ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 14 Alexander Raymond Katz - also known as Sandor
The Ten Commandments of Moses, including that one forbidding the making of “graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth,” are being done in a series of mural designs for the new Chicago Loop Orthodox synagogue, Clark Street, just south of Madison. The artist is A. Raymond Katz, and his work in the ten murals that adorned the Hebrew section of the Hall of Religions at A Century of Progress met with the approval of the pious of his race from the four corners of the earth. Those murals are now permanently installed in the Jewish People’s Institute on Chicago’s west side.
Katz’ problem in “illustrating” the Ten Commandments, including the second, is age-old. It confronted the Mohammedans, who accepted Moses as wholeheartedly as did his own people, in working out an ornate building like the Alhambra, and it confronted the Byzantine Christians.
Katz takes a tip from the Moors. They gazed thoughtfully upon certain of the Arabic letters — the letters that spelled the name of Allah, whom no artist dared picture — and with these letters as motifs wrought the marvelously beautiful decorations of the Alhambra. These decorations, incidentally, Palo Picasso absorbed in his youth, and the “cubism” he invented has generous elements of Moorish “abstraction.”
Raymond Katz, long before he was confronted with the problem of doing his forthcoming series of the Ten Commandments, experimented with the letters of the old Hebrew alphabet. His designs, built upon the letters, have pleased equally Jew and gentile. The more learned among the Jews have experienced fleeting emotions they describe as “Talmudic.” Gentiles admire the letters as they do Picasso’s “cubism” or Severini’s “futurism.”
Katz has the incalculable advantage of having “gone abstract” with intelligence, as did Picasso. Practically all his fellow abstractionists in America and most in Europe have been imitators of the Parisians, hollow and empty.
It is from his experience with the Hebrew letters that Katz is working out his Ten Commandments, and his preliminary designs have been approved by dignitaries.
Katz smiles when the rabbis find the “Talmud” in his work, for he has not been overly studious in the lore of his people. He came to America at the age of 14 from his native Hungary, and his experiences during the quarter of a century that has since elapsed have been away from the ghetto and the synagogue, in the midst of American life as it is lived by the native millions.
But there is a “Talmudic” background, and Katz probably has absorbed what he hasn’t troubled to learn. His birthplace is Kassa, a military town in northern Hungary. His mother was an Altman, a proud family that had been resident in Hungary for many generations, each generation adorned by rabbis and scholars. His father was a tailor who had inherited the business from his father, in turn — this elder Katz known all over southern Europe, even as far off as Turkey, as maker of military uniforms.
Katz has no inheritance of “persecution” that has colored and embittered the lives of so many Jews who came to America. His family was reasonably well to do; and young Sandor Katz came to New York at 14 as an “art student.” He Americanized his first name “Sandor” into “Alexander” and, finding middle names popular, he supplied himself with the extra “Raymond.” The name “Sandor he retains sometimes as a professional signature. For example, the cartoons and designs he has done for The Chicagoan have been signed “Sandor.”
Sandor Katz began painting and drawing at 10. Not only that, at 11 he was selling his work in Kassa! And other Hungarians, outside Kassa, were mailing orders to him. He was a rapid worker — his rapidity still is a matter of astonishment. Recently he has been doing a series of paintings of “Alleys of Chicago” in the Edgewater neighborhood. There are thirty-six of them at this writing, all executed within a few weeks and sometimes as many as three in an afternoon.
Tailor Katz wasn’t particularly overjoyed that his son preferred brush to needle, but when neighbors bought the boy’s work he became reconciled and even enthusiastic. He permitted him to come alone to New York to study. A sister, who had married a former officer in the Hungarian army, was living in Chicago.
Sandor Katz enrolled at Cooper Union. Full of enthusiasm and remembering how easy “art” had been for him in Kassa, he tried to get a job as cartoonist on New York’s German newspapers, whose language he could speak. Nobody succumbed to his genius, though the boy passed himself for 16 instead of 14. He became panicky.
After a few months, in which he had failed to make money, he foreswore art forever and went to work in a paint factory. To prove to himself he was finished as an artist, he took all his drawings, a huge armload, out into the teeming streets of New York’s lower east side and gave them away to the kids.
Sandor went rapidly from job to job, nearly thirty in a year, landing finally, by decree of the muses who watch over the destiny of artists, in a lithograph shop that made posters.
