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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Eyes Wide Open: A visit to the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The Brera’s motto is ‘eyes wide open’ based on the dictum by American philosopher Nelson Goodman that museums are ‘an institution for the prevention of blindness’. There are all kinds of issues with that idea – not least the derogatory language around a perceived disability – but also that museums can somehow see more and in more detail (Bradburne 2021). But they also do not see, or rather often un-see, what different people see, particularly if it makes the institution / people running it feel uncomfortable. It is also the people that come to the museum that do the seeing: we bring our own messy lives and feelings in.

With those reservations in mind about the ‘mission’ of the museum, I found the interpretation and attempts to acknowledge different perspectives welcome. The Brera’s installations and display are influx over the next 18 months and a panel entitled ‘Brera Listens’ invites feedback to these changing displays. Another panel ‘The Visible Museum’ quotes a former Director Franco Russoli saying in 1971 that a museum is ‘not a place of isolation’ but ‘a place for engagement’ and ‘participation’ which ‘liberates its visitors by engaging with them’. Even the ‘hidden aspects’ of museum work, like storage, are open at the Brera. The museum is not ‘universal’ and the paintings are not fundamental, only as far as they tell us ‘about the museum itself and its mission’.

A large scene of people outside a mosque / church in a piazza.
St Mark Preaching in Alexandria, 1504-7

Detail of above

There is an acknowledgement in another panel that people have different perspectives. These different opinions on the art from writers and artists are placed by certain pieces around the gallery, alongside a ‘chat’ that gives some information about the painting. Sometimes information for families / younger visitors is provided or a smell tube so you can smell myrrh and a piece of material so you can touch velvet. An example of this is Bellinis’ (both Gentile and Giovanni) St Mark preaching in Alexandria, which is a stunning gigantic painting based on Bellini’s recent trip to Istanbul / Constantinople and fuses Venice together. Alongside the ‘chat’ on the painting, the writer Orhan Pamuk points out the ‘invented Orient’ and identifies himself with the people looking from the tower tops at this ‘invented East meets West’ (p.7).*

Another painting by Mantegna, one of the best I have ever seen of the grieving Mary for her child, shows Jesus taken from the cross, dead that had an uber realism that seemed to me to more identifiable with the mid 20thC artist Stanley Spencer. Sarah Dunant points out that ‘Mary can at least cry, but we feel like uninvited voyeurs’. Although, I think this can assume people don’t know grief: I observed the grief and grieved alongside the mother. For all the different viewpoints there could be a lack of recognition that the people who look and read feel too.

My favourite painting was the Caravaggio of Supper at Emmaus, showing Christ dining with two people – two strangers - who will become his apostles. Painted at a time when Caravaggio was on the run for murder, the light draws you out of the gloom into the scene. The poet Joy Kogawa observes ‘We are all in the picture. The light of philoxenia is – the love of strangers – an antidote to xenophobia – triumphs and shines mercifully on all, those who do and do not recognise the signs’.

Elsewhere there is little acknowledgement of the ‘ways of seeing’ as outlined by John Berger in the 1960s and by many feminist historians, such as Griselda Pollock. There is a crude misogyny within many of the paintings that simply reflect society: Mary is always a Virgin, a naked woman can be looked at but rarely looks, a sleeping woman has a threat of rape. If we don’t say that we see this in the museum ‘chat’ and leave it to the different voices (though there were none when I was there that did say this), this way of seeing continues to be the main viewpoint.

And, I think this is to do with those issues around the idea of blindness and a museum being able to see more widely. The logo of Brera is based around an eye and the back of the pictured book tells us that this is ‘to invite the eye to understand the arts and the world around it’ as a ‘tribute to the roots of the museum and of Milan in the values of the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism’. Acknowledging those values is important but so is the history of them and the problematic nature of such values. It is looking for the absent voices, the people seen and not heard or where the money comes from that enables the art and collection of it, that assists our understanding. Engaging with visitors liberates the museums rather than the other way round. Having written all that, I guess the Brera has succeeded as it made me think and think hard and continue to reflect on what I have seen and felt.

*James M. Bradburne, ‘Introduction’, Brera Eyes Wide Open. Thirty unmissable pieces (Milan, 2021)

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