December 3, 2009

Two Slavic-American artists: Warhol and Szukalski

An excerpt from my new column in Taki's Magazine:

The sharply contrasting careers of two Slavic-American artists who both died in 1987, the droll commercial illustrator Andy Warhol and the titanic sculptor Stanislaw Szukalski, illustrate much about how culture has changed over the last century.

For over 40 years, Warhol (1928-1987) has been famously famous for saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Warhol’s own renown, however, is undying. Last week, for example, saw the opening of a musical with the onomatopoeic title POP! about Warhol’s shooting by an irate feminist in 1968.

In contrast, Szukalski (1893-1987) spent much of his life on the edge of poverty. Yet, Szukalski actually was suddenly famous in his native Poland in the late 1930s. Then, much of his life’s work was blown to smithereens during WWII.

The great screenwriter Ben Hecht, who had met him in Chicago in 1914, wrote of him in the 1950s:

His works are vanished. He is without public, without critics, and so complete is the world’s ignorance of him that he may as well have never existed.

Yet, Szukalski toiled on, endlessly creating statues and drawings, a living legend to a handful of admirers, including Leonardo DiCaprio in 1980s Burbank.

Szukalski’s politics weren’t helpful. In Chicago in 1914, to which his blacksmith father had brought him a half decade earlier, he was training 20 Polish boys in the manual of arms, “So when the time comes they will be ready to go back and fight for the freedom of Poland.” Polish nationalism, however, was not exactly the most career-promoting ideological obsession for a 20th-century artist. To the right is his plate, Ahuman and Human commemorating the Soviet massacre of the young leaders of Poland at Katyn in 1940, which shows an ape in a Soviet Red Army uniform shooting a Pole in the back of the head.

As C. van Carter pointed out to me, Szukalski’s fan Jim Woodring wrote in “The Neglected Genius of Stanislav Szukalski”:

Among his most strongly held (and extensively documented) theories was the notion that a race of malevolent Yeti have been interbreeding with humans since time out of mind, and that the hybrid offspring are bringing about the end of civilization. As proof of this, he pointed to the Russians.

Szukalsi dared the world that his stupendous talent would make it forgive his megalomania, obstreperousness, obsession with vicious apes, general craziness, and exquisitely bad manners, the way it had forgiven Beethoven, Wagner, and so many other artistic heroes.

It didn’t.

Warhol, in contrast, invented a more consumer-friendly role for the artist in a culture tiring of greatness. Andy pointed out, “Art is what you can get away with.”

Read the whole thing there and comment upon it below.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

49 comments:

Peter A said...

I don't see much merit in Szukalski's work at all. It looks a lot like the crappy socialist realism his hated Russians were producing at the same time. And that plate is godawful - instead of showing Poles as heroes it shows a naked man being practically raped by a gorilla. Adding an S&M sexual element to Katyn is just grotesque and a travesty. Szuakalski clearly had issues with his latent homosexuality. I actually prefer Warhol.

boersun said...

wow, i wasn't expecting this -it's great to see szukalski getting some recognition - i've been a fan since he appeared in high weirdness by mail - which i guess has actually been awhile now - a unique, cranky & talented individual

Dutch Boy said...

Szukalski seems to have had a generous portion of Cyrano de Bergerac (in Edmond Rostand's conception)in him. Nutcase or not, who could have anything but contempt for the confidence men/nihilists who make modern art?

Anonymous said...

OT

Some more people on that lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism.

Life and death is about as fundamental as you can get.

Anonymous said...

Talk about creepy. Look at "Labor" (note absence of head - point-making?).

RKU said...

Well, I have to admit that the Polish guy, whom I'd never heard of, sounds even weirder than Warhol.

Dissecting your own father for "artistic" reasons is a pretty high standard to meet...

S.L. Toddard said...

Mr. Sailer - what a magnificent piece. Thanks for introducing us to such an imposing genius and fascinating character.

Grumpy Old Man said...

Fascinating. I like this much better than dissections of Gladwell.

Look into the Russian Nicholas Roerich some time. A more irenic character, but a great artist nonetheless.

blue anon said...

Steve, how did you find out about this guy? Wow. Whatever you did I want to repeat it 200 times in hope of finding another spirit like this Warhol.

Just kidding. How did you find Szukalski?

Anonymous said...

Szukalski's work reminds me of the English artist (and occultist) Austin Osman Spare who was active at roughly the same peiod.
Although a very accomplished draughtsman, Spare an eccentric who eschewed the art establishment, is now chiefly remembered for his original occult work, mostly the famous 'Sparean sigil' popularized by comic-writer Alan Moore.

wwwww said...

thank-you. ben hecht made me a fan too 40 years ago

philip gahtan said...

thank-you. i read ben hechts work 40 years ago. he loved mencken,barrymore and teddy roosevelt too.

