Let us begin with a fairy tale. It is familiar to every one in Poland. For centuries we have been telling it to our children thus including them in the perennial circle of generations. The fairy tale is as old as Poland itself. It talks of events mysteriously connected to this country’s birth. One can speculate – in fact, be quite sure – that it will continue being told as long as any Poles live here, as long as any Poles are in existence anywhere.
The fairy tale tells the story of King Krak who ruled over the city of Krakow. In the city, in a deep, dark den – the story goes – there lived a Dragon which needed to be killed. The rest is comic. A shoemaker Dratewka makes woollen sheep, stuffs them with tar and sulphur, and puts them in a place where the Dragon can easily find them. The monster eats them and gets a stomachache. To ease the pain he starts drinking water from the Vistula, the river flowing by Wawel, Krak’s castle. The Dragon drinks so much that it turns into a gigantic balloon and explodes.
The comic ending changed the fairy tales’ import so that today nobody gives the story a thought. The tale has become indecipherable. Repeated from generation to generation, in the endless cycle, it has lost all its depth and terror. The fairy tale has become a fable. Today it is only a story about the poor Glutton and a cunning Shoemaker and the only lesson (it seems) we can learn from it is some dietary advice.
Here, I need to immediately rectify what I have just said. In fact, there was one artist in Poland – and relatively recently too – who took the story of the Dragon seriously and offered a radical interpretation of the fairy tale. The artist was Stanisław Szukalski and the interpretation was his project of Duchtynia.
It was to be a temple in the Dragon’s Den, at Wawel, under the castle of the Polish king and the Wawel Cathedral that houses the monarchs’ tombs. “To build”, Szukalski writes in his project, “a temple above and around the Dragon’s Den at Wawel. Break through the den’s ceiling to turn it into a cloister and introduce sunlight into the den”. In the centre of the temple Szukalski wanted to place a marble pole with, at its top, a statue of the most important deity of the Slavic pantheon, Światowid, who had four faces, each looking at one of the four sides of the world. The artist saw the sculpture as a figurative complex: a group of figures forming a common shape: “Światowid will consist of the 4 greatest, but principally different in character, Polish heroes, sitting on a giant horse”. These four heroes are Piłsudski, Casimir the Great, Copernicus and Mickiewicz. Each one was to symbolise one the cardinal directions. From the top of the column “4 reflector lights will shoot through the skylight, so that in the night, on special occasions, one can see the place of worship from afar”.
Let us go back to the fairy tale. It is doubtlessly a story of initiation. It talks about the struggle with a primal Evil, an archaic Darkness that crept out of the den under the Wawel, and the vanquishing of which is one of the fabled deeds that history starts with. One can imagine an alternative history (an alternative fairy tale) in which our ancestors treated the Dragon differently – tamed it or made friends with it. There are nations to whom the Dragon means something else than to us; for the Chinese, for instance, it signifies strength and wisdom. The Poles, however, in the order of fairy tale, killed the Dragon, and Poland became the kingdom of Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. It is a significant and fateful fact that should be pondered over even by clear-headed people who do not believe in fairy tales.
What did Szukalski strive for? Well, according to his declarations, he wanted to set up “The Second Poland”. Therefore, he had to repeat the founding gesture and face the Dragon once again, but in a different manner. Szukalski does not dare to go as far as to erect in the den under the Wawel a temple of the Dragon. Still, he certainly wanted to reach out into that darkness and there to find support for the new Poland, to weave a nest for it in the Dragon’s Den. In his most important manifesto Krak’s Attack (Atak Kraka), he talks about “the spirit of our race” pounding from the underground of consciousness, because it wants to be let out. “The spirit chased underground in the first days of our Christianity was locked behind a bolted door while each new foreign style made its fashionable invasion on Polish culture”; and further: “the spirit of the race, like an ancient root from a live tree that was cut down, cries for freedom”.
Szukalski wanted Światowid’s column to be hollow inside. In its inner space he planned to place the new Polish coat of arms: the Axe-eagle (Toporzeł), a double-bladed carpenter’s axe the haft of which ends with an eagle’s head, and the rounded blades suggest the eagle’s wings. The Duchtynia’s Axe-eagle was supposed to be a sacred object: “in Światowid’s base”, the artist writes, “only one Axe-eagle will be placed, which, due to its extraordinary meaning will be called Holy-axe-eagle (Świętoporzeł)”. One would be able to reach and touch the sacred object through four circular orifices placed in semi-circular niches in the four walls of the square column. Szukalski imagined that Duchtynia would be visited by people from all over Poland: brothers and sisters, friends and fiancées, politicians from different parties and national groups “who would enter the base, kneel, and, inserting their right arms in the orifices, touch the Holy-axe-eagle’s handle and say their oath out loud”. Thus the sacred object will be the source and guarantee of all human relations in the new Poland. The essence of the community, placed in the Dragon’s Den.
