Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

You know that thing where when you focus on one thing you’ve never really considered before, and then, suddenly, you start to see it everywhere?

Well, that’s me with Polish artists.

I’ll come back to how this all began, but imagine my surprise when in the latest 5-bullet Friday Tim Ferriss recommended the Netflix documentary: Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski.

Who was Stanisław Szukalski?

Szukalski was a Polish sculptor and artist who lived for much of his life in the United States. He was born in 1893 and was a master of his craft – a 20th Century Michelangelo or Rodin.

“I put Rodin in one pocket, Michelangelo in the other, and I walk towards the sun”

Szukalski
Szukalski was heavily influenced by indigenous cultures

He was lauded as Poland’s “Greatest Living Artist” when he returned to his homeland in the 1920s, only to see most of his life’s work destroyed when the German army bombed and later sacked Warsaw starting in 1939.

He and his wife escaped back to the United States where he lived out his life in relative poverty and obscurity. Until a chance discovery in a used book shop ultimately resulted in this 2018 Netflix documentary, produced by Leonardo di Caprio.

The Documentary

The documentary is told from the perspectives of a group of artists (including di Caprio’s father) who re-discovered and befriended Szukalski in the 1970s, as well as the artist himself. It uses clips from more than 200 hours of interview footage filmed in the 1980s where Szukalski discusses his art, life, and just about everything else under the Sun.

Be warned. The man has quite an ego!

I was the most renowned sculptor in America. I never was referred to any other way, except as genius.

Szukalski

In fact, he was a flawed human being in many ways – flaws that are not overlooked in the narrative but are approached in a way that affords a possible redemption. Is it egotistical to say you are the greatest when you actually may be at that? Can’t a person be so changed by life experiences that they reject and regret what they once believed to be true?

But even if you don’t buy the redemptions of his character, the documentary also tries to convey that the craftsmanship of an artistic work should be considered separate from the person who created it. The piece should also be considered within the context of the time it was created and without the application of our modern political-correctness filter.

I found it to be a surprisingly emotional ride as the film explores Szukalski’s life history, his world view, and the other influences that went into his artistic masterpieces and the crack-pot theories that dominated his later life. And through it all – you can really feel the deep bond of friendship that was formed between this 80-odd year old man and this group of young underground artists who essentially saved his legacy.

It is a fascinating documentary with beautiful, epic cinematography of some of his incredibly detailed sculptures.

I highly recommend watching it with an open mind.

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