Stanislav Szukalski: Polish Art Through The Eyes of a Mad Genius

Read on for a portrait of Stanislav Szukalski, characterized as the 'Polish grandfather' of Leonardo DiCaprio. His art was connected with many significant events of the 20th century.

Mar 1, 2021By Stella Polyzoidou, BA Archaeology and Art History
stanislav szukalski
Portrait of Stanisław Szukalski; image from Behold!!! The Protong by Stanislav Szukalski; David by Stanislav Szukalski, 1914


Stanislav Szukalski was a 20th-century modernist artist who was involved in sculpture, painting, sketching, and theoretical sciences. He lived both in America and Poland, feeling like a citizen of the world and, at the same time, a patriot without a homeland. He lost most of his work in Warsaw during World War II. He never recovered economically, artificially, or emotionally from this event. He was characterized among others as an anti-conformist and propagandist of the Slavs in the United States. His vision was to create Polish national art with its own identity and restore the standards and aesthetics of what is great art.


Stanislav Szukalski: Early Childhood And Education

stanislav szukalski
Portrait of Stanisław Szukalski, via Netflix

Stanisłav Szukalski, otherwise: Stach from Warta was born on December 13, 1893, in a small town in Warta, Poland. Considered by some to be an artist comparable to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he promoted the idea of Polish art flowing from the individuality of the nation. At the age of five, after attempting to look directly at the sun and appreciate its glow for a long time, a part of his retina — which is responsible for the center of our vision — was damaged. For the rest of his life, he’d design and make sculptures with a dot in his eye. At school, he decided to invent his own alphabet, as he thought schools were distorting children’s predispositions, modifying them, and making it commonplace to think in the same way.


stanislav szukalski
Stanislav Szukalski, 1917, Chicago, via Trigg Ison Fine Art, Hollywood


In 1906, at age 12, he went to Chicago, where he became a member of the Chicago Renaissance movement. At the age of 14, he began attending the Institute of Art in Chicago, where his extraordinary talent was quickly noticed. In 1910, he went back to Poland and was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. Due to his uncompromising attitude, he returned to Chicago in 1913 and began the most important period of his creative work that lasted until 1939. During this time, he published two large monographs: The Work of Szukalski (1923) and Projects in Design (1929). In 1925, he took part in the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts in Paris, where he received the Grand Prix, Honorary Diploma, and Gold Medal. His personality, creativity, and extremely anti-institutional and individualistic views had a significant impact on Chicago’s artistic life


Szukalski’s Style And Aesthetic

david stanislav szukalski
David by Stanislav Szukalski, 1914, via Archives Szukalski


Stanislav Szukalski was a modernist with influence from Rodin and Michelangelo. His style could be interpreted as a combination of mythological and erotic elements with a dose of Surrealism. In his early years, the artist was influenced by the modernity of Neo-Poland. Later, the art of ancient civilizations would fascinate him, in particular the Mesoamerican culture. The human figure is dominated in his works, which usually appears deformed and fragmented.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


”It is my father. He’s been killed by an automobile. I drive the crowd away, and I pick up my father’s body. I carry it on my shoulder for a long time to the country morgue. I tell them, “this is my father”. And I ask them this thing, which they did allow. My father is given to me, and I dissect his body. You ask me where I learned anatomy. My father taught me. 



What makes his work special is that he renders the sculptures in three-dimensional form. According to art critics, Stanislav Szukalski had a unique ability to combine styles of different eras and cultures. For example, he combined the American Indigenous Art with Slavic elements. Although his art seemed cosmopolitan, he continued to create a new form of Polish art. 


