COINCIDENTAL ARTIST

THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE
AND PHOTOGRAPHY
OF MILTON GENDEL

Ernesto Rubin de Cervan Albrizzi
at Palazzo Albrizzi. Venice, 1979.

Words by Barbara Drudi

A larger-than-life character, Milton Gendel was the right man at the right place and at the right time throughout his life. And what a life! Originally a New Yorker, it was coincidence that brought him to live in Europe when politics impeded a travel to China; had he had the chance to undertake that project and his entire life may have been completely different. Coincidence too, once more, operated its charms and put a camera on his hands... Once that happened, an artist was born. Mr. Gendel died recently in Rome, the city he chose as his almost seventy years ago. The ensuing article, meant to commemorate his 100th anniversary, that would occur this December, had already been prepared and was ready to be printed by the time of his passing. With his body in absentia but with his spirit in full presence we decided to stick to our plans, and to commemorate and to honour the man and the artist.

Princess Margaret Visiting Mario Praz.
Palazzo Primoli, 1973.

A versatile artist who might be called an American eye inside the Roman art world, Milton Gendel was a photographer, art critic, writer, and collector. He died on October 11, 2018, at almost 100 years old, having been born in December 1918.

American by birth and culture, Milton Gendel chose Italy as his adopted country since December 1949, establishing his residence in the capital. He had always maintained his cultural ties with the United States through his work as correspondent in Rome for the magazines ARTNews and Art in America.

Although Gendel had always moved ‘behind-the-scenes’, being a background figure, he was a key component of the relations between Rome and New York especially during the post-war period. Thanks to his role of trait-d’union between artists and intellectuals in Italy, he spread the knowledge he acquired during his education in the United States. Thus, he can be considered an outpost of American culture in Rome.

Through his unique perspective, Gendel’s photographs and writings offer an unparalleled opportunity to witness a culturally dynamic period while also providing insight into the complex international art scene of the fifties. Gendel, through his photographs and diary entries, narrated a story of personal relationships between artists. At the same time he developed—in his often prescient criticism—a broader history of the cultural and aesthetic developments of the time. His contributions to Italy-U.S. relations include the first English translation of the book Saper vedere l’architettura by architect Bruno Zevi, published in America as Architecture as Space in 1957.

Milton Gendel at the Studio
of Alberto Burri in Rome.
Josephine Powell, 1954.

Gendel studied Art History with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University. He became his assistant for two years (19391941) maintaining his friendship until Schapiro’s death. In 1942, Thanks to the influence of his mentor, Gendel became a friend and admirer of the group of European Surrealist refugees in New York: André Breton, Roberto Matta Echaurren, Max Ernst, and their supporters in New York. Those years with the Surrealists would forever mark his vision of the world and the consequential way of representing it through his photographs: irony and taste for the bizarre will connote Gendel’s works of art for the rest of his life.

At the beginning of the forties, Gendel and his girlfriend Evelyn Wechsler (who became his wife in 1944), rented a flat at 61 Washington Square, the very heart of Greenwich Village. In that house, Milton and Evelyn—exuberant, young and keen to worldliness—implemented a whimsical salon mainly open to artists and intellectuals, and remarkable by its informal atmosphere. In a short time, that salon became a rather popular meeting place in the New York art scene, especially because of the presence of André Breton and his fellow artists.

Notwithstanding the surrealists’ aloofness, somewhat désengagé, Gendel could not remain indifferent to the tragedy of the war and thus decided to join the army. He spent his training time in the Combat Engineers in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and was later sent to Yale to attend a Chinese language course. The destination of his mission was obviously China, where Gendel arrived in August 1945, after a short stay at the military base of Kanchrapara in Bengal, India.

Both pictures:
Iris Origo at Palazzo Orsini. Rome, 1979.

Between 1945 and 1946, while serving the U.S. Army in the Combat Engineers, Gendel traveled to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Formosa. There he took part in the repatriation of the Japanese after their defeat. It was during these two years that Gendel began photographing with a Leica borrowed from a French-speaking Tunisian, Johnny Alessi, nicknamed the Pirate of Shanghai. Gendel’s favorite subject in his ‘Chinese’ shots is the city, especially scenes from everyday life: people who live in the streets, merchants, fishermen, jugglers. His fascinating images, which today appear as suggestive documents of a world lost forever, clearly have an anthropological and historical interest. However, they still express a conscious construction of the spatial composition and a continuous desire to ‘capture’ significant and surprising glimpses of those places and times.

Back in New York in 1947, Gendel did not see clearly what his destiny would have been. Photography was undoubtedly an exciting activity for him, but he was not at all sure that it could become his profession. Therefore, after two years spent working without much conviction as an art critic and collaborating to some historical-artistic texts, the restless Gendel decided to find a way to come back to China.

“Photography was
undoubtedly an exciting
activity for him but
he was not at all
sure that it could
become his profession”

With this purpose in mind, he submitted an application to obtain a Fulbright grant but the situation in China had changed in those few years with Mao taking power and founding the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. It was therefore evident that capitalist intellectuals were not welcome anymore; in addition, the American government—which had supported Chiang Kai-shek to prevent the rise to power of Mao—did not recognize the new communist government in Beijing.

Gendel, who got the grant anyway, was determined to leave New York. Since China was no longer among the possible destinations for Fulbright fellows, he had to imagine another place in the world where to spend a year of studies and his choice eventually fell on Rome; after all, Gendel had already spent some days in the “eternal city” in the Summer of 1939. On his Fulbright grant he studied the changes in Italy’s historic urban centers from its Unification to the Second World War.

Anna Laetitia (Mimì)
Pecci Blunt. Marlia, 1969.

Evelyn Waugh, Lady Diana Cooper
and Georgina Masson at Villa
Doria Pamphilj. Rome, 1963.

