Maverick or Madman?

The intensely weird world of sculptor Stanislav Szukalski

When I first heard of the late, great Stanislav Szukalski, I thought he must be a hoax -- a fabrication of some canny art dealer out to make a buck, or an artist's joke aimed at deflating the pretensions of art history. How could an early 20th-century sculptor who had once been dubbed "Greatest Living Artist" in his native Poland and who had had an entire museum dedicated to his work have fallen so completely off the historical radar? Szukalski fans proclaimed him a lost genius, but it sounded too outlandish to be true.

It wasn't until I saw the current retrospective of his work at Varnish Fine Art -- an impressive collection of about 20 large bronzes and many smaller sculptures, drawings, and documentary photographs -- and read more about his life that I understood: Szukalski's story is too strange not to be true.

A child prodigy in Poland, he came to the United States in the 1920s, made a name for himself as an artist, and returned home in the 1930s, when he received the "Greatest" title. The museum that the Polish government established for his work was then promptly destroyed, along with his place in history, during World War II. He escaped the Nazis to return to America, and lived out the rest of his life in Los Angeles in utter obscurity, continuing to produce increasingly eccentric works of art as well as numerous crackpot theories. For example, he maintained that all languages were derived from Polish, and he developed his own anthropological pseudo-science, Zermatism, which traced the development of humankind back to Easter Island and the survivors of the biblical flood. Perhaps strangest of all, he believed that what he saw as the degeneracy of humankind was due to interbreeding with an evil race of yetis. Yes, that's right: The downfall of Western civilization was precipitated by rapacious abominable snowmen.

With such, um, unique views, it's no wonder the art establishment has failed to grant him a place beside Picasso and Matisse in the pantheon of early modern art. But in recent years, Szukalski (who died in 1987) has found fans among aficionados of underground comics and in, of all people, Leonardo DiCaprio, who in 2000 donated $15,000 toward a retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum.

Refusing to fit neatly into any category, Szukalski's art is refreshingly oddball. He claimed to have no artistic influences or antecedents, although his work contains clear traces of the Western art that surrounded him -- particularly the hallucinatory subject matter of surrealism and the streamlined curves of art deco -- as well as Mayan and Aztec artifacts (which he studied extensively in the course of his anthropological research). His sculptures and drawings depict fantastical subjects -- often involving the grotesque fusion of animal, plant, and human parts -- with clean, angular lines and solid, muscular volumes. Struggle is a sculpture of a hand, its flesh torn from the bone with the effort of its grasp. More bizarre still are its fingertips, each of which sprouts the head of a screaming, bird-beaked creature.

Szukalski's work depicts an idiosyncratic world with near-compulsive depth and detail, reminiscent of the mythic stories of Tolkien's Middle Earth. But it's a totally insular vision, and the artist was unafraid to explore its darker recesses. He pompously envisioned The Rooster of Gaul as a gift to France in exchange for the Statue of Liberty, but it's hard to understand how he could have seen it as a flattering image. In the model for what was to be a colossal sculpture, the hulking, barely recognizable rooster extends several beaklike tentacles to bind and harass a tiny female figure. To Szukalski, the woman stood for France, tortured by tentacles representing communism, fascism, and ... ventriloquism. Enough said.

Another study, Promerica, is possibly the strangest monument to Pan-American solidarity ever conceived. A muscled, shirtless worker recoils from the outstretched arms of a Native American in full, feathered headdress. The native, whose feet are rabbits -- bunny slippers, perhaps? -- offers pelts to the recalcitrant worker, who sports his own bizarre headgear: a mechanical-looking helmet resembling the face of Donald Duck. Present-day viewers might be tempted to interpret this bizarre tableau as a parody of monuments, or a political commentary, especially when they read the trite inscription on the back, in English and Spanish: "Know me and I will be your friend." But the piece's intricate detailing, and Szukalski's weighty style, make the work feel entirely earnest. It's impossible to hail Szukalski as a progenitor of tongue-in-cheek irony. Instead, he comes across as a passionate eccentric -- in short, a geek -- so wrapped up in his own relentless vision of the world that even his public monuments are projections of dark (or whimsical) personal fantasies.

It's therefore not surprising that Szukalski has garnered a posthumous following among aficionados of underground art. Not only does his status as an outsider in the art world confer subcultural cool, but also the extremely mannered quality of his work displays affinities with graffiti and the high-contrast, exaggerated style of graphic novels. Atlantea is a sculpture of a woman with her feet anchored in a sea of glyphs -- stylized waves that resemble ancient Mayan patterns or graffiti lettering. One of her arms disappears into a mass of flames that engulfs her head. The flames are carved in snaking ripples whose sharp edges are reminiscent of the curvilinear depictions of lions and dragons in traditional Chinese painting; or they could be the flames on the front of a 1950s hot rod.

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