Mantong and Protong: Richard Sharpe Shaver and Stanislav Szukalski
In Mantong and Protong, curator Brian Tucker pairs two little known men who were engaged in the tireless pursuit of unorthodox originary theories. [Editors’ Note: Tucker was a member of the X-TRA editorial board from 1998 to 2003.] While it is unlikely that either Richard Sharpe Shaver (1907–1975) or Stanislav Szukalski (1893–1987) was aware of the other, both produced bodies of work that, when viewed alongside one another, demonstrate a shared mission to reveal the obscured origins of the present. Each strove to delve deeply into an ancient antediluvian past in order to uncover universal truths. Both artists were passionately involved in a search for human origins, and both felt themselves part of a vast moral struggle against evil and degeneracy. Both claimed discovery of a primordial language and, astonishingly, used nearly identical terms for their discoveries.
These two artists had vastly different creative formations. Shaver was self taught and often crafted his paintings out of materials like soap flakes and cardboard. Szukalski was an academically trained artist proficient in drawing and sculpture who was widely celebrated in his native Poland prior to World War II. In this intimate show, Tucker presents them side by side, foregrounding their ecstatic similarities while quietly leveling their differences.
Finding documentary sources in what he called “rock books,” Shaver discovered a whole prehistoric Atlantean library. Shaver accessed the rock books by cutting through stone with a saw to reveal a world of imagery within the fissures. “Humans figures [sic] are distorted by saw-cut as well as by wrong lenses—but recognizable. The enigma of man’s past does not need to be an enigma.” This statement, handwritten in blue ball-point pen on thin typewriter bond, floats to the right of an oculus cut into the paper, which reveals beneath a photograph of what appears to be a random black and white pattern. In fact, Shaver believed the pattern was a holographic picture created thousands of years ago by an advanced ancient technology. Nearby hangs a fastidiously rendered drawing by Szukalski. In tondo format, it depicts a flayed figure’s eyes being plugged by the index and middle finger of a hand, also denuded of skin, from which stylized hair or tendons ripple forth in a vaguely woven pattern. A tiny gorilla, dragging a hammer and armed with a sickle, lunges towards the exposed throat of the figure. Above the hand sprouts a double-bladed instrument from whose center emerges a cross atop an entwined staff. The word “yeti” hovers adjacent.
Shaver first came to prominence following World War II as a writer for the American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. Shaver claimed his stories were true. Many of his readers came forward to validate his claims, giving rise to what became known as the Shaver Mystery. His narratives described an Elder Race who built vast subterranean cities, which, though still extant, are now inhabited by their degenerate offspring, the Dero. The Dero’s attitude towards surface- dwellers is one of sadistic antagonism. Using the Elders’ abandoned advanced technology, they amuse themselves by projecting negative thoughts and antisocial impulses into human minds. Not content to be confined merely to psychological warfare, the Dero are also known to physically kidnap and torture their victims in their underground complex of caves. Shaver claimed to be a victim of just such an abduction, but his first hint of the Dero came from the resonant coils of a welding rig he operated, which allowed him to hear the screams emanating from far away torture sessions. Shaver was also in contact with a community of friendly beings called the Tero, the uncorrupted offspring of the same ancient race. They taught him Mantong, the ancient Ur-tongue from which human language sprang.
Shaver spent the latter part of his life in obscurity, studying his collection of rock books, which he believed could be decoded to provide vital information about ancient life. Shaver made annotated photographs of sections of the slices of rock. He would also project relevant portions of the resulting image to create paintings and drawings that helped to clarify the information imbedded in the rock.
After the Big Flood (c. 1961), is one of Shaver’s first works based on the rock books. Also known as Adam and Eve In Space, this large drawing in pastel, felt pen and ink on cardboard appeared as the cover of a 1962 issue of The Hidden World, a periodical devoted solely to the Shaver Mystery. The original couple floats in profile amidst a maelstrom of swarming faces. The words “this is writing” curl around Eve’s headgear, a sort of amphibian Etruscan helmet made up of amorphous golden plates. Adam, wearing a black, hair-covered mask, is depicted nearly nose-to-nose with the serpent, whose mouth is open in mid-hiss. The fatal apple, already bitten into, is speared between its fangs. The remaining pictorial space is completely taken over with scores of grotesque faces, many with fins and zoomorphic headgear, interspersed with intricately decorative fragments that lend the piece a vaguely Mesoamerican air. A igure above Eve, for example, recalls some half-remembered Aztec god whose bared teeth reveal a wriggling reddish tongue. What looks like the word “GAD,” possibly referring to one of the twelve tribes of Israel, forms part of his cheek.