At the beginning of 1950, he acquainted the Roman art community, socializing in the famous trattorias and bars between Piazza del Popolo and Via del Babuino: he made friends and cooperated with young artists such as Alberto Burri, Piero Dorazio, Toti Scialoja, Tancredi. Gendel took numerous photographs in Rome especially with the Rolleiflex camera. In 1954, he became a correspondent for ARTNews, and in December of the same year he wrote his long article “Burri Makes a Picture”, an excellent contribute to Burri’s painting in the United States.

Actually, once arrived in Rome, Gendel was the first to introduce some of the American poetics and style. Throughout his writings as an art critic, he promoted in Italy the new American abstract painting as well as an ethical reflection on art criticism besides mere aesthetic content. He used a pragmatic and dry style but never devoid of a subtle irony.

Peggy Guggenheim at Palazzo
Venier dei Leoni. Venice, 1969.

Cecil Beaton Painting the Portrait
of Michael Tree. Greece, 1964.

On the other hand, in his photographs, Gendel had fused a light, graceful use of poetic surrealism with knowledge of straight photography, born at the beginning of the twentieth century in America and then spread around the world. His photographs also establish a clear link of stylistic and thematic references between straight photography and the neo-realism of Italian cinema.

During the sixties his apartment in Palazzo Pierleoni Caetani, on the Tiber Island where he moved to in 1958, became one of the most glamorous salons in Rome, frequented by artists, writers and intellectuals, between them Iris Origo and Mario Praz.

Marella Agnelli.
Garavicchio, Tuscany, 1979.

Margaret Koons at Parco dei Mostri.
Bomarzo, 1950.

In 1962, he married Judith Venetia Montagu, daughter of Edwin Samuel Montagu and Beatrice Venetia Stanley, both peers of England. Judy (so called familiarly) had spent her childhood years with Princess Margaret and they had become good friends. Every time Princess Margaret came to Italy she was a guest at Gendel’s house on the Tiber island. That meant open doors for Milton to English and international aristocracy. Sadly Judy died in 1972, and in 1981 Milton married Monica Incisa della Rocchetta.

During his long life Gendel had also befriended major art collectors like Peggy Guggenheim, the Caracciolos, the Agnellis, Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, and he also had a close relationship with Countess Mimi Pecci Blunt, niece of Pope Leo XIII. Among American artists, Gendel was associated with Robert Motherwell, his former classmate at Columbia, and Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Alexander Calder.

“It was precisely during
the intimate moments
that Milton began
—without haste—
taking photographs”

Milton Gendel was a unique personage of the Roman cultural panorama as he had been protagonist and witness of the fertile exchanges between Italy and the United States since the post-war years. In all of his many activities, however, he always stood far from positions of power as well as from submitting to them; accordingly, he had been refractory to follow a precise professional career in any rigid way.

Such a stance did not stop Milton from doing his job (his many jobs) with seriousness and discipline. It would have been impossible for him to enjoy the durable professional esteem and friendship of so many relevant figures of his time otherwise. His secret, perhaps, had been to always behave with respect towards everyone. From the humble craftsman to the nobler prince, Milton Gendel had always shown a genuine curiosity towards the stories of others. Because of these qualities he reached confidence—sometimes even intimacy—with many cultural figures and international aristocrats. It was precisely during the intimate moments, that he observed curiously, that Milton began—without haste— taking photographs, without any of those present ever perceiving such behavior as harassing or inappropriate.

Elizabeth II Feeding her Corgis.
Balmoral Castle, 1976.

There was indeed nothing compulsive or hectic in his attitude, nothing for him to capture predatorily, at all costs. His behavior was relaxed and relaxing. He was not a professional who had to take home the service, he could take pictures, or not. This condition of tranquility was transmitted to others and is found in many of his photographs which show aspects of the everyday life of many so-called “celebrities”.

Milton captures moments in which his protagonists were ‘outside’ of their official role, caught as they were in unexpected or surprising situations. There is no intrusiveness in these shots and the subjects appear relaxed and perfectly at ease: here is the Queen of England, with a hanky on her head and a Scotch skirt, while feeding her beloved corgis like any housewife would; here is Peggy Guggenheim who smiles at Milton, and not at the camera lens. Gendel had the opportunity to grasp—without stealing—private moments of famous characters, normally unreachable for any professional photographer sent from a magazine or newspaper.

André Leon Talley and Lord Snowdon,
in Fendi furs, at Palazzo Ruspoli.
Rome, 1987.

Milton Gendel’s archive includes 72.000 photographic negatives (the first of which were shot in 1945), numerous articles and essays for magazines and journals, and an extensive correspondence with multiple artists and intellectuals. The archive is stored in Rome at Palazzo Primoli, at the Count Giuseppe Primoli Foundation.

Here is also present the documentation of the Rome-New York Art Foundation, an art gallery active between 1957 and 1962, dedicated to the cultural connection between the two cities. It was there that, for the first time, works by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and other American, English and French artists were exhibited in Rome. The gallery, an effervescent place animated by artistic currents which were radically innovative, mirrored the lively and joyful atmosphere rising in Rome—the same celebrated by Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita—, an atmosphere in which Milton Gendel was a true protagonist.

Salvador Dalì at Chez Maxime.
Paris, 1970.

Mario Praz at Palazzo Primoli.
Rome, 1982.

Picnic at Villa Cetinale.
Siena, 1979.

Monica Incisa della Rocchetta
Gendel at Palazzo Fortuny.
Venice, 1979.

The Queen Mother at the Royal Lodge.
Windsor, 1982.

The Indoor Swimming Pool.
Windsor Castle, 1990.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN
SCALA REGIA #5
scala regia magazine

Opening spread of the paper version.

SCALA REGIA, 2020