The Axe-eagle was to draw its magical power from a ring of stone tombs surrounding the column among which the artist wanted to place, in the most prominent position, Józef Piłsudski’s sarcophagus in the shape of an oak tree trunk, cut horizontally in two. At the entrance to the temple Szukalski wanted to place a gigantic statue of the Commandant – how Piłsudski was named by Poles – showing him as an ancient Slavic demon in a wooden crown with a pair of wings growing out of his hands.
Duchtynia was clearly meant to be the new Wawel Cathedral, traditional place of the last rest of the polish kings, yet differently orientated metaphysically, facing not the other world – by the towers pointing to the sky – but the fathomless depths of Polishness. Szukalski was a completely “from this world” mind, devoid of any sense of transcendence. The Duchtynia Światowid, let us repeat, was meant to be comprised of four figures of local heroes. The way I see it, according to Szukalski’s intentions, Światowid is Poland in its supreme articulations; or – another possible interpretation – Światowid is Poland’s soul, its eternal might – manifesting itself in the four faces of our national heroes – that will be worshipped in Dragon’s Den.
Szukalski was said to have made the following confession during a meeting in the 1930s: “I am perceived as a heretic, even though I am deeply religious, but it is my own religion, truly different. My religion is Polishness”.
Let us note a certain peculiarity of his project, a project that is already exceptionally peculiar. Going back to the origins of Polishness – reaching in that dragon’s Darkness – Szukalski breaks through to a beyond, far away from Poland. His project, and particularly the Commandant’s monument, alludes to Polish folk art; yet, in its entirety, the project seems to have little in common with Polish tradition. In the plans for Duchtynia one senses an unspecified primeval nature, a universal archaism, and its elements seem to draw upon various, remote from each other, primitive cultures: Middle Eastern, Asian or pre-Columbian.
Simultaneously, these drawings have something radically modern in them, which only deepens the viewer’s confusion. Looking at them, we might have an impression of seeing a science-fiction movie scenography or drafts for a comic book showing buildings of an extraterrestrial civilisation.
The confusion adds to the wider and deeper entanglements and complications surrounding Szukalski. He seems to be an exceptionally multi-faceted and ambiguous figure. Undoubtedly, Szukalski was a great sculptor and some of his pieces are truly ravishing. Obviously, however, the artist also experimented with ugliness, training himself in its shapes and forms, purposefully creating repulsive works (for instance, the pieces from his Chicago period, like Law or Defence). And yet, even the works that we find awe-inspiring possess a kind of excess that makes them turn – or threaten to turn – to kitsch. The audience would like to be sure. They would like to reach an unambiguous and ultimate verdict. The artist, however, puts his audience to the test, leads them astray, drawing them, it seems, into a trap.
The same is true about Szukalski’s ideas. At first glance Szukalski seems to be someone serious (even if we completely disagree with him). The serious appearance results from the scale and radicalism of the artist who attempts to reach somewhere deep – the plan for Duchtynia is a case in point – to the very foundations of reality, undermining its familiar, domesticated shapes. The impression is enhanced by Szukalski’s educational projects like “the Tribe of the Horned Heart” (an artistic movement of the youngs that Szukalski founded in Poland) or “Creative School” (that he tried to found in Krakow). Here is an artist – it seems – who wants to work with human souls, not just with plaster or wood, and who – rising above his own, private ambitions – would like to do something for the community. Such an approach inspires respect.
Yet this first impression quickly fades. Right away Szukalski shows a different, terrifying face. Particularly repulsive is his antisemitism which has – it must be openly said – an abject, scatological character. The artist’s attacks on critics and sculptors of Jewish origin resemble inscriptions on a toilet wall.
Even the first impression of seriousness is in fact shaky. At times Szukalski seems a mere provocateur and his works and concepts look like a baloney or a schoolboy’s spoof. An adult audience look speechless at the Tribe of the Horned Heart and see young artists, in Native American or Slavic costumes who are about to shoot arrows at Krakow’s Academy Professors.
Yet this kind of hodgepodge and ambiguity in those days, in the 1930s, are nothing exceptional. We find them in some shape in Witkacy’s work. They were played with by Gombrowicz. Therefore we should not take them for granted but – on the contrary – we should understand them. Not only because Szukalski was a great artist who deserves a place in the pantheon of Polish art next to Jacek Malczewski whom he valued so much and whose spiritual descendant he is. Also because in this hodgepodge and ambiguity there is something that directly regards us – today – and may prove important.
- Let us start with a question: who was Szukalski? The answer seems simple. Szukalski was a visual artist. It would be hard to question it at all. Yet – at the same time – and also beyond any doubt – he was, or at least wanted to be, more than this. As if art itself and a great artistic talent, were not enough to satisfy his enormous ambition (by the way, Szukalski made little of talent, worshiping instead “wisdom”, which was all the more easy for him since he possessed an abundance of inborn abilities, as his early works incontrovertibly show). Szukalski wanted to be an artist-priest, someone who summons and resuscitates the deities of dead religions; an artist-politician who creates the “Second Poland”, and to do so forms a political party of sorts called “Youth Union”; finally an artist-scholar or sage-artist who portrays himself at the beginning of his career as Copernicus (sculpture from 1914: Artist’s Self-Portrait as Copernicus), and in the last period of his work he devotes himself to the study of the origins of language and the human species.
