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No. 7 Stanislas Szukalski


“I looked toward modernism and all its movements with grinning face, as if to say, ‘I won’t tell on you.’ I felt that all groups of modernists were composed of weaklings who cultivate their presumptions and parade their adopted individuality ‘arm in arm’ with the conveniently invented personalism of fads and movements.”



At any rate, so wrote Stanislas Szukalski in 1923 in that amazing deluxe volume of windy philosophy and illustrations too often as windy, “The Work of Szukalski,” that constituted the swan song in Chicago of the most picturesque “modernist” this Windy City has produced.


Szukalski came here in 1913, a7-year-old son of a Polish blacksmith. Nine years later, he left for New York, the bridegroom of a wealthy Chicago socialite who had been Miss Helen Walker, daughter of Samuel J. Walker, Gold Coast physician.


Szukalski had made “art history” in Chicago in that time.


“At 14,” he writes, “I was admitted to the Krakovian Academy of Arts. My time was spent in disturbing my reverend teachers and in disarranging the folds of their dignity.”

It wasn’t long after his arrival in Chicago that the “enfant terrible” began to repeat here his European performance. He took up his abode in the 57th Street colony of artists and writers, and soon became conspicuous even among such lights as Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, Maxwell Bodenheim, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Alfred Kreymborg, Witter Binner, Burton Rascoe, Theodore Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson.


“{Szukalski was one of the most spectacular, the most industrious and poverty-stricken of them all,” as June Provines wrote long after. “He wore his thick hair bobbed like a girl’s and brushed back from a fine forehead. When he wore a hat, it was a tam, but usually he wore none. He carried a knotted stick, and his thin features and spare frame indicated that he did not eat regularly.”


The stick was to become famous, like Balzac’s.


When the World War broke out, the frenzied young Pole savagely swung this stick as he walked, cutting off the heads of imaginary foes after the manner of a cavalryman with his saber.


Three years later, in May 1917, the stick encountered objects of his indignation more realistic — his own drawings, their frames, and protecting glass!


Despite his revolutionary tendencies and frequent clashes with Art Institute authorities, the museum thought well enough of his work to give him a shown. But after it was hung, a timorous trustee espied a symbolic representation of Great Britain as the destroyer of idealism, and had it removed. Szukalski, revisiting his show, discovered what had happened. In his rage, he proceeded to smash the glass and frames of his other pictures and to knock his sculptures off their pedestals. It took two husky guards to subdue him.


But before that, in 1914, shortly after war was declared, Szukalski succeeded in getting into an Institute show some pieces of “terrorist art,” as he called it, painting and sculpture. The newspapers took up the matter, and the artist was soon in a row with the Institute authorities. He withdrew from the school of the museum, hurling insults over his shoulder.


Again in an exhibition in 1916, he was awarded a prize. He wrenched the medal from his statue and tore the ribbon to shreds, declaring he did not regard the trustees of the Institute capable of judging his work sufficiently to give awards.


Szukalski, naturally, was the hero of the radicals. The Art Institute was patient, and the youthful Arts Club in 1919 gave an extensive exhibition of his sculpture.


But Szukalski’s most spectacular exploit was the winning of the heiress. She was one of his pupils — a rival pupil was a young girl in Szukalski’s own station in life. Szukalski left temporarily for New York, where Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney was taking a lively interest in the developing of his genius. Helen Walker’s rival went to New York, too, and established a studio there. But Szukalski’s romance with the heiress continued and, after months, she telegraphed him her answer “yes” to his oft-repeated proposals of marriage. Both the Gold Coast and “Bohemia” thrilled to the nuptials of the heiress and the blacksmith’s son.


They went to Canada on their honeymoon; then to Szukalski’s studio in New York; then to his native Cracow and Paris. But Szukalski, husband of an heiress, lost his ability to astound the art colonies. After eleven years, there was a divorce, with Mrs. Szukalski and the little daughter Kalinka back in Chicago, where she exhibited her own work occasionally, to the delectation of her society friends.


Szukalski opened a school in Cracow; got into a minor row, feebly reminiscent of his Chicago days; took up architecture in so big a way that the University of Chicago Press (in 1929) published his book, Projects in Design. Then he went to Hollywood where, in September 1934, he married a former Chicago girl, Joan Lee Donovan. His work in Hollywood is making portrait heads of movie celebrities.


Szukalski’s personality made a bigger impression on Chicago than his work. He is a legend lingering to the vanishing point, though even now just turned 40. His work is little more than a vague memory. It deserves better — particularly the early phases.

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