Irina Antonova: Russian museum director who challenged the boundaries of art

The art historian risked the wrath of Soviet officials to bring Western European works to Moscow

Antonova’s finest shows demonstrated the power of cultural interchange
Antonova’s finest shows demonstrated the power of cultural interchange

Irina Antonova was the formidable and charismatic director of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts for more than half a century. The art historian, who has died aged 98, will be remembered for bringing the full scope of the Pushkin’s collections to the public, mounting ambitious exhibitions that challenged physical, theoretical and political boundaries.

Irina Antonova was born in 1922 in Moscow and spent part of her childhood in Germany, where her father was employed at the Soviet embassy in Berlin. On the outbreak of war she worked as a nurse, later embarking on a course in art history at Moscow State University. 

Antonova graduated in 1945 and joined the Pushkin, just a month before the end of the Second World War. She had initially intended this to be a short-term role, as a researcher, saying later: “When I first came to the museum, I was not going to stay here for long. These walls are made of stone, and I’ve always been short of air here. How was I supposed to live in this stone house for the rest of my life?”

Yet, despite her initial apprehension, she stayed on, and in 1961 was appointed by Nikita Khrushchev as its director, a position she would hold for the next 52 years. 

In 1974, thanks to Antonova’s impeccable planning and diplomacy, the Mona Lisa made the journey to Moscow in a bulletproof box, allowing visitors to the Pushkin to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece during a two-month exhibition. Often queuing for many hours, each visitor was given just 15 seconds to enjoy La Gioconda’s enigmatic smile. This was the last time that the painting has been able to leave Paris.

The same year, and at a time when Soviet citizens had little access to Western European art, Antonova opened up the Pushkin’s fine collection of impressionism and modern works. In an isolationist pre-perestroika USSR, bringing French and Russian masterpieces out of storage to hang alongside one another risked the wrath of officials. Fearing dismissal, she later said of the exhibition: “I knew that I was in danger of that. But I understood that it was impossible to keep Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Van Gogh, Gauguin in the vaults any longer.”

Two of her greatest shows were those that demonstrated the power of cultural interchange between the great cities of Europe, including Moscow-Paris 1900-1930 (1981) and Moscow-Berlin 1900-1950 (1996). Antonova recalled, “When the Moscow-Paris exhibition, with works by Chagall and Kandinsky, was to be brought to Moscow in 1981, the director of the famous State Tretyakov Gallery said: ‘Over my dead body.’ Well, we don’t like dead bodies, so we held the show at the Pushkin Museum. It was a breakthrough.”

This was not the only time she courted controversy. In 1995, exactly 50 years after the Soviet victory against the Nazis, the Pushkin displayed an exhibition of works seized from Germany by the so-called Trophy Brigades of the Soviet Army, including masterpieces by Goya, Renoir and El Greco. The brigades had also captured Priam’s Treasure, a group of 260 Bronze Age artefacts excavated at Troy by Heinrich Schliemann, which was exhibited the following year. Antonova saw the historic appropriation of these artworks and artefacts as justifiable compensation for the looting and destruction of Russian museums by Nazi Germany. She defended the decision not to return the collections, noting that they “remain here as a deposit, the price paid for remembering”.

Throughout her time at the Pushkin, she had campaigned for the reestablishment of the State Museum of New Western Art, a collection of paintings which had been disbanded by Stalin in 1948. She even took the issue up, unsuccessfully, with Vladimir Putin in 2012, ambushing him on a television phone-in programme.

Antonova was replaced as director at the Pushkin the following year, aged 91, taking on an honorary role as president of the museum. She was a member of the International Council of Museums, part of Unesco. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, said that President Putin “highly appraised her deep expert knowledge” and had often met her at the Pushkin.

Antonova was married to Evsey Rotenberg, who died in 2011. She is survived by their son Boris Rotenberg.

Irina Antonova, art historian and museum director, born 20 March 1922, died 30 November 2020

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