We face a phenomenon that break out from the frames of art and consists in crossing the borders and confusing the established orders. One could say that there is nothing special in that crossing the borders, that it perfectly fits the conventions of Romantic art. Adam Mickiewicz, for instance, also wanted to be more than just a poet: the nation’s father, a religious prophet, a military leader assembling troops in Italy and Turkey. Yet Szukalski clearly goes much further. The crossing the borders in his work seems to reach the very essence of his pieces, as if it belonged, or was meant to belong, to an order different than art. In Szukalski’s case we can talk about a transgression – the limits of art and its conventions – and reaching over into some remote and as yet undiscovered strange regions.
This is also the reason why Szukalski demands a philosophical commentary. Any other way of explaining his work, psychological or ideological (placing it in the order of the history of ideas), must impose on it predetermined terminological frameworks and interpretative models locking Szukalski in the cage of ready-made meanings. This cage however – let us not harbour any illusions about it – will prove nothing but a muzzle we will be trying to force on him. Szukalski is a dangerous artist. The vortex of meanings we face, the unstable forms and an accumulation of content, hides something very dangerous. Moreover, this feeling is not weakened – on the contrary, it is strengthened – by the comic effect that Szukalski sometimes produces. This effect is an irreplaceable element of this vortex: awe is mixed with disgust, surprise turns into embarrassment, a spoof turns into dread.
The philosophy I have in mind is a radical enquiry. It is about a distance to received notions and accepted perspectives. It does not presuppose – and that makes it different from psychology and the history of ideas – any ready-made meanings. Instead it asks why meanings make sense at all. How are they formed and how they disintegrate? What do their stability and balance consist in? I believe these are the questions one could ask both Szukalski’s works, and their audience (that is us, who look at these works, puzzled).
Szukalski knew a lot about himself. In his manifesto Krak’s attack we find a consistent exposition of his artistic doctrine where assessing the situation and specifying the essence of art lead the author towards formulating his own programme and creative method.
The starting point of this disquisition is nihilistic. According to Szukalski, Poland does not have its own style or tradition. Even though individual great artists (the following names are mentioned: Matejko, Wyspiański, Malczewski) created original and personal styles, their work did not add up to form a national style. Szukalski voices extremely provocative claims: “the aesthetic heritage of Polish culture”, we read, “cannot be called Polish art”; and then: “until now we have only had art in Poland, but there has been no Polish Art yet”.
The reason for this state of affairs lies in the origins of Polish history. A foreign religion – Christianity – was forced on Poles, while the original religion was destroyed. Szukalski repeats the formulas we know from the writings of Polish neopagans. Let us reconstruct this ideology: in the 9th century Poland became a colony of the West, it was placed – in a sense, it placed itself – in a position peripheral to the centre of Europe which was first the Catholic Rome, then Paris of the Enlightenment era. Poles have never ventured to gain spiritual independence: patterns of behaviour, ways of thinking, styles, even aesthetic tastes are all drawn from outside, instead of being created independently at home. This is the source of our feeling of inferiority to the West that has been present in the Polish identity for ages. Poles feel backwards; how could they feel otherwise, if they put themselves in the position of the audience of culture, and not – its creators?
Szukalski thus rejects – with a single gesture – Rome and Paris, and attempts to find himself and his foundations inside of his own self. He demands Polish national art, independent and self-reliant; he ridicules artistic fashions and fads, and the most recent Paris trends and French inventions.
Szukalski’s nihilism is not limited to Polish Art (which, let us say it again, never existed) but encompasses and includes the totality of European art which, as Szukalski claims, had not existed for 400 years, i.e. from the Renaissance era. Even though Poland has managed to overlook it: Polish artists are still sent on scholarships to Paris, the local ones keep imitating French models – Western art is dead. According to Szukalski, the causes of this collapse are demographic. Too many people deal with art. Today, Szukalski writes, artists constitute “a mass of many thousands”, “for one Paris exhibition at the Grand Palais as many as eight thousand works were sent”. The demographic boom, a snowballing in the number of artists has catastrophic consequences for European culture. “Quantitative people” have nothing to say, they are hollow inside, devoid of “human content”. Therefore they naturally decide that art is limited to form. In the West, Szukalski argues, no one understands what art is anymore. Originality is defined as stylistic difference or new painterly techniques and “Cézanne and other nobodies like him” are considered great artists. In fact, however, techniques and styles are only vehicles for the expression of emotions and thoughts. This is where – i.e. in “concepts” – the gist of art lies: “concepts are the essence”.
