Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987) is one of the greatest 20th century artists that no one has ever heard of. Through use of both new and previously unseen interviews as well as in-depth research, Ireneusz Dobrowolski’s Netflix doc Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski (2018) sheds new—and disturbing—light on this obscure artist’s legacy.
After failed careers in both the U.S. and his native Poland, Szukalski was rediscovered in the late ‘70s by underground art and comics aficionados such as Glenn Bray, Lena Zwalve, Robert Williams and Rick Griffin. Bray and Zwalve published his books while some of his works appeared in underground comics like Robert Crumb’s Weirdo. Szukalski attracted many people’s attention through his undeniable artistic talents, which mixed stunning technical ability with fantastical ambitious concepts. Taking inspiration from native cultures across the world, including Mesoamerica, Szukalski tried to create art that reflected his Polish heritage while celebrating commonality among the world’s peoples. Szukalski also drew attention due to his bizarre scientific philosophy called Zermatism, which combined biology, geology, and astronomy into a unified theory that explains humanity’s common ancestry as well as why humanity as gone astray. Zermatism has filtered through the counterculture, largely due to the fact that the joke cult Church of the Subgenius appropriated some of its ideas into their ironic mythos.
Despite his relative obscurity, Szukalski’s background and history has been well-documented in various articles and books. Yet Struggle is undoubtedly the most complete document of any kind regarding the artist’s life. Over the course of their friendship, Glenn Bray—who is also executor of Szukalski’s estate—filmed hundreds of hours of interviews with the artist. This is the only filmed footage of the artist and it figures prominently into Struggle. Interviews with friends such as Bray, Zwalve, Robert Williams, and George Di Caprio are used as are interviews with historians and artists. As befitting a documentary about a well-considered artist, Struggle does an extraordinary job in depicting the undeniably impressive art. Szukalski’s sculptures are filmed with swooping camera work from multiple angles. The doc also does an excellent job of exploring the highs and lows of his artistic achievements , including his ascendancy in Polish cultural and political life during the years leading up to World War 2.
This era of the artist’s life proves to be the source of the documentary’s most significant revelations. During the process of making Struggle, Ireneusz Dobrowolski and her team uncovered missing pieces of Szukalski’s biography that even his closest American friends weren’t aware of. Some of Szukalski’s pieces have a certain political slant—a bronze statute of pre-fascist Mussolini has always raised eyebrows—, but newly uncovered facts raise serious questions about his view. Interviewees express serious regret and shock regarding these revelations—George DiCaprio even questions his long-time friendship with the artist. Arguably, these revelations don’t quite push Szukalski into the same territory as someone like Arno Breker, and the artist did attempt to redeem himself in numerous ways. There is no question that some of his deeds are worthy of strong condemnation, though. Additionally, Szukalski’s late-life attempts at distancing himself from his past are further complicated by the fact that Polish nationalists have appropriated his art and ideas for their own ends. Ironically, as pointed out by historian Timothy Snyder (author of the Road to Unfreedom), these nationalists are embracing a fake past that was solely the product of Szukalski’s vivid imagination.
Stanislav Szukalski released some fantastic empowering art and ideas into the world while also leaving behind some black seeds that continue to sprout. Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski documents these contradictions in fine detail and ultimately asks the viewer whether this artist’s work can be separated from his politics. This an enduring question that can only be answered on an individual level.