Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

The lion in winter.

(2018) Documentary (NetflixStanislav Szukalski, Glenn Bray, Robert Williams, Ernst Fuchs, George Di Caprio, Jose Israel Fernandez, Suzanne Williams, Ben Hecht, Karen Mortillaro, Pyotr Rypsin, Lena Zwalve, Adam Jones, Gabe Bartalos, James Kagel, Timothy Snyder, Marek Hapon, Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Sandy Decker, Natalia Fabian, Rebecca Forstadt. Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski

 

It would be understandable if you hadn’t heard of Stanislav Szukalski. Even within the art world, his work is largely unknown these days, which is a shame – his talent and imagination are undeniable. However, the Polish-born artist’s case is not easy to contemplate.

Much of his work was destroyed during the Second World War; all that is left is conceptual drawings that he made. Following the war, he emigrated to the United States and lived in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Granada Hills until he passed away in 1987. Late in life, underground comic artists like Glenn Bray, Robert Williams and R. Crumb discovered him; some of Szukalski’s drawings appeared in the latter’s Weirdo.

Bray, a collector of Szukalski’s art and a close personal friend (he ended up the executor of his will), taped hundreds of hours of interviews with the artist which remain the only recorded footage of him. It gives the portrait of a man who was often maddeningly arrogant, highly opinionated and occasionally sweet.

But there’s a dark side to Szukalski, one that was unearthed during the making of this documentary and one which even his closest friends weren’t aware of. The revelations change the nature of the documentary from a straightforward biography to something with a much more urgent issue that we continue to grapple with in the age of #MeToo – is an artist separate from his work? Can we love a Woody Allen movie and deplore his actions? Can we love Chinatown and censure Roman Polanski?

That’s what his friends have to come to terms with. Some, like Bray, remain loyal to the old man they knew; Bray contends that Szukalski was a changed man when he knew him and there is evidence that Szukalski was anxious to make amends. However, others such as Di Caprio are not so sure that some of the actions of the artist can be forgiven and we also have to consider the legacy of those actions; in his native Poland, Szukalski has been adopted as a figurehead by far-right extremists, even though Szukalski himself would point out that his work was meant to illustrate the common themes of mankind through his philosophy of Zermatism, which has come down to us thanks to the Church of the Sub-Genius which purloined some of the concepts as their own.

Szukalski used the art forms and mythologies of other cultures to help him explore Poland’s identity, and there’s no doubt that the art is powerful and expressive. But considering his state of mind when he created some of this work, can it be trusted? The filmmaker leaves it to you to answer that for yourself but I can’t help but wonder that if the art is an extension of the artist, then is the art also an extension of the darker elements of that artist? We may never adequately answer that one.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is incredible. Szukalski himself is fascinating although there are parts of his personality that are disturbing to say the least.
REASONS TO AVOID: Szukalski isn’t always an admirable guy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and depictions of anti-Semitism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artist George di Caprio was friends with Szukalski late in his life; his son is the actor Leonardo. Both men are listed as producers on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Afterimage
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
My Hindu Friend

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