Therefore Szukalski resolves to fight – against the Nothingness that has enshrouded Polish art for ages; against the decomposition that has become the curse of the Western art. “A mouldy Dragon”, another manifesto goes, “stinking of manure, leaves its den at last (…) to devour the young Krak”, and further: “We understand the symbolism of the myth of our Krak and the dragon. (…) The story symbolises life shooting forth from a putrid corpse. A green branch growing out of a decomposing trunk of an old collapsed willow”. The Dragon stands for the professors of Krakow’s Academy, Wojciech Weiss and Józef Mehoffer, who want to devour Szukalski and the little group of his students, but the Dragon is also the entire putrid and decomposing Europe. “We will strive to eradicate”, Szukalski cries, “the pan-European, including Polish, cultural superstitions, ideological gossiping and everything that breathes mould and originates in the Dragon’s Abdominal Cavity of putrid Old Europe”.
Only now do we clearly see Szukalski’s starting point. Writing about the dragon he is being a little jocular. Yet the humour is lined with dread. The Dragon is something horrible. Just how horrible it is can be best seen in a 1917 sculpture Struggle between Quantity and Quality. It shows a hand whose fingers ending with beaks are trying to tear apart the thumb which is opening an angry dragon’s jaws. The sculpture’s theme – which we know from the artist’s commentary – is the struggle of a creative individual with the human mass. What is most important for us here, though, is the fact that humanity is depicted as a many-headed Dragon. Humanity is a hand-dragon emerging from the dark base of an enigmatic plinth, while its fingers-heads are engaged in a deadly struggle.
For Szukalski the Dragon is a symbol of chaos. The chaos – this is how we can now read the project of Duchtynia – lies somewhere deep down at the foundation of Poland, at the beginning of its history, undomesticated and forgotten. The chaos – this is how I understand Struggle – also has a universal meaning: it is the internal Darkness of humankind which can be a creative hand that works in accord and harmony or take the shape of a many-headed dragon that bites itself in spasmodic convulsions. Finally the chaos – let us return to the sentences quoted above – erupts and flows out right now showing its dark face in the current crisis of the West.
The chaos, however, can be given yet another meaning. Each order springs forth from nothingness. Szukalski’s thought – this is how I understand his intentions – moves in a circle where the ending becomes a new beginning. Szukalski, while pronouncing his nihilistic claims, simultaneously puts himself in the position of the founder of a new art and a new reality. As we already know he wants to create a “Second Poland”. He wants to draw to himself young artists who “in their blood, feel the intention of creating, for the first time in our history, our own art”.
To make this project a reality we need Szukalski’s method whose principles he presents in Krak’s attack andthe “Creative School’s” Statute. Szukalski argues that a true artist should not imitate the objective reality. One must stop working with a model and abandon the “optical prose”, introducing instead exercises for imagination and creation from memory. The Academy’s mistake is teaching techniques that have already been developed and perfected while leaving creative work for later; all this based on the belief that one must learn the trade before one can create. As a result the Academy produces skilful imitators, devoid of creative wisdom. None of them, we read, longs to be a great human being even though this is the end (being a great human being) every artist should strive for.
Therefore Szukalski – turning the aforementioned order around – introduces the principle of “Creative School’s” teaching: “learning through creation”. He believes that technique and style will automatically emerge, in a spontaneous and natural fashion, if the artist has something to say. Therefore, education should focus on the latter. We need a method that “trains the heart and thought from day one”; a method – as I understand it – of educating great and wise people.
Thus Szukalski wants to orchestrate a Copernican revolution (it is not a coincidence, then, that Copernicus was one of the protagonists of his artistic imagination, one of the figures of his creative self-knowledge): for modern art the most important thing was form, for Szukalski, it is content: “beyond form”, he writes, “stands art”, “concepts” – I already quoted this sentence above – “are the essence”. The wisdom he wants to teach at “Creative School” is about inventing concepts: “A creative innovation in concepts is the essence of wisdom”. Concepts, in turn, are the expressions of emotions: “Original, individual emotions result in original concepts, which, in turn, force a worker or a priest to give the most suitable form to their thoughts-messengers”.
One can gather then that the central notion Szukalski uses to understand art and his own activity is the notion of “concept”. For Szukalski his own sculptures were actualised concepts. The artist, it seems, uses this word in a completely conventional and colloquial sense. It means “an idea” or “a plan for making something”. When we dig deeper – Szukalski does not do it but the reader can – we learn that the word comes from the Latin noun conceptum, which originally means “foetus”, and from the verb concipio, concipere, which means “to become pregnant”, “to conceive”. With this etymology in mind we should turn first to Szukalski’s sculptures – to see directly what sense the notion of “concept” takes on in them. The sense is not given and ready-made but in the artist’s hands and under his knife is molded into a completely new and unexpected shape.
One can risk the following interpretation: in fact Szukalski understood his works in a quite conventional way, looking at them within the framework of form and content. Yet, he reversed the traditional understanding of this order – according to which form is more important than content – and put into motion a dynamics he, in my opinion, did not fully control and was not able to fully grasp conceptually, and which pushed him towards the transgression that is the ultimate meaning of the whole venture.
