WASHINGTON. Ever hear of an artist named Stanislaw Szukalski? Neither have most people. But consider this. A theory holds that all humanity is one big family connected by short chains of acquaintances. That provides the basis for the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” It posits that Hollywood players, no matter their utter insignificance, stand a mere six souls removed from the “Footloose” star himself.
The strange life and art of Stanislaw Szukalski. And the DiCaprio connection
So, keeping that concept in mind, the Netflix Original documentary “Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski” is positively jolting. That’s because a trivial one degree separates Academy-Award-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio from one of the 20th century’s great demonic miscreants – Adolf Hitler.
Stanislaw Szukalski (1893-1987), a Polish painter and sculptor was commissioned to produce art for the Third Reich. Notoriously, he horrified the Nazi regime with a depiction of Hitler in a tutu. But at a later point in time, he also bounced a young Leo DiCaprio on his knee.
Leonardo’s father, George DiCaprio – an underground comix writer and publisher – became friends with Stanislaw Szukalski after pop culture and lowbrow art collector Glenn Bray introduced DiCaprio père to the artist by in the early 1970s.
A new twist on the surreal in arts and politics
Bray was walking the aisles of a Hollywood bookestore’s surrealism section when he discovered a 1929 edition of Szukarski’s book “Sculpture and Architecture Projects in Design.” The contents included Szukarski’s conceptual drawings for colossal monuments and bridges. It also displayed photographs of his many remarkable sculptures.
“‘I took the thing home,’ says Bray. ‘Read it a hundred times.'”
He also showed the book to friend and underground cartoonist Robert Williams, “plopped it down and said, ‘What do you think of this?’”
As Bray and his Southern California misfit friends came to discover, Stanislaw Szukalski, then in his eighties, was living in nearby suburban Burbank. By then, the sculptor was all but forgotten, with most of his works destroyed during Germany’s invasion of Poland in September of 1939.
“We were his only fucking peer group,” the irreverent Williams recalls. “The irony is, me and my underground [cartoonist] friends, the lowest phylum of art, had become associated with this gentleman who at one time stood up with the giants.”
But then, Szukalski had a knack for making unusual friends. Like American journalist, author, and screenwriter Ben Hecht. Hecht famously penned the screenplays for “Scarface” (1932), “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938), “Gunga Din” (1939), “Wuthering Heights” (1939), and “His Girl Friday” (1940) to name just a few.
Ben Hecht and Stanislaw Szukalski do Chicago
In 1915, when the pair lived in Chicago, he and Szukalski formed a salon of intellectual bohemians that called themselves the Vagabonds. There, according to historians Roy Kotynek and John Cohassey, they:
“… spoke on Nietzsche, anarchy, free love, and French decadence.”
Although Szukalski had immigrated with his family to Chicago in 1906, the artistic prodigy moved back to Poland in 1910 to study art at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts. Szukalski traveled between the US and Europe to display his works. But eventually settled in Poland in 1936.
Tribe of the Horned Heart
It was in Poland that Szukalski founded an artistic movement, nationalist in nature, that he called the Tribe of the Horned Heart. The movement sought inspiration from Poland’s pre-Christian paganism. Szukalski also published anti-Semitic tracts.
“He was such a contrarian,” George DiCaprio recalls. “He had no use for the entire gamut of human beliefs. Most of the time, we would kind of humor him. And we had no way of knowing what these things connected to in his past. If I knew back then what I know now, I would have been compelled to warn my friends away… We lost a friend that never existed, I suppose.”
Szukalski’s brand of pre-Christian paganism sought to compete with Poland’s European rivals. Especially countries like Italy and Germany, rivals deeply involved in a robust political movement poised to consume the world – fascism. For his part, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sought to return Italy to the polytheistic glory that was ancient Rome. Even worse, Adolf Hitler believed Germans, led by his Nazi party, should rule the world by virtue of their pure and noble blood, inherited from ancient übermensch (“beyond-men” or “supermen”) – the Aryan race.
“Everyone can have their own Szukalski,” says Polish writer Jacek Staniszewski. “Obviously, some American comic writer’s perception might have been missing the point all together. They missed the whole story about wild Polish fantasies. People in Poland associate Szukalski with homeland, purity. A sort of meta-pagan, pagan’s pagan. And treated him as this prophet.”
A neo-pagan hero
Glenn Bray, who compiled 200 hours of video interviews with Szukalski said he “never heard an anti-Semitic word come out of his mouth, ever.”
Today, Szukalski is considered a hero by Poland’s neo-pagan, neo-fascist movement.
This is ironic, considering Stanislaw Szukalski’s good friend, fellow intellectual, and biggest fan, writer Ben Hecht, was a Jew. As a result, he regularly railed against the evils perpetrated against Jews before, during, and after World War II.
What Hecht wrote of himself could easily apply to his friend Szukalski – with just a few degrees of separation from ourselves:
“Our admirers are always on the lookout for evidence of our collapse. They find a solace in the fact that our superiority was transitory and that we end as they do – old and useless.”
Certainly, those interested in the lesser-known but still important aspects of literature, the arts, and the sometimes bizarre intersection of the arts and political history can discover how this symbiosis can work in the newly available Netflix streaming video biography, “Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski.” It’s well worth viewing.
— Headline image: A Stanislaw Szukalski sculpture pictured in the new Netflix documentary on the artist.