The Last of the Jedi Aesthetes Jedi Steps Down at the National Gallery

August 30, 1992|By MURRAY WHITE

WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- When Rusty Powell becomes director of the National Gallery this week and J. Carter Brown ascends to the status of director emeritus, a chapter in the history of the glorious and ancient tradition of art connoisseurship will come to a close.

Mr. Brown has been the archetypal patrician-with-a-golden-eye ever since he was initiated into the wonders of stylistic analysis -- by the legendary Bernard Berenson in the 1950s. When his day-to-day stewardship of the nation's premier paintings collection concludes after 23 outstanding years, it will be the first time since 1956 that the museum will be without a Berenson-trained leader at the helm -- Mr. Brown's predecessor, John Walker, also was tutored by the diminutive scholar.

The tradition which Berenson came to epitomize more than anyone else in the 1900s can be traced back to Greece in the 5th century B.C. This was the first acknowledged period in history when people admired art works for their inherent beauty as opposed to their supposed capacity to perform supernatural acts such as appeasing gods or making the afterlife of kings more tolerable.

It was during this era that the aesthetic attributes of sculptures, paintings and vases came to be considered ends in and of themselves. A sculpture of Aphrodite, for instance, was loved for its elegant proportions, graceful contours, stunning realism -- in short, for its eye-pleasing beauty -- entirely apart from its ability to indoctrinate a viewer into religious beliefs.

If the Greeks had not separated aesthetics from religion, we might never have had the controversies over the National Endowment for the Arts. Art might still be considered part of religion, and the government would not be able to fund it since that would constitute a violation of the separation of church and state.

The separation of art and religion meant that individuals who were talented in the analysis, interpretation and protection of art came to be known not as priests but as connoisseurs. By the end of the 19th century these connoisseurs had attempted to base their judgment of art on so-called ''objective'' criteria.

Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945) was the most important figure in the development of a technique of stylistic analysis which could be applied to the art of all ages. It was dependent upon the cultivation of a good ''eye'' for art -- roughly comparable to what is meant by ''perfect pitch'' in a musician.

Berenson, who lived from 1865 to 1959, was considered to have one of the greatest eyes of the century, although he was accused of allowing monetary considerations to sometimes dictate what he said his eye saw. With his frail body, large eyeglasses and trademark white fedora, he almost seemed to be a physical distillation of the Old World tradition of educated gentlemen who dedicated their lives to the appreciation, codification and dissemination of the greatest art works from previous centuries.

In 1958, after receiving an M.B.A. from Harvard, J. Carter Brown made a pilgrimage to Berenson's Florence estate, Villa I Tatti. In scenes worthy of a Hollywood screenplay, the elderly master trained the eye of the scion of one of America's wealthiest families on the incomparable art of the Italian Renaissance.

After Mr. Brown succeeded Walker in 1969, he put his cultivated eye to good use. During his exemplary reign, he added thousands of works to the collection; borrowed from many countries a wide variety of exquisite art for temporary exhibitions, and oversaw state-of-the-art procedures for the felicitous display of art. One of his finest accomplishments was service as the guiding light behind the construction of the museum's stunning east wing designed by I. M. Pei.

It seems likely that in the future he will be remembered as the most influential art-museum director of his generation.

As his successor, Mr. Powell is in a situation similar to the one Jay Leno is in: Both are following long-running legends who were shaped by traditions which are virtually extinct. Regardless of how successful Mr. Leno turns out to be, he could never truly replace Johnny Carson. Comparably, however outstanding Mr. Powell proves to be in his new position, he will not be the direct link to the Berenson tradition which Messrs. Walker and Brown are.

To draw another analogy from popular culture, Berenson was like Yoda in the ''Star Wars'' movies and Mr. Brown was the last Jedi knight he trained. The Force has been with him.

Murray White writes about the arts and works at the American Enterprise Institute.

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