Szukalski’s works are never merely illustrative. They are not allegories of notions or ideas which one could access and express in some other way. For instance, if we ask what is the “content” of Cecora – by the way, one of his masterpieces – we will be confused. The work tells us something. We do not understand much of it, however. The artist’s commentary (saying that it shows a warrior drinking his own blood that oozes from a wound on his forehead) does not help us understand it either. On the contrary, it seems that Szukalski purposely seeks to confuse his audience, and even enhance the confusion by covering Cecora – and his other pieces – in rich ornament, full of tiny, intricate details forming a labyrinth of undecipherable signs.
Yet Szukalski’s works are not of a decorative character either. They were not conceived as a pretty accessory to the reality, present in an objective manner, a mere external addition. Without a doubt these works have a thematic nature. They tell us something about reality. Yet the wavering of forms and an accumulation of content that we see create an impression that the shape of this reality is yet to come, that something is just being conceived, is looking for its articulation. This impression is connected with Szukalski’s sculptures’ indecipherability that I just mentioned: we know (more or less) what they are about (we know what happened at Cecora), yet we cannot fully understand what the artist is trying to tell us. We feel, however, that we experience a reality the full meaning of which has not yet emerged.
Szukalski wants to be more than just a sculptor: a priest, a politician, a sage or a scholar. But what fascinated him in all those figures was the creative moment: the possibility of inventing new deities (or giving the ancient ones new significance), creating a new state or a new nation, a complete reversal of the received worldview (Copernicus as the one who “stopped the Sun and moved the Earth”). Szukalski was not an artist who adjusts to reality but a creator involved with reality and trying to completely change it from its foundations and shape anew.
Only when we bear all this in mind can we grasp what “concepts” are in Szukalski’s creative practice, what the meaning of the term is in his works. Concepts – contrary to what the artist declares – are not free-floating meanings existing independently of forms he gives them. Szukalski treats meanings like malleable material that can be easily formed, like plasticine, into new shapes. Looking at his sculptures we see dynamic form-contents or content-forms that take on all kinds of fantastical shapes before our eyes.
Szukalski’s basic strategy is mixing various – historically and geographically remote – forms and meanings which the artist combines to form new clusters, giving Polish topics pre-Columbian, Egyptian or Polynesian shapes. This device is employed in almost all of his most important works. Szukalski’s sculptures appear to be meaning conglomerates, thought clusters or – to use the phrase of American cognitivists, so popular nowadays – conceptual blends. This is why we have the impression that the sculptures tell us something or have something to say: because thinking is about associating ideas and facts. And this is the source of the aforementioned confusion that Szukalski causes in us: surprise, awe, outrage and finally, comic effect. All these feelings, when carefully analysed, have their source in the unexpected collision of remote meanings.
We are face to face with the great mystery of art. Looking at Szukalski’s sculptures, we see static, motionless objects. They seem, however, to be alive and teeming with senses; we feel they hide inside something mobile that moves us.
That is how Szukalski puts in motion forces that he doubtlessly cannot control – that actually no one can control as they are forces that rule over us, people: the powers of Time and the might of History. As we said, Szukalski places himself outside tradition. He wants to start anew, repeat the founding act, face the dragon. The artist had an overwhelming belief – it is clear from his writings – in the historic nature of contemporary art and the entire civilisation. Everything that surrounds us, which we unwittingly take for granted, has been around for only a short time: books, culture, art schools and Academy professors. And everything may – or even should – cease to exist because it is an aberration, a breaking of the natural order present in primitive civilisations and in folk art. Szukalski felt that something really bad is shaking the foundations of civilisation and he wanted to get away from it: by retreating, going back to prehistoric worlds and at the same time, in the same gesture – a circular movement – make an escape to the forefront, towards the unknown possibilities of an uncertain future.
This escape, moving along a circle – the superhuman attempt to get out of his era, whose child Szukalski obviously was – proved somewhat successful. Szukalski breaks free from the order of modern art and reaches the border beyond which the rules of reality change. It is particularly true in the case of his last works that belong to his post-war period (the bust of General Bór Komorowski from 1962, a project for the Katyń monument from 1979, the project for a John Paul II monument, Thresher from 1980) where he draws the ultimate conclusions from his earlier decisions, reaching the logically inevitable finale. The harbingers of this transgression, however, can be glimpsed already in his earlier pieces.
Let us return to the Duchtynia Project. Szukalski intended to place in its column an object he called the Axe-eagle. As we said the sculpture was to be a sacred object. The artist wanted to create something more, or something different, than an ordinary work of art. An object that we should not only look at, but one in front of which we should kneel. An object whose form is subordinate to a ritual meaning and which embodies sacred senses. Such objects used to be once created by totem makers. Szukalski – clearly drawing upon totems – covers his sculptures with rich ornament. Their task is not to make the work of art stand apart from the prosaic reality (that in European culture is the function of an ornamental frame) but – an approach known in primitive cultures – a transformation and sacralisation of matter. Intuitively Szukalski strives for that which neoplatonic philosophers called theurgy; its purpose, Iamblichus writes, was creating “pure and divine matter (…) in order to its becoming the receptacle of the Gods”.