RobertHume said...

Where can one see his work?

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hijack, but I wanted to make sure you had seen this from The Economist.

The Looming Crisis in Human Genetics

"Human geneticists have reached a private crisis of conscience, and it will become public knowledge in 2010. The crisis has depressing health implications and alarming political ones. In a nutshell: the new genetics will reveal much less than hoped about how to cure disease, and much more than feared about human evolution and inequality, including genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and races."


http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14742737

Anonymous said...

Ugh, I've long hated the snobbishness that made Warhol (and by extension most of post-modern "art") famous. The man was indeed an artist but a performance artist, like L Ron Hubbard. The morons who hold his art to be about anything but a mockery of themselves are annoying prigs who should be used for science experiments.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite bits from "A Child of the Century" where Hecht quotes (or claims to quote) Szukalski regarding how he learnt anatomy so well: "my father taught me".

Haunting shit to read as a sensitive youngster I tell you.

mnuez

P.S. On a whim I just hit firefox's spellcheck option and it recommended that I change whbo to "whitby". CVC gets one mention in the steveosphere and he's taking over my browser's spellchecker...

Henry Canaday said...

“These were men. They could beget children on women, they could shape certain kinds of materials for purposes that made them masters of their world. I thought of two kinds of men that the West produces: the cityish kind who wears spectacles without shame, as if they were a sign of quality and not a defect, who is overweight and puffy, who can drive a car but knows no other mastery over materials, who presses buttons and turns switches without comprehending the result, who makes money when the market goes up and loses it when the market goes down; the high-nosed young man who is somebody’s secretary or is in the Foreign Office, who has a peevishly amusing voice and is very delicate, who knows a great deal but far from all there is to know about French pictures. I understand why we cannot build, why we cannot govern, why we bear ourselves without pride in our international relations.”

- Rebecca West, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see that bit made a lasting impression on you too.

As for your article in toto... Magnificent.

mnuez

ricpic said...

Szukalski's work is too muscular.

keypusher said...

Where can one see his work?

Here, but I don't know about IRL.

http://szukalski.com/store.html

Peter A

Socialist Realism?

http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.artlies.org/_issues/41/features/larsen.fig3.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.artlies.org/article.php%3Fid%3D148%26issue%3D41%26s%3D1&usg=__E8_ZA7nurNTTTB94u9eHSEAJfUc=&h=600&w=444&sz=65&hl=en&start=12&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=q02tWCk4t0GZbM:&tbnh=135&tbnw=100&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dsocialist%2Brealism%26hl%3Den%26safe%3Doff%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26sa%3DN%26um%3D1

Middletown Girl said...

"I don't see much merit in Szukalski's work at all. It looks a lot like the crappy socialist realism his hated Russians were producing at the same time. And that plate is godawful - instead of showing Poles as heroes it shows a naked man being practically raped by a gorilla."

I can understand you not liking Szukalski but what's wrong with the plate showing the Pole as a helpless victim of beastly forces? We make heroes out of martyrs and historical figures, but this is essentially a 'mythic' process, a kind of white-washing with a pedigree going back to Classical Art. If you hate socialist realism, you must also hate classicism.

Reality is something quite different from mytholity--for lack of a better term. We may remember those Polish officers at Katyn as heroes, but they died as human beings(or human animals)--afraid, pitiful, terrified, reduced to primal fears, perhaps even shitting in their pants. The plate depicts how even a muscular hero is no match for the beastly forces of history. Heroism is a gesture, bestiality is a fact. Gestures lose out to facts. So, the plate, though specifically about Soviet oppression of Poland, has a universal ring to it.

This isn't to say that Szukalsi's art was realistic. He was a mythicist too, but he mythologized the brutal and crude aspects of man, history, and nature than(or as well as)man's noble pretensions or aspirations.

In this sense, there is a kind of fascist element in his art, fascist in the best sense of the word. Not in terms of mass manufactured national or racial idealization for the masses but a fusionary clash between man's aspiration for higher things and man's pitifully deformed limitations in a world oblivious to his conceits and ideals. Before Mussolini and Hitler turned fascism into Boy Scout shenanigans, there was the idea of a New Right with a deep understanding of the dark side of man.