Now really 16, he got homesick to see his sister, and so journeyed to Chicago. Here, his brother-in-law, the former army officer, took him from poster shop to poster shop and finally Sandor went to work for John Crittenden Webb, maker of lithographic signs and show cards.
He stayed with Webb for seven years as artist and designer. One of Webb’s customers was DeMet, the candy and soda-fountain man, not as prosperous then as now. A Katz masterpiece was a “still life” for DeMet, an ice cream sundae that helped materially to expand the soda fountain’s sales. For Webb, too, Katz did the series of war posters the lithographer contributed to the cause when America entered the world conflict.
Meanwhile, from 16 to 19, Sandor Katz had so prospered (penny prosperity of the saving) that he brought to America the members of his family he had left in Kassa — his father, mother, three sisters, and a brother, whose little fortune had been wiped out by the war.
After the seven years with Webb (the latter days as silent partner), Katz decided to “see the country,” to “go west.” He took with him enough money to get to Omaha. Arriving there at 12 o’clock noon, he got a job in a lithograph shop at 1. He stayed till he had enough money to get to Denver. In Denver, he earned his fare to Salt Lake City, and thence to Los Angeles.
Arriving in Los Angeles in 1919, he found a “poster renaissance” dawning. The movie moguls were building million-dollar picture theaters for exhibiting their wares. Each new movie called for gaudy decorations on the boards in front of the house. Katz lingered here for a considerable time, making handsome wages.
Returning to Chicago by way of British Columbia and other remote points, Katz found the picture firm of Balaban & Katz (no relation) getting ready to give Chicago a series of picture palaces like those in Los Angeles. With his experience on the coast, he had no difficulty “selling himself” to Balaban & Katz. They established for him a big studio in their new Chicago theater. Eventually, Katz had as many as fifteen or twenty artists working for him, adorning the fronts of the Chicago, the Roosevelt, the Oriental, and the huge neighborhood houses that arose like Arabian Nights dreams.
The decorations at first were all original designs, conceived and executed in the B&K studios. It was “original, creative art,” Katz maintains, as “ethical” as his murals for the Hall of Religions at the World’s Fair. Gradually the “art” of the movie magnates, here and in other cities, became more and more mechanized. Devices were introduced for “blowing up” photographed scenes to huge dimensions, which were then traced by the artists.
So Sandor Katz decided to take a year in Europe, his first return. He visited Italy and had an audience with the Pope, arranged by some friendly churchmen in Chicago who had been frequent visitors to his studio and who gave him letters to cardinals.
But the highlight was six months in his native Kassa. The city, having heard his fame, set aside for him a studio at public expense. Soldiers ran errands for him, brought him paint and brushes.
It was here, amid scenes of his childhood, that Katz remembered he was a Jew. In Kassa, as a boy, he had dreamed longingly of America. He had read Mark Twain and 300 Nick Carter stories, translated into Hungarian, and had greedily devoured everything he could find about Lincoln, a hero that filled his imagination to the bulging point. (A major work of Sandor’s, just completed, is a series of Lincoln murals, forty-two episodes, for the Lincoln school, Evanston).
Remembering he was a Jew and emotionally stirred by his old associates, Katz did, in Kassa, several canvases that he brought back to Chicago and exhibited here to the delectation of Hebrews in this country. It was their first intimation that the diligent decorator and muralist had racial emotions. One of these paintings, “Death in the Family,” which he sketched in Kassa but finished here, is so poignant and so morbid that it is seldom exhibited. It is Katz’ too vivid recollection of a brother who died a little while before Sandor first sailed for America.
Returning to Chicago, Katz became associated with the opera doing “creative posters.” His first had a hard time getting past the conservatives on the committee for “art work.” Eventually, it was accepted and, as a wag put it, Katz’ poster “took the high hat out of opera.” He stayed with the opera until it was scuttled by the depression.
In addition to the Jewish murals for the Hall of Religions, Katz worked on various other projects for the World’s Fair. For the 1934 version, he did the official poster. This poster, “modernistic” as the color scheme of the fair, created a sensation in remote towns where it hung in railroad stations. It was the first contact many villages had had with “modernism,” and Katz has many letters and clippings of newspaper comment.
For two years, Katz conducted in the Auditorium Tower, where he made his opera posters, a “little gallery” in connection with his studio for the exhibition of pictures by struggling young artists. The burden of supporting the gallery, in the midst of the depression, however, became so onerous that it had to be abandoned. It was the last and the most promising of Chicago’s galleries for the “discovery” of new talent.