Duchtynia was not realised after all. Szukalski did not build his temple. His curious plan turned into yet another curiosity. Looking at his latest works we feel as we are encountering the objects of the pop culture – where form is subordinate to content and, simultaneously, content is difficult to disentangle from form. A comic book author draws a history (creates a drawn story the sense of which can be reduced to pictures), the author of computer games presents a narration in the sequence of images (a narration being a sequence of images). The last works by Szukalski look like strange toys or gadgets used in a game the rules of which we do not know, a game played in some faraway islands or on undiscovered continents.
Yet this how Szukalski becomes a stranger.
The sign of this strangeness, its sensual manifestation, is the peculiar fact that his works can hardly be called beautiful. They are undoubtedly magnificent sculptures; they make a huge impression; they are immensely energetic and exquisitely made. But clearly, that is how I feel, we lack the right words to assess them. But neither do we have the right words to pin down the attraction of pre-Columbian sculptures or the Easter Island statues or – to quote some radically different examples – the lego building blocks or the Star Wars scenography.
The state of being at a loss for words – this curious muteness that overcomes us when we confront Szukalski’s works – results from the fact that we still stubbornly experience art (we, modern people) in the way best described by Kant in his Critique of Judgement. Thus, in art we look for beauty and the sublime. According to Kant both these terms, and the experiences related to them, have a formal character. Beauty is the harmony of temporal and spatial forms that are the shapes of our pure sensuality. With his expressionism, a purposeful smashing of harmony, and going as far as – let me repeat it – experimenting with ugliness, Szukalski clearly breaks with the Kantian definition of beauty.
Yet Szukalski’s works are not sublime either (the Kantian term is popularly seen as describing Romantic and post-Romantic art, and this art can be easily classified as such). We experience the sublime in face of the grandeur or might of nature that transcends all form. This experience can also be brought by a work of art, if it reveals something unfathomable, breaking the harmonic shapes of pure imagination. Once again it is about form, although overcome, which – thanks to this overcoming – lets art express something inexpressible, to encompass infinity in a finite shape.
Yet in Szukalski’s work everything is an expression, even if the expression in its excess and intensification eventually becomes illegible. Therefore, there is no space for the sublime. A good example is the 1979 project for the Katyń monument. It depicts ape-man or hyaena-man (in the second version of the work) with Soviet epaulettes on the shoulders and rows of medals on the chest, killing a feathery half-officer half-eagle from whose mouth an icy breath is exhaled. At first the piece seems verbose. Then the impressions turns into something quite unpleasant – when looking at the Katyń monument the viewer would rather experience silence. Our despair when we think about Katyń, the feeling of injustice that cannot be compensated for, the lie of the world that proved petty; all of it demands to be expressed and, at the same time, remains inexpressible. Yet Szukalski, with his cornucopia of details seems to inhabit different emotional registers, his project seems out of place, it could even be called indecent. Szukalski, let me repeat, is a stranger.
This is how I see him: he was an ingenious sculptor, with unequalled formal talent and technical skills who also had an ambition of renewing art and reshaping the totality of our reality, the reality we create. Yet in his work, he reaches the point where art ends, where art – in its modern, European sense, i.e. as a production of objects of selfless aesthetic contemplation – exists no longer. And where a different order reigns.
3. Finally, let us ask: what do we need Szukalski for today? What more could we need him for? Does he have anything important to tell us at all? After all we could deem him a historical curiosity, a souvenir of a remote, no longer comprehensible era that culminated in a monstrous catastrophe: a world war and the triumph of totalitarianism. Szukalski, with his fascination with Mussolini, would only become a kind of minor local monster, a prehistoric beast that should best be locked in a museum cabinet.
Yet he comes back. He returns from his American exile. He resurfaces from the communist oblivion. For the last dozen of years or so Szukalski has been talked about with increasing frequency, from the first isolated voices – like Professor Lameński’s book – to voices growing in number and in emotional intensity. Szukalski returns and inspires enthusiasm, but also anger and irritation. Once again, as years ago in Krakow and Warsaw, he offends and provokes. (Nb.: an artist like Szukalski does not please everyone and in everything he does. If the gist of his art is transgression, then he must not be liked at all. The power and endurance of an artist like him comes from the scope and depth of emotions he evokes, leading us into unknown directions, towards mysterious horizons).
If we want to understand the return of Szukalski, we must first chart the extent of his failure as there is no doubt that he was an artist who failed. The most tangible dimension of his defeat is the fact that the majority of his works have been destroyed during the war. We only know these pieces thanks to the photos taken by the artist himself. The photographs are excellent, but – considering the fact that Szukalski was a sculptor of details, that he covered his pieces with a labyrinth of signs and ornaments – they only render a part of their reality. We experience an echo, a distant reflection of the original work, and the fact that it still has an effect on us is a testimony to its original power and explosive energy.