It's there in Zardoz by John Boorman. This may explain why Szukalski was fascinated by Mayan art. Mayans not only produced great architecture and created mighty ideals/conceits but were ultimately defeated by nature, enemies, and other forces. Heroism, martyrdom, bestiality, brutishness, etc are all part of the same clay. So, even as the plate shows a Soviet Gorilla and a fallen Polish hero, there is an intimation(even if unconscious on his part)that gorilla-ness is also part and parcel of the Polish hero. We are our enemies, and our enemies are us. Not in the brotherhood-of-man sense but in the beastliness-of-man sense. Mayans built great temples AND committed horrible human sacrifice. Soviets spoke of Utopia but acted like animals. Even as a proud Pole, Szukalski must have been aware of the DARKER side of Polish history, culture, and history. After all, it takes 100 Polacks to change a lightbulb.

Anonymous said...

what about Frederick Hart. talk about someone the errr.. .new york media elite hated.

Tom Wolfe wrote a great essay on him:
http://www.jeanstephengalleries.com/hart-wolfe.html

Anonymous said...

"Szukalsi dared the world that his stupendous talent would make it forgive his megalomania, obstreperousness, obsession with vicious apes, general craziness, and exquisitely bad manners, the way it had forgiven Beethoven, Wagner, and so many other artistic heroes."

I think this is wrong on two counts: first your examples are not good. Beethoven was bad-tempered but not crazy, and he was a shrewd businessman; his success cannot be accurately described as an instance of genius triumphing in spite of the man who possesses it. As for Wagner, this is downright absurd: Wagner was not the Szulkalski of the 19th century, he was the Warhol of the 19th century...if Warhol had been about a hundred times better at promoting himself. I think that most famous artists were at least moderately good at managing their own careers. Certainly this is true of composers.

Secondly, if there is one period in the history of art where artists can act like genuinely subhuman monsters and get away with it, it is the last century. For some reason 20th century Slavic artists in particular seemed to think good manners were for other people...and most people seemed to agree with them. Szukalski was thrown to the scrap-heap because he hated modernism. If his sculptures had been big circles with holes in them and suchlike, "the world" would have forgiven him anything.

Middletown Girl said...

If Warhol and Szukalski had one thing in common, they were both misfits. Difference was Szukalski was intensely private and committed to his ideas, values, and views--no matter how confused and crazy they may have been. He meant to say something, and his art must be approached in the way he intended. Not very fun for post-modern critics and scholars who want to read, discover, or even create their own interpretations. Warhol was more like a weird progenitor of what came to be Obama-ism(not only 'post-racial' but a post-modernist sci-fi politics). Warhol was what you wanted him to be, and his art could be read in a 1000 ways--as meaningless, meaningful, as poster art, as satire, as a joke, as earnestness, etc. One could spend long hours gladwelling about Warhol--spin (pseudo)intellectual fairytales about the layers of meaning or no meaning or no meaning as the new meaning, and etc. It is art appreciation as modern financial appreciation based on clever ever-shifting rules of the game.

Though both were misfits, Szukalski was an aggressive misfit whereas Warhol was a passive misfit. But, here's the paradox. The art community was offended and fended off Szukalski's aggression, but it was helpless against the apparent passivity of Warhol. Warhol, with his passivism, waged a more successful war on the art community. I guess this explains why Ross Perot, Al Sharpton, and Buchanan didn't get too far whereas as an idiot savant like Dubya or a multi-faced chameleon like Obama got to be president.

Middletown Girl said...

This is a very interesting piece, not least because I'd never heard of Szukalski. Goes to show the state of our culture as controlled and dominated by the liberal elite. PBS has run a bunch of stuff on Warhol, none on Szukalski.

There are several ways in which the designation 'two Slavic-American artists' has meaning and no meaning. In the most obvious sense, both artists were of Slavic origin. But, Warhol's sensibility was closer to modern bohemian Jewish or even Martian than Slavic. You don't sense any Slavicness--or even Slavic-Americanness--when looking at Warhol's Mao or crap movie like Chelsea Girls--though one could argue there has long been a weird off-kilter oddball artistic sensibility among Slavs(most evident in the films of Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev). As a NY artist, Warhol hung around, mooched off, and fed into a cultural complex defined and dominated by cosmopolitan Jewish, Wasp, and Euro-expatriate types. He was the perhaps the most aggressive passive artists--not to be confused with 'passive-aggressive'. He was a weakling with a frail voice and skin that looked as if it might parch and crumble in sunlight. Yet, he built a 'factory' and a whole scene where aggressive and out-of-control people were invited to indulge and destroy one another. He was either an idiot savant or a master manipulator. Maybe, Jerry Springer learned a thing or two from Warhol. He was like a mad scientist who, though germ freak himself, introduced filth into petri dishes and let it grow and fester, and then just watched, as if perpetually on acid, mildly fascinated and amused by everything around him.

