Thursday, December 20, 2018

Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

It isn’t easy being an unacknowledged genius. You probably suspected as much, but Stanislav Szukalski was happy to confirm it in the hundreds of hours of interview footage his friend and executor Glenn Bray recorded. Years after his death, his small circle of admirers is stunned by the revelation of his less than progressive writings in 1930s Poland. Maybe he wasn’t so smart after all. Bray and his underground artist friends take stock of Szukalski’s legacy in Ireneusz Dobrowolski’s documentary, Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski (trailer here), which premieres tomorrow on Netflix.

At one time, Szukalski was maybe the most famous artist in Poland and he was also quite well known among the smart set during his early years living in America. His style was rather revolutionary at the time and still looks quite distinctive today, like a fusion of Bauhaus and H.R. Giger. However, Szukalski was not one to suffer fools gladly. By his judgment, that included just about every museum curator and all of his artist colleagues.

Nevertheless, Szukalski’s mystical style of Slavic nationalism was definitely in favor during the pre-war years, perhaps too much so. Unfortunately, nearly his entire body of work (at that point in his career) was destroyed in a German bombing raid. Alas, when he returned to the US, he had nothing to show. Years later, Bray stumbled across Szukalski’s work and subsequently learned the artist lived nearby in Burbank. Soon, Bray and his buddies, including Robert Williams and George DiCaprio (father of Leonardo, both of whom serve as producers), were paying regular visits to listen to Szukalski (mostly talking about himself).

So, then there are those years in Poland, which apparently came as a revelation to everyone involved in the film. Bray tends to be more forgiving, whereas DiCaprio senior is pretty appalled. The Mussolini monument is conspicuously awkward, even if he did carve it before the dictator became the “Il Duce” as we now think of him. Yet, this is the same Szukalski who was close friends with Ben Hecht, the screenwriter, Zionist activist, and civil right activist. It is probably safe to say Dobrowolski and his resulting film are not sure what to make of Szukalski, but he allows Bray to be the loudest, most prominent voice.

Perhaps this is counter-intuitive for a documentary filmmaker, but Struggle might have been more effective if Drobowolski had played up the unknowable inscrutability of Szukalski more. Instead, we get enough of Szukalski on Szukalski to conclude he was quite an arrogant old loon.

Still, Szukalski’s verifiable story is loaded with ironies. His work is also undeniably intriguing, even for contemporary viewers. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to see his strange and powerful work seventy or eighty years ago. One could liken him to deconstructive critical theorist Paul de Man, except Szukalski post-war years were largely passed in obscurity. Many of his admirers suggest he mellowed and became more tolerant over time, but it is shame Bray did not know to question Szukalski about his sketchy past, when he had the chance. Drobowolski’s fractured portrait is fascinating at times, but it never really cracks the façade Szukalski projects. Mostly recommended for fans of the underground Comix scene he helped inspire, Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski starts streaming tomorrow (12/21) on Netflix.