Szukalski’s defeat also has a spiritual dimension. Certainly, he failed to succeed in creating what he desired the most: a school that would change Poland’s aesthetic outlook, giving the country its own, independent artistic shape. “Creative School” and The Tribe of the Horned Heart were meant to be a creative community that educates inventive craftspeople who are also wise, capable of working out a national style together – while drawing upon (no doubt about it here) Szukalski’s genius. Yet, looking at the works of Szukalski’s students, it is hard not get the impression that the master has completely dominated his students, while remaining a unique, exceptional and peculiar artist. Szukalski is impossible to imitate; it is difficult to say how to continue his oeuvre, how to develop his work into a common convention.
Szukalski’s failure, however, can be written into some wider dimensions, thus unexpectedly embracing and touching us too. The failure regards us directly – it is a part of our communal defeat.
Szukalski’s work was closely tied to the project of the Second Polish Republic. One can read it – this is the interpretation suggested by the artist himself – as an attempt at an aesthetic radicalisation of the 1918 regaining of independence and founding of his own state. In his Project for building Duchtynia Szukalski names Józef Piłsudski “the founder of the Second Polish Republic”. The way I understand this formula, Szukalski’s actions were supposed to be the continuation of the Commandant’s deed. There is a clear connection between political independence on the one hand and aesthetic originality and self-reliance on the other. This is why in the Second Polish Republic artists were looking for a “Polish form” in architecture and art and the support Szukalski received from the independent state was no coincidence.
There is no doubt either that the failure of the Second Polish Republic has its aesthetic dimension as well. The terror of war and the enormity of the genocide perpetrated usually make it difficult for us to see. It is a dimension worth paying attention to, especially when talking about Szukalski. Not only did Poland come out of the war destroyed and maimed but also, as a result of the damage and the ensuing soviet “reconstruction”, it lost all form and all style. If Poles – contrary to Szukalski’s provocative assertions – ever had their own form, then now, at the beginning of the 21st century, they certainly no longer have any form or style, living instead in an architectural chaos and an aesthetic disharmony.
Thus the first of Szukalski’s nihilistic assertions – that Poland has no style of its own – has not become void; in fact, it has become true to a monstrous degree.
The same is the case with the second of his nihilist convictions according to which European art ceased to exist because it limited itself to pure form. The history of European art of several last centuries could be, according to Szukalski’s diagnosis, briefly summarised the following way: after an era of the domination of form came a time of its complete rejection – a gesture we know from modern avant-garde productions – transitioning into a postmodern play of empty forms. There emerged a new type of artist who does not create beautiful things, and the cultural audience – turning away from art – seeks fulfilment of aesthetic needs in pop culture with its multiple shapes. Watching this spectacle, the poor European has every reason to worry that the end of art is nigh.
This is, however, the exact point where Szukalski’s defeat begins to turn into his victory. Szukalski returns transformed, with a different face, in a new planetary context.
A certain analogy should not be missed. There is a clear similarity between Szukalski and Witkacy. Not just because Stanisław, born in Warta, seems a character straight from Witkacy’s Farewell to Autumn, being a living proof that Witkacy was a realist writer. The similarity I have in mind is about the place they both occupy in Polish culture as well as the historical order of their respective works’ reception. Witkacy, a writer undervalued before the Second World War, shone like a star only after the Soviet troops invaded Poland; only then the nihilistic experience underlying his work – the experience of the bolshevik revolution he witnessed first-hand – became comprehensible to his readers. Similarly, Szukalski is the first Polish artist who – as early as the beginning of the 20th century, in Chicago – saw the early shape of the emerging global civilisation and tried to find an artistic response to it. Therefore today, when this civilisation has fully emerged and embraced us completely (though it seems it has not yet reached its ultimate consequences), Szukalski proves an ultramodern artist.
What does it mean? Ultramodernity is a new way of experiencing time and space within the realm of civilisational practices. The changes have been dictated by new technologies and means of communication. The space of human life is rapidly shrinking, the distances between continents become shorter, the world becomes small. Simultaneously, the historical time, conversely, seems to expand: the TV audience and internet users interact with remnants of archaic civilisations that emerge from the depths of oblivion to appear on their screens; pre-Columbian sculptures and Easter Island statues are equally close to us, perhaps even closer, than our local folk art. Now it is no longer Stanisław Szukalski, but the Spirit of History that mixes and matches these shapes for us and makes them inhabit our imagination.
These are the surroundings among which Szukalski’s works stand before us today. And I feel they have one thing to tell us. Through all these pieces runs through an overwhelming desire for an identity.
Let us turn our attention to the problem of self-portrait in Szukalski’s work. Firstly – and this is something I already mentioned – the artist is either looking for himself or inscribing his face in others’ faces: for instance, Copernicus’. Secondly, Szukalski’s students paint a picture of their master which becomes, contrary to “Creative School” official doctrine, a model (Czesław Kiełbiński, The Portrait of Stanisław Szukalski, Norbert Strassberg, Icarus, Stefan Żechowski, Untamed). On the other extreme lie the masks, or rather, anti-masks from the years 1912–1913, entitled Homo Sapiens. They depict the human face in the process of disintegration, with the features becoming blurry and losing sharpness. Only one open eye, a hole, is looking at the viewer. Terrifying portraits of chaos. But, as we said, every order emerges from the chaos.
