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December 2014
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Stanislaw Szukalski (1893-1987) was born in  Warta, Poland, the son of a blacksmith, which suggests that sculpting was in his blood. Even as a young boy he carved detailed human figures from wood and limestone. At 13 he emigrated with his parents to  Chicago and was enrolled in the Institute of Art. The boy's evident talent was noticed by a visiting Polish sculptor, Antoni Popiel, who persuaded his parents to send him back to the Institute of Fine Arts in Krakow, where Szukalski studied for 3 years under Konstanty Laszczka, a sculptor influenced by Rodin, whose influence in turn is still clearly visible in many of Szukalski's bronze pieces. His early work, mostly busts, was striking for its eclectic blending of European avant-garde trends and the "primitive" traditions of North Africa and South America. His work evolved into an extraordinarily Daliesque combination of extreme distortions of the human form with a highly craftsmanlike rendering of anatomic detail. That it became ever harder to grasp without the artist's commentary was highlighted at an exhibition in 1923 at the Zacheta Gallery. And his prize-winning design for a monument to Adam Mickiewicz in Wilno, in which the poet-playwright's literally bleeding heart is nourishing an eagle, was ultimately rejected and became the wedge that separated Szukalski's critics from his admirers.

As a struggling immigrant artist in Chicago Szukalski enjoyed a circle of supportive intellectual friends and founded a discussion group called the Vagabond Club that included such figures as Clarence Darrow, Carl Sandburg, and the playwright Ben Hecht, who described Szukalski as "starving, muscular, aristocratic, and disdainful of lesser beings than himself." This latter trait came to the fore - after the American publication of two books of architectural drawings and top  from an international jury at the 1925 Exhibition of Decorative Art in Paris - when Szukalski caused a scandal in Krakow at his first - and for a long time his last - major retrospective in 1929, by criticizing Polish artists for slavishly clinging to western traditions while neglecting their Slavic roots, and by sharply attacking the teaching methods of his alma mater, the Krakow Academy of Art.

A later return to Poland ended with the German invasion, the destruction of much of Szukalski's work, and his final escape to a life of obscurity in  Los Angeles. By the time he was befriended in 1971 by arts publisher Glenn Bray, he was working and living in Burbank in a small apartment surrounded by sculptures waiting to be cast (many of them life-sized), hundreds of works on paper, and 39 volumes explaining "Zermatism," his highly idiosyncratic attempt at unifying theories into a single cosmology and figuring out the taxonomy of different types of human beings based on their physical traits. It includes theories on the influence of the Abominable Snowmen (known as the Yeti in the    Himalayas or the Sasquatch in North America) through their interbreeding with humans. Szukalski also believed  that all human culture is derived from post-deluge  Easter Island, and  that all modern languages are derived from ancient Polish.  Bray introduced the 90-year-old Szukalski to underground comics artist George DiCaprio, whose striking-looking little boy Leo joined the 90-year-old non-conformist in a mutual admiration society. In 1980 Bray published a book of Szukalski's art, Inner Portraits, and another in 1982 on his art and philosophy, Trough Full of Pearls / Behold!!! The Protong. When Szukalski died in 1987, a group of his admirers spread his ashes on  Easter Island.

For a marvelous personal portrait by an American admirer, Jim Woodring, click HERE. Readers of Polish can find more extensive detail about Szukalski's life and work by clicking HERE.