Irina Antonova, a renowned art historian who served as head of Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts for over 50 years, has died at 98. According to a statement from the museum’s press service, Antonova died in Moscow from complications caused by the coronavirus.
Antonova, an expert in Italian Renaissance art, began her career at the museum in 1945 under the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin, in the waning days of World War II. In 1961, Antonova was named director of the Pushkin, a job she held until 2013, when she transitioned into position of its president following an appeal to President Vladimir Putin to reunite the holdings of 20th century Russian art collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.
The collections, both containing significant works by French Impressionist and Modern artists, had been confiscated after the Bolshevik Revolution and divided between the Pushkin and the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, before vanishing into storage. In 2019, it was announced the collections would come back together for a series of shows hosted at both venues, as well as at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.
Her efforts to promote foreign masterpieces in Russia despite pressure from the state’s cultural authorities brought Antonova acclaim worldwide. As director, she spearheaded major exhibitions of modern artists at the Pushkin, often through exchanges with international art holdings.
In an interview with the German outlet Der Spiegel in 2012, Antonova recounted one such experience: “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.”
Her tenure at the Pushkin included blockbuster exhibitions of Cubism, the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and the Mona Lisa, which was shown in museum’s gallery behind bulletproof glass. She also oversaw landmark presentations of artworks taken from Germany by Stalin’s Red Army, which are considered “trophy art” in Russia and remain a point of international controversy.
Antonova defended their presentation, often citing the destruction of Moscow’s cultural sites by the Nazis she experienced as a youth. “A country is liable, with its own cultural treasures, for the damage it inflicts on the cultural heritage of another nation,” she said.
She travelled and lectured extensively until the coronavirus pandemic, garnering a reputation as a charismatic figure. (In 2007, the octogenarian was photographed outside the museum with the actor Jeremy Irons on back of a motorcycle for the opening of a show of American art; they drove “to the Lenin museum and back” afterward.) She had a relationship with some of Russia’s most prominent politicians, including Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, who shared his “deep condolences” at the new of her death. Putin awarded her multiple medals for her cultural contributions and she served as his presidential campaign representative.
Antonova, though, maintained that she solely served the museum, once saying, “Politicians come and go, but art is eternal. Believe me, I would have trouble listing all the culture ministers of Russia and the Soviet Union.”