The will for an identity – the desire to have a face – is an existential one. To be means to be oneself. Someone who is, not being himself or herself, exists as if he or she was not really there. Szukalski is driven by an ontological instinct whose most elementary shape is the self-preservation drive, and the most sublime and sophisticated – an artistic desire for one’s own form, coming from oneself, expressing its own meaning.
This desire – and that is why it is so moving – constantly confronts the feeling of the world’s instability, inscribes itself in the conviction of a constantly moving nature of all form and every meaning (that is why they can be mixed with each other), into the transgression leading to the ultimate limits of culture.
The desire is further a source of an aporia: identity needs community; the meaning of an artist must be accepted by audience and critics, but at the same time – if it is to be a truly self-reliant and independent meaning – it cannot possibly be accepted: it should not be subject to others’ judgement. Therefore, a horrible temptation is born: to impose the meaning on the community and to exact it with the use of force.
The aporia gives rise to all the contradictions and craziness of Stanisław Szukalski: the mayhem and scandals he caused, the peculiar organisations and societies he founded, his hysterical responses to criticism and mad attacks on critics, his unfeigned fascination with violence. He provoked in order to be noticed. He wanted to be separate and demanded an unconditional sense of community. He was – in his time – an extremely unconventional artist trying to establish a national convention. He returns today, still dangerous, yet eventually obvious.
Let us get back to the fairy tale. It is still being told so it can tell us something new. The tale tells about the Dragon but also about the city built over the Dragon’s Den. The city still stands. It proved surprisingly enduring. Szukalski returned to the project of Duchtynia in 1978, that is almost at the end of his creative path. This time, however, he was not interested in the den and its dark depths. He was thinking of building above it a ship-shaped temple. He wanted it to have a green roof and a bas-relief showing the figure of a goddess-fish. He drew plans for an Arc that would withstand the waves of the Deluge.
 S. Szukalski, Projekt zbudowania Duchtyni,[in:] Teksty o sztuce i wypowiedzi polemiczne oraz korespondencja z lat 1924-1938,wybrał, ułożył, wstępem i przypisami opatrzył L. Lameński, Lublin 2013, p. 231. A detailed description of the projektu for Duchtynia is to be found in Lechosław Lameński’s, Stach z Warty Szukalski i Szczep Rogate Serce, Lublin 2007, pp. 187–191.
 S. Szukalski, Projekt zbudowania Duchtyni, op. cit., p. 231.
 S. Szukalski, Atak Kraka, [in:] Idem, Teksty o sztuce i wypowiedzi polemiczne,op. cit., p. 66.
 S. Szukalski, Projekt zbudowania Duchtyni, op. cit., p. 232.
 I. Szczygielska, Drogi i manowce,„Kultura” 1937, nr 21, p. 4, [after:] L. Lameński, Wstęp, [in:] S. Szukalski, Teksty o sztuce i wypowiedzi polemiczne,op. cit., p. 23.
 S. Szukalski, Atak Kraka, op. cit., p. 65.
 Cf. Above all: B. Trentowski, Bożyca, “Kronos” 2017, vol. 4, especially pp. 83–84, also M. Janion, Niesamowita Słowiańszczyzna. Fantazmaty literatury, Kraków 2007, especially pp. 12–20.
 Cf. S. Szukalski, Atak Kraka, op. cit., p. 70.
 Ibidem, p. 67.
 Ibidem, p. 72.
 Ibidem, p. 66.
 Ibidem, pp. 72-73.
 Ibidem, p. 68.
 S. Szukalski, Niezwyciężeni, bo fortece Jutra są nasze!, [in:] idem, Teksty o sztuce i wypowiedzi polemiczne,op. cit., p. 146.
 S. Szukalski, …Naród polski, [in:] idem, Teksty o sztuce i wypowiedzi polemiczne,op. cit., p. 119.
 S. Szukalski, Atak Kraka, p. 67 [emphasis mine].
 Ibidem, p. 70.
 S. Szukalski, Statut Prywatnej Koedukacyjnej Szkoły Artystycznej „Twórcownia” Stanisława Szukalskiego w Krakowie, [in:] idem, Teksty o sztuce i wypowiedzi polemiczne,op. cit., p. 233.
 Idem, Atak Kraka, op. cit., p. 71.
 Ibidem, p. 66.
 Ibidem, p. 68.
 Ibidem, p. 73.
 Ibidem, p. 69.
 Cf. G. Fauconnier, M. Turner, The Way We Think. Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities,New York 2003.
 Cf. S. Szukalski, Atak Kraka, op. cit., p. 69.
 Iamblichus, on the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians, transl. Thomas Taylor, London: Bertram Dobell, 1821, p. 266.
 Cf. S. Szukalski, Projekt zbudowania Duchtyni, op. cit., p. 232.