Szukalski, on the other hand, was more obviously a Slavic artist. His themes were often Polish and nationalist. But, the Slavic label doesn't suit him well either. After all, Poland, though linguistically Slavic, has culturally and politically felt closer to Western Europe than Eastern Europe dominated by Russia. When Russians were fanning the flames of pan-Slavicism, Poles wanted nothing to do with it. Then as now, Poles want to be closer to Germans, Brits, and French. Indeed, this may have accounted for the fascinating violence and chaos in his art. He was a man caught between two worlds--East and West, old and new, heroic and bestial, mythic and real, etc. Crisis is always good for art.

It must also be noted that Szukalski was a modern artist in the sense that he searched far and wide for inspiration, even from non-Western sources. Picasso took ideas from African art, and Szukalski was inspired by Mayan art.

Ray Sawhill said...

"The Michelangelo of the Mayans" is really good!

Steve Sailer said...

I also came up with the Bernini of Borneo, but I don't know what Borneo art looks like.

william of o. said...

Nice article. That Pole is awesome. And wow, someone is still printing 'Behold!!! The Protong'? Is it worth buying?

Paleo Truth Squad said...

I never read "Middletown Girls" comments.

On the topic at hand: Warhol is taking a piss on your leg and Szukalski is anticipating your piss on your leg.

Sorry for the bad news.

Anonymous said...

Superb article, and illuminating and elegant comments from Middletown girl.

Middletown Girl said...

"Beethoven was bad-tempered but not crazy, and he was a shrewd businessman;"

There is no objective definition of 'crazy', but in the context of art, it's not necessarily a bad thing. I believe great artists are crazy in some way.

"As for Wagner, this is downright absurd: Wagner was not the Szulkalski of the 19th century, he was the Warhol of the 19th century..."

Now, that is a statement worthy of Warhol. Care to silkscreen it?
Btw, I think you're confusing Wagner with King Ludwig II.

Though I don't know enough about Szulkalski, his powerful themes of violence, heroism, barbarism, nationalism, nature worship, dark mythicism, and glimmers of spiritual redemption--plus his passionate interests in many subjects--would suggest he had more in common with Wagner than with Warhol, who if we wanna be generous, might be compared with someone like Oscar Wilde.

Middletown Girl said...

Come to think of it, Szukalski's art reminds me of John Milius's treatment of Heart of Darkness--Apocalypse Now. A kind of radical reactionary who looks back not a 100 or 1000 yrs but 10,000 yrs. There's also an aspect of pessimistic apocalyptism, but hope always follows apocalypse, as in the Germanic myths. Maybe, he thought Poland had to go through total hell to ever see sunlight again.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, Steve. Never heard of Szykalski before.

In response to Middletown Girl who said: "Then as now, Poles want to be closer to Germans, Brits, and French."

Based on my experiences, Poles are more likely to lie about their heritage compared to any other Slavic people. Poles are all too often embarrassed by their Polish ancestry. Not all of them, but a lot of them. This Polish girl I dated years ago kept claiming she was pure German, even though she had a Polish/Slavic surname. She kept putting down the Poles, calling them idiotic and closed-minded. She eventually came around to admitting to being half-Polish but I'm also certain she was 100% Polish.

Anyhow, Warhol had a very interesting ancestry I think from Slovakia but ultimately from this stateless, unique Slavic linguistic/culture group called the Rusyns that are said to be intermediary between the East Slavs(Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians), and West Slavs(Poles, Czechs, Slovaks). Their language is sort of like a "link" between these languages, and is slowly becoming extinct as these people adopt the official language of their respective nation-state(similarly, many German dialects, especially those that are part of the linguistic continuum or "bridge" between High German and Dutch are also slowly going extinct). Maybe this explains Warhols art, or maybe it doesn't.

Szukalski's ancestry was relatively uncomplicated, being an ethnic Pole and being inspired by the struggle of Poland. Warhol lacked this kind of inspiration.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rusyns

Anonymous said...

gay

Anonymous said...

You didn't actually link to the David Bowie as Warhol video, Steve.

Peter A said...

t what's wrong with the plate showing the Pole as a helpless victim of beastly forces?

Well, as you say later, they died like scared human beings. I don't think that's what Szukalski's plate shows - it's too full of weird Catholic (or Mayan?) passion. He's made his victim too innocent and the scene look like a rape. Maybe I'm misremembering Katyn but I thought the officers were simply taken out in the woods and dispatched quickly with bullets in the back of the head - efficient, remorseless, and cold. More like a machine than a primordial gorilla.

master_of_americans said...