His Masterpiece Struggle

stanislav szukalski
Struggle by Stanislav Szukalski, 1917, via Varnish Fine Art


In 1917, he created the Struggle, one of its most famous works. It’s a hand about five times as big as normal. From the fingers come the heads of eagles. The four fingers attack the thumb, symbolizing the struggle between quality and quantity of ordinary people against brilliant people. Fingers symbolize quantity and thumb quality. Thumbs are interpreted as the creators of civilizations and fingers as the attack. The thumb also symbolizes the person, the artist himself, who opposes society. Stanislav Szukalski has said that “without the thumbs, we would not make tools and without tools, we would not make civilizations.”


This project encompasses the course of his life. It was destroyed in Poland during World War II, but it reappeared in the ’90s. It seems to have been stolen in the war and stayed for decades in a private collection. Both his professional career and his subsequent life have been marked by struggle and loss.


Tribe Of The Horned Heart

stanislav szukalski
Exhibition of works by Stanisław Szukalski and the “Horned Heart” tribe at the Society of Friends of Fine Arts in Krakow, 1929, via Zermatism


In 1929, after Stanislav Szukalski’s exhibition at the Palace of Art in Krakow, the artistic group called the ”Horned Heart” was born. Szukalski believed in Polish Art and the romantic idea that there should be one person who represented a nation and believed himself to be a national genius. His views on art, politics, society, nationalism, and Poland were evident in his works. A group of artists gathered around him looking for inspiration in the culture of the former Slavic region. The motto of the formation was: “Love, fight.” 


The group operated until 1936, organizing numerous exhibitions throughout Poland, publishing articles in national magazines and its own press body – KRAK. Every article published contained an aggressive vocabulary for the church and anti-semitic comments. He claimed that those who didn’t admire his work were Jews. In the 1930s, Poland was still cultivating traditional Catholicism. Szukalski considered biased Catholics to be slaves. Only those who are not religious are true Poles and patriots. Stanislav Szukalski’s biographer, Lameński Lechosław, also argued that in the 1930s he began to demonstrate behaviors of Schizophrenia that would torment him for his entire life. 


Transforming The Face Of Polish Art


From 1926 to 1935, Poland’s leader was Marshal Józef Piłsudski, who aimed for a multicultural country inhabited by Jews, Polish Ukrainians, Germans, Lithuanians, and other minorities. After the death of Pilsudski in Poland, National authoritarianism directly excluded non-Polish. As a result of this, Szukalski was encouraged to create nationalist Polish art containing an aggressive element. The Polish state hugged him warmly, seeing him as a national response to the rise of national socialist art.


remussolini stanislav szukalski
Remussolini by Stanislav Szukalski, 1932, Kraków, via Audiovis NAC on-line collection 


Before World War II, Stanislav Szukalski had obvious anti-Semitic and anti-Christian ideologies that later turned down. This is evident in the sculpture he made in 1932. He called it Remussolini and made it for Benito Mussolini. The starting point for this work was The Capitoline She-wolf in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. During the Renaissance, the sculpture with the wolf had already been modified with the addition of Romulus and Remus and the legend that accompanies them. In the position of the wolf, Szukalski placed Mussolini naked as a half-human half-animal, extending his arm with the characteristic fascist movement. In this case, Szukalski deconstructed Mussolini from a male ‘hero’ of Italian fascism to the ideal of the mother raising her children. 


boleslav the brave stanislav
Boleslav the Brave by Stanislav Szukalski, 1928, in the Upper Silesian Museum, Bytom; with Monument to the Miner by Stanislav Szukalski, via Archives Szukalski


Around 1935, he went to Poland and the government provided him with a workshop, in which he created two large sculptures. The first of Boleslav the Brave, the first King of Poland, and the other was the Monument to a Miner. In the first, the artist presents the king as he kills the Bishop of Poland, making his anti-Catholic views clear. 


In 1939, however, Polish nationalism had suffered a fatal crash with German nationalism, and Szukalski’s dreams of a renewed Poland collapsed. After the Nazis bombed Warsaw, 1/3 of the city was destroyed along with his studio. All of his projects were destroyed and he was trapped under the ruins for two days. After this, he returned to the United States without his artworks or money. In total, he made 174 sculptures, hundreds of paintings and drawings, most of them were destroyed, while some were rescued in American collections. 


