Johannes Vermeer, The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670-72), oil on canvas, 45″ x 35″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670–72) is the Vermeer painting no one likes to talk about. At least that’s the consensus amongst those of us who regularly visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to commune with Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662) and Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665–67)—staples of the collection that encapsulate everything we hold dear about the most evanescent of Dutch Masters. Turning to The Allegory of Faith hanging nearby, we continue to marvel at the artist’s crystalline technique even as the heart drops in response to its stilted imagery. Vermeer’s avowal of religious principle is encumbered by ham-handed symbolism, melodramatic beyond the call of duty. Who could find anything redeemable in this monumental lapse of magic, in such cluttered and over-the-top hokum? Trevor Winkfield, that’s who.
In Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990–2009, Winkfield declares The Allegory of Faith as nothing less than Vermeer’s “greatest achievement.” Citing the picture’s “suppressed manic overtones,” Winkfield elaborates on “the hilarity of [Vermeer’s] amateur operatic performance”:
As the eye ricochets from one object to another to the other, a veritable connect-the-dots constellation of spheres and curves emerges, starting with [the title figure’s] beady eyes.
Writing an encomium to a picture that’s long been dismissed as a minor effort—the Met itself gently chastises The Allegory of Faith by calling it “atypical”—might seem a post-modernist jape, but Winkfield isn’t out to glorify kitsch. He takes the painting seriously. Reading on, he adroitly guides us through the intricacies of the painting, culminating in “one of the most voluptuous objects in Dutch art”: the globe on which Faith has placed her foot. Okay, well—that globe is something special. Maybe the same could be said about the painting in which it appears? Disagree all you want with the “excitement” Winkfield divines in The Allegory of Faith; there’s no doubting he has looked at the picture with a penetrating and appreciative eye.
Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630), oil on wood, 55 cm. x 73 cm.; courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris
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A painter’s eye, actually. Though not a household name (and keeping in mind that fame is rarely a reliable barometer of artistic worth), Winkfield has garnered an ardent following for his paintings—kaleidoscopic pictures that combine playing card iconography, Neo-plasticist rigor, Dadaist disjunction, and unapologetic cheek. While Winkfield has made New York City home since 1969, his British roots are palpable in all his work—whether sitting at the keyboard or ensconced in the studio, his eccentricity is front-and-center. As such, he’s prone to particular, not to say “private,” enthusiasms and is keenly attuned to artists who are idiosyncratic or little known. Florine Stettheimer, Gerald Murphy, and Albert Pinkham Ryder are favorites, as is “the tortoise that wins,” Myron Stout. Have you heard of the seventeenth-century French painter Lubin Baugin? Neither had I, but after reading Winkfield’s thoughts on Baugin’s still-lifes, you’ll want to see them—like, now.
Winkfield is a convincing writer, even when he dedicates time to subjects of quizzical merit—not just The Allegory of Faith, but Marcel Duchamp, Paul Signac, and Jasper Johns. Winkfield is acute enough in his observations to prompt second thoughts on these and other subjects. Conversational and witty, biting when necessary, and generous when deserving, Winkfield is a rarity: an art critic whose prose is a pleasure to read. Neither as terse as Fairfield Porter or as frothy as Henry McBride, Winkfield nevertheless recalls both in his independence and clarity. He has little patience for received pieties. After likening Abstract Expressionism to a “garrulous uncle whose bulky form hogs both fireplace and conversation,” he concludes that it should be considered “a transitory phenomenon and not the be-all and end-all of a national aesthetic.” Winkfield dismisses as “piffle” the notion of art’s immortality, describes the Last Supper as “one of Leonardo’s most boring conceptions,” and bemoans the Victorians’ use of oil paint: “it had to be battered into the slickness of an illustration for them to understand it.”
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Failed art lends itself more readily to words than good art, so it’s a measure of Winkfield’s literary abilities that he’s at his best when waxing enthusiastic. An encompassing sense of historical, biographical, and aesthetic measure is brought to each essay, all without sacrificing an engaging bonhomie. Winkfield’s gift for the turn of phrase—for the sound, as well as the sense of words—is delightful and sharp. Gerald Murphy could “evoke melting butter on a pewter plate” simply by painting a wedge of yellow. Braque’s late Studio paintings “are illuminated only by calcium shafts of moonlight.” Chardin “delved into the personality of a plum more astutely than anyone before him.” In an unforgettable commendation, Graham Sutherland’s landscapes are described as so “densely umbrageous we might be staring at the lining of a bowel.” It is at moments like these—chatty yet incisive, slightly off-kilter and deeply perceptive—that Georges Braque and Others establishes itself as that rarest of animals: an indispensable addition to the corpus of art criticism.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the October 2014 edition of The New Criterion.