I just watched Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Stanislaw Szukalski and I have a few thoughts. Keep in mind I am by no means a Szukalski expert and these are not meant to be the last, authoritative word on the subject:
For a documentary made by Szukalski’s friends and supporters from the underground comics subculture and era, who knew him only as an old man and were broadly willing to overlook some of the weirdness of him while he was alive, this is not as much of a whitewash as it could have been. It does touch on Szukalski’s two-facedness during the 1930s when he was a cosmopolitan in the US and an antisemitic nationalist in Poland. But it minimizes his contribution to the era’s political climate of hate.
In any case, the one moment I felt like interrupting the documentary to say “Bullshit!” was when George DiCaprio said he was deceived by the face that Szukalski put on towards them, implying that none of the underground comix crowd knew anything about his history. I refuse to believe that the racism and antisemitism weren’t there right in front of him for everyone to see. I mean, I knew about it – not necessarily all the details of what Szukalski was up to and when, but enough of the broad strokes that if you asked me to my face if Szukalski was an anti-semite, I’d have answered, yeah, sure he was, and more.
That does of course raise the question of how I knew this, because like I said, I’m no expert. I have a small book, possibly one of Glenn Bray’s publications, of Szukalski art and have at some time in my life borrowed and studied a larger volume of art and writing from him. I have not looked at the book I own in several years and in fact don’t know where it is. Also, my own memory is not what it was But I did know about the racist, nationalist contents of Szukalski’s work, including his post-War work. So how did I know? Did I spot it in the work I saw of him unaided? Did the person who introduced me to Szukalski’s work, from a generation halfway between mine and that of the friends of Szukalski in the documentary, mention it to me? Then that means he knew, and probably a lot of other people did. Or was it because my pre-existing (if also patchy) knowledge of Modernism, Futurism, Vorticism and Ezra Pound primed me to spot the signs in an artist who came out of that cluster of movements? In any case, I knew, and I believe they could have known, had they chosen to.
I also have a hard time with the case the documentary tried to make that Szukalski came out of the War with changed views on race and nationalism and that while he was still bigoted as a person, he had left bigoted ideologies behind. There is evidence for that in the way he wrote about Jewish people in his later work, but it’s not, in the light of the whole body of work, very strong evidence, and there’s nothing in the documentary that suggests he took actual responsibility, by directly and explicitly renouncing nationalism and saying “What I did in the 1930s was wrong”. Indeed the whole crackpot edifice of Zermatism looked to me like an attempt at deflecting responsibility by saying “It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t people like me. It was those other people, the people who are the descendants of subhuman predators, look at me draw them as ape-like primitives, or as hook-nosed and grasping degenerates, who are responsible for all that death and destruction.”
Because, and this I guess is a third point I want to make, is that anti-semitism in art isn’t just about saying “Jews are bad, mmmkay?” It is that, but it is also about deploying anti-semitic tropes against other groups than Jews. It is true that these tropes are deeply embedded into the European and American cultural consciousness and that learning to recognize them and excise them from one’s own set of cultural building blocks can be a lifetime’s work. But someone as brilliant as Szukalski had a responsibility to undertake that work and failed to.
To get back to Szukalski’s deflection of responsibility, this matters because as the documentary shows, neo-fascists in Poland have appropriated his imagery, his face and the symbolic language he used. The documentary refers to this as a hijacking of his legacy, but it’s not; without an explicit denunciation from Szukalski himself, it is using his legacy from the 1930s for the purpose for which it was made.
I highly recommend Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Stanislaw Szukalski to anyone interested in one of the most supernaturally talented artists of the last two centuries. He really was that good. I also recommend it to anyone with an interest in the rise of nationalism and fascism in the first decades of the 20th Century, and in the way a full reckoning with those poisons has been avoided, allowing them to come back today. It is a good documentary and you will see some amazing art.