My husband and I watched the Netflix documentary ‘Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski’ last night because we’re nerds who regularly watch documentaries. It tells the tale of a group of people who get to know a Polish artist in their California neighborhood who lives in virtual anonymity despite a fairly lucrative art career in his youth. One of the men in the group, George DiCaprio (Leo’s dad), is left spurned and resents the man he thought he grew to know after discovering, during production, that Szukalski had promoted anti-Semitism in Poland before Germany’s invasion in WWII. After this reveal the documentary does a good job to remain neutral and allows the audience to make their own assertions on the questionable nature of the artist. There is an impression of regret and the possibility that Szukalski reformed after the war but it all is still questionable and uncertain in the twenty-plus years since his death.
As the documentary ended, my husband Tim was fascinated, and said his mind was racing with questions and curiosity but asked me what I thought. My two main take-a-ways were a daunting reflection of the iconoclasm that occurs during war; and, no matter how talented or brilliant a person you may be, if you have no humility or respect for others eventually the world will forget you.
Iconoclasm is a fancy term I learned about in my college art history classes; it refers to the spoiling, destruction and theft of idols, art, and/or culture that occurs during colonization and war. It is a sad and horrible thing that virtually all major world powers are guilty of. This was what happened to Warsaw and Szukalski the day the Nazi’s invaded; the city was bombed and prominent and powerful citizens were slaughtered in a mass execution. Every single piece of Szukalski’s work was lost and Poland’s legs were broken with it’s leaders removed. I regret that I have never been a prolific artist, but I couldn’t imagine knowing nearly all traces of my work had vanished. There’s an eerie stillness that uncomfortably lingers knowing that happened to a person and a people.
But that resonating discomfort discords with my quiet distaste for the man and artist Szukalski was. While I feel a bit more gracious about Szukalski’s pre-war propaganda activities than DiCaprio does, I think it is only due to my lack of empathy for the man. One of the greatest things I have learned as an individual, and certainly as an artist, is to be a learner, to recognize that I am finite and there is much to be learned from others. From childhood, Szukalski lived in contrast to this. He invented his own alphabet form; he quit his training as a sculptor because he refused to work from models and have his work and style ‘corrupted;’ he even spent his later years creating and obsessively documenting his own origin story for all of humanity.
Szukalski was an extremely talented sculptor and artist. There is no contesting that. But as the documentary ended, I was left wondering…was he worth remembering? Did he get what he deserved? Of course, I do not think this. I do not feel it is my place – or anyone else’s – to censor any part of history or humanity, but I find it ironic that a man and artist who so often placed himself above others was brought so low. Was it divine will that a group of anti-Semites destroyed a fellow thinker’s body of work? Was it a painful lesson he needed to learn? I’m just not sure. But ultimately, it makes me smirk to know that a man who disregarded others became himself disregarded. No one is so great.