The amphibious nature of ancient humanity is further explored in a small, photo-text work from 1968. Beneath the image of a section of sliced rock, Shaver asks, “Is this what amphibious man looked like?” He then goes on to describe the figure as a “life-sized portrait in green and white marble of what I believe to be a very early amphibious man. A study of successive slices of this block show that the white veinings are swimming mermaid figures, and details such as a rather large and pointed ear and a beetling brow.” Another, similar image is captioned “Action photo of a crazy codfish a ttacking [sic] a lugubrious flounder taken at forty fathoms.”
It must be noted that the Shaver Mystery has been somewhat of a leitmotif for Tucker. In 1989, he staged The Hidden World at CalArts, an exhibition that guided viewers through a mix of Shaver-related historical documentation, objects, and photographs that were interspersed with items that Tucker created. In 1994, an expanded “Hidden World” was shown in connection with the Santa Monica Museum’s Altered Egos exhibition. More recently, Shaver was one of the most prominent figures in Tucker’s A Little Application of Our Much-Touted Know-How at Chapman University’s Guggenheim Gallery in Orange, CA (2002).
Contrasting with the homespun work of Shaver, Szukalski’s highly finished bronze sculptures and drawings bring a more polished aesthetic to the show. Like Shaver, Szukalski came to fame early in life but spent his latter days toiling away in obscurity. Like Shaver, he discovered his own Ur-tongue, a pictographic language that he called Protong. Also like Shaver, Szukalski had to contend with a formidable adversary, in his case a degenerate race called the Yetisyn—the offspring of humans who had bred with Yeti in the ancient past and whose modern exemplars, the Nazis, had driven Szukalski from his native Poland. Settling in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley after fleeing occupied Poland, Szukalski devoted the rest of his life to Zermatism, his all-encompassing theory of human prehistory. Poring over illustrated books from the UCLA library, he came to believe that antediluvian humanity originated at Easter Island, then part of a gigantic landmass that was submerged in the Great Flood. He speculated that traditional facial markings found throughout the world’s tribes were in fact symbolic “scum lines” that served to recall the muddy water on the skin of the Flood’s survivors.
Szukalski was a highly skilled craftsman and was considered a sculptural prodigy in his youth. The large bronze relief Deluge (20th Century) (1954) powerfully encapsulates Szukalski’s complex body of thought. Both visceral and elegant, it employs sinuous Art Nouveau line and elaborate symbology in order to narrate an intricate allegory of the relations between Europe and the United States in the 20th Century, while also evoking the Great Flood of prehistory. Deluge attempts nothing less than to compress the entire history of humanity into a universal struggle between civilization and predatory destruction. A late heir to the last torchbearers of European Symbolism, the work’s cosmic urgency, dynamic linear flow, and seamless merging of cross-cultural motifs bring to mind especially the work of the Javanese Dutch painter Jan Toorop.
In a wall text written by the artist, we are told that the central figure of the bronze is the “Great Lioness (Easter Island),” who is symbolic of the origin of humanity. “She was the one whom the Etruscan sculptor, who had never seen a lioness, gave the likeness of a she-wolf.” Contained in a central uterine shape Szukalski called a “Mesopotamian kufa,” or woven reed vessel, she breast-feeds twin boys—Europe and America. America, healthy and vigorous, punches her breast for more milk, while Europe starves, the other breast empty, having been pierced by two arrows representing the two World Wars. Coiling around the kufa-uterus is the double-headed Flood Serpent; its left end forms a swastika of snakeheads, while the right terminates in a hammer and sickle. Spiral motifs act as pictographs for the “Diluvial Sinkage,” suggesting that the 20th Century’s calamities are in fact another Great Flood, that civilization was once again being subsumed.
It would have been convenient to present this work as exotica, as that of “outsiders,” or as part of some lunatic fringe, but in Tucker’s hands what perhaps emerges most strongly is the material’s universal concerns. Careful presentation and an even, objective tone allow the subjects to be experienced on their own terms. As is clear from the intense urgency exuding from their work, both men felt that the “cut” of orthodox historical narrative had engendered a tragic and fatal blindness. The distorting blade of Shaver’s annotation, or the more ominously intentional mutilation by the Yetisyn in Szukalski’s drawing, serves to illustrate the point. We, as a species, have been divested of our protective dermis, left to wait helplessly with throats exposed. once the fingers have been removed, we, like the eye-hole hacked into the blankness of Shaver’s typewriter bond, will merely be left to stare out into an ignored catastrophe with idiot, empty sockets, forever lacking the lenses needed even to apprehend, let alone resist, our triumphant adversaries.
Tom Allen is an artist and an adjunct faculty member in the Graduate Art Program at Art Center College of Design. He lives in Pasadena and shows with Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles, and Galerie Michael Janssen, Berlin.