was also very typical. He blened in with the landscape of his times, its interests and fascinations. He was not the only artist looking for solutions to the crisis of modernism by reviving a neo-paganism – in various forms this phenomenon was present across Western Europe. In Poland, increased interest in neo-paganism had a relatively long history back at least to the beginning of the nineteenth century and the ideas of Zorian Dołęga-Chodakowski.2 Another much later supporter of the idea of rejecting Christianity and basing a new civilization on true Slavdom was Jan Hempel.3 In turn, in the interwar period, the most important advocates of neo-paganism included Jan Stachniuk and his Zadruga Movement, as well as the enigmatic organization of Demiurgists.4
Fascinated by neo-paganism, Szukalski, with his project of a renewed Poland, was not that unusual at all. However, he distinguished himself through originality, artistic skills and deep awareness of form. He did not wish to simply present conditions necessary for the emergence of a new form of Poland, a set of rules that the country should follow. He wanted to create form fully independtly: to describe and present it in such a way that it could function in real terms. In the Poland, as he envisioned, the key position was held by the cultivation of ancient Slavic force, for Szukalski sought real Polish roots and essences in the distant past. He therefore wanted to remodel and rebuild Wawel Castle in Kraków (a similar idea, though quite different in its outcome, was introduced by the dramatist and painter Stanisław Wyspiański) and to establish a Temple of the Dragon in its center.
This was not the end of Szukalski’s radical ideas: he wanted Poland to completely reject Christianity. Hence his extreme anticlericalism and rapacity of judgment. In Stach from Warta’s view, the Polish past was wild, unbridled, full of controversial, debatably dubious issues and ideas. We see this brought to light in the projects of his works. For example, in the projected monument of the poet and dramatist Adam Mickiewicz, to stand in Widlin, Szukalski presented a half-naked poet on a pyramid, feeding on the blood of an eagle’s torn breast. The projected Duchtynia – a tomb at Wawel in which Pilsudski’s remains were meant to rest – was to include a monument of Światowid, 5 to be riding a futuristic palfrey. The postwar works looked similar: a monument to Warsaw’s heroic defenders, depicted a burning city with an eagle rising from its smoldering remnants, while a monument in honor of the Katyn massacre victims was a vision of the murder of a naked Polish officer carried out by an ape-man. Finally, the monument to Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II), the so-called Thresher, which would present the pope as an ancient hero, is also intriguing.
Stanisław Szukalski is quite a disturbing figure, even frightening to some. Yet everyone is scared for different reasons. In the film series produced by Netflix, Americans are terrified by his anti-Semitism. Indeed, he appears very aggressively and even primitively anti-Jewish in his texts. The message conveyed by the body of work of Stach from Warta also raises concerns. The project of another and different Poland is nothing more than an attempt to overcome the crisis that our country had to face. Szukalski had a clear thesis: Latin civilization will fall, and thus it is necessary to think about what to do when that happens, about which direction to follow and about what ideals to follow. This unprecedented load of catastrophism in his works still arouses understandable anxiety. Therefore it remains worthwhile to get to know them.
1. Sanation: a Polish political movement created in the interwar period, prior to Józef Piłsudski’s May 1926 coup d’état, which took power in the wake of that coup. (Translator’s footnotes throughout)
2. Zorian Dołęga-Chodakowski (1784–1825): Polish ethnographer, archaeologist, historian and Slavophile; one of the main precursors of research on Slavdom, forerunner of the renewal of the religion of the Slavs.
3. Jan Hempel (1877–1937): Polish editor, writer, translator, philosopher, workers-movement activist, member of the Polish Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Poland, victim of Great Terror in the USSR.
4. Jan Stachniuk (1905–1963): Polish philosopher, editor-in-chief of the Polish prewar nationalist journal Zadruga, creator of Zadruga Movement, theoretician and founder of culturalism. The Zadruga Movement of Polish Nationalists was a Polish neo-pagan nationalist movement founded in 1937 by Stachniuk, which published the monthly political and cultural bulletin Zadruga. Demiurg: a magazine published in Warsaw in the interwar period. The group that founded it named their idea “demiurgism” or “demiurgic Slavicism.” It had the character of a rationalist philosophy aspiring to become a religion.
5. Światowid – The Zbruch Idol, Sviatovid (Worldseeker), a 9th-century sculpture, one of the few monuments of pre-Christian Slavic beliefs.
Author: Paweł Rzewuski
Translation: Alicja Rosé & Alan Lockwood