Art After World War II


In the period from 1939 to 1987, Stanislav Szukalski was influenced by Postmodernism. The end of World War ΙΙ ended the long modernist period, which was based on continuous progress in technology, art, and society. At the center of Szukalski’s postwar art is the relationship with the past, which is the main principle of Postmodernism. Ιn this context, he tried to reinterpret the symbols of the past and the present as well.


Szukalski appears to have changed his anti-semitic views after World War II. He has said that Jews are a source of ancient traditions and that they have gained wisdom through the suffering that they have gone through. This was also made apparent in an embossed Menora he made as a sign of admiration for Jews. 


Katyn – The Last Breath

katyn the last breath
Katyn – The Last Breath by Stanislav Szukalski, 1979, via Archives Szukalski


The last sculpture he created was in 1979, called Katyn- The Last Breath, named after the massacre in the Katyn forest in September of 1939. Nearly 5,000 Polish military officers, intellectuals, and political prisoners were murdered by the Soviets and buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest. With this artwork, Stanislav Szukalski expressed all of his rage and madness for World War II. It is still apparent that Szukalski has never lost his hatred for Communism or his love for his people. In the complex he created, educated people appear to have their hands tied behind their backs, after first hitting them on the head with an ax and shooting them in the neck.



stanislav szukalski zermatism
Stanisław Szukalski, 1983; with a sample of his works on Zermatism, via Archives Szukalski


In 1940, Stanislav Szukalski settled in Los Angeles and lived with very little means. Towards the end of his life, Szukalski developed a pseudoscientific theory called “Zermatism,” named after the Swiss city of Zermatt. He examined the primitive art of all the cultures of the world, trying to decrypt the language of the symbols. He wrote over 40 writing volumes about mysteries of the origin of humanity and language. 


behold the protong
Images from Behold!!! The Protong by Stanislav Szukalski, via Archives Szukalski


According to this theory, in ancient times, monkeys or other apes raped beautiful women and thus became a sub-tribe of ugly people who later became criminals, murderers, Nazis, and communists. All human beings are derived from Easter island and were under the control of the race of human-yeti hybrids, as he named them. This theory explains the tribal and cultural differences by claiming that they are due to species intersection. However, there is no scientific evidence to support the theory of Zermatism.


Stanislav Szukalski And His Relationship With The DiCaprios


Whilst residing in California, Stanislav Szukalski was a neighbor of George DiCaprio, Leonardo DiCaprio’s father. Since both were artistically inclined, the latter drawing comics, the two men became friends, often visiting each other. Leonardo DiCaprio had a close relationship with Szukalski, thinking of him as a grandfather. In 2018, Leonardo Di Caprio funded the production for a film, Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Stanisław Szukalski, and also became a valuable collector of Szukalski’s sculptures. Szukalski eventually died in 1987 in Los Angeles. A year later his ashes were scattered at Rano Raraku, the sculptors’ quarry on Easter Island by his close friends.


stanislav szukalski leonardo dicaprio
Stanisław Szukalski with his family and Leonardo DiCaprio, 1980


He was a man full of contradictions, with a strong, anti-conformist, and eccentric personality. Ideological inadequacy and a radical shift towards art critics have become the reasons for modern art critics to consider the work of the useless. As a result, the work of one of the most important Polish artists remains almost unknown.


For more information on Szukalski’s Life, you can watch Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Stanislav Szukalski on Netflix.

Author Image

By Stella PolyzoidouBA Archaeology and Art HistoryStella is a writer, fashion editor, website owner of Silk Pastelle and a cat lover with a BA in Archaeology and Art History from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. When she doesn't write about fashion and art, she watches biographical films and reads about different cultures. She completed her internship at MOMus Museum and she's currently doing her MA in Museum Studies.