Based on the examples I've seen here, I'd take him over Warhol or just about any other 20th century artist I'm aware of, but Szukalski still seems much too modern to me. I somehow get the feeling that he wants me to smirk along with him at his own cleverness.

That said, some of the work on szukalski.com does seem less ironic than the examples Steve has provided.

Chip said...

Wow. I'm surprised -- and delighted -- by this one, Steve. Szukalski and Warhol are among my favorite artists, yet I don't know that I've ever put them in the same thought.

Tom Piatak said...

A very interesting piece.

Anonymous said...

> illuminating and elegant comments from Middletown girl <

Like this one?

> it takes 100 Polacks to change a lightbulb <

Anonymous said

> Poles are more likely to lie about their heritage compared to any other Slavic people. Poles are all too often embarrassed by their Polish ancestry. Not all of them, but a lot of them. This Polish girl I dated years ago kept claiming she was pure German, even though she had a Polish/Slavic surname. She kept putting down the Poles, calling them idiotic and closed-minded. <

Poland much persecuted Jews during WWII. Fleeing survivors (J and non) scattered all over the world, many of them changing their names, all of them trying to forget. They hate Poland like hell.

Dunno the age of that girl but if she were pre-born or too young during that diaspora, maybe she acquired her sensibilities from her parents or other relatives.

Anonymous said...

anonymous said...

This Polish girl I dated years ago kept claiming she was pure German, even though she had a Polish/Slavic surname. She kept putting down the Poles, calling them idiotic and closed-minded. She eventually came around to admitting to being half-Polish but I'm also certain she was 100% Polish.

I knew a Hispanic guy like that. This man's last name was Estrada, but he would always claim to be Italian since he hated Mexicans.

Anonymous said...

Jesus Christ, Middletown Girl! Stop spamming the comments with multiple posts. Post your full analysis on your blog instead of dedicating 5 posts to your brainfarts.

As for Szukalski and Warhol, I don't really care much for either of them. I don't like social realism and hate nationalist art that demonizes another ethnic group. I highly doubt the commenters here would be praising Szukalski if he happened to be Jewish and portrayed the Russians that way.

Marc B said...

"Ugh, I've long hated the snobbishness that made Warhol (and by extension most of post-modern "art") famous. The morons who hold his art to be about anything but a mockery of themselves are annoying prigs who should be used for science experiments."

Andy would be flattered. His point was that modern art was nothing but a racket, and his art mocked that with an unabashed love of Mid 20th Century US Capitalism and consumerism.

Despite all of his homo/asexuality and overt detached oddness, Andy was just a psychedelic Norman Rockwell with an incredible business sense and a love for all things America.

rast said...

Maybe I'm misremembering Katyn but I thought the officers were simply taken out in the woods and dispatched quickly with bullets in the back of the head - efficient, remorseless, and cold. More like a machine than a primordial gorilla.

Yeah, the part afterward where the Russian soldiers raped their wives and daughters was more beastly. But for some reason the artist didn't choose to depict that. I suspect its implied.

Anonymous said...

-Maybe I'm misremembering Katyn but I thought the officers were simply taken out in the woods and dispatched quickly with bullets in the back of the head - efficient, remorseless, and cold. More like a machine than a primordial gorilla.-

Some got stuck with bayonets. Simple too...

Artistico said...

Polish Nationalist = Kewl
German Nationalist = Evil

Middletown Girl said...

"Jesus Christ, Middletown Girl! Stop spamming the comments with multiple posts."

It's my take on postmodern art. I hope to sell the comments for $46 million one day.

Middletown Girl said...

> illuminating and elegant comments from Middletown girl <

Like this one?

> it takes 100 Polacks to change a lightbulb <

-----------

I didn't say the Poles didn't do it with a touch of elegance. They may be dumb but they've gotten so much practice over the yrs that 100Poles changing a lightbulb is an art on the level of Circus Soleil.

Anonymous said...

Szukalski reminds me of an artist I once knew who was schizophrenic. He had the same type of look in his work: very busy, fantastic images, feverish subject matter, twisting tortured shapes. He could also draw well and produce the occasional representational, calm(er) painting. I think one was of a Russian missile taking off - he was also obsessed with Russia and thought the Soviets were about to conquer the world. This was in the late 80s.

Otherwise, he was quite intelligent and witty. What also reminded me of him while reading about Szukalski was how my friend would suddenly switch word and textual associations while frothing on some topic he cared about. Like the "isms" of Szukalski.

He was prescribed Lithium.

Hockey Puck said...

Some got stuck with bayonets. Simple too...

Scotts-Irish simple?