Irina Antonova, who has died of complications from Covid-19 aged 98, was director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow for over half a century; when she finally stepped down in 2013 she was the oldest director of any major art institution in the world and, in the words of Russia’s Culture Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, “a living legend”.
Irina Antonova was appointed Director of the Pushkin in 1961 by Nikita Khrushchev. She had joined the museum as a curator under Stalin at the end of the Second World War. While she never met Stalin in person, only observed him across the parades in Red Square, she was still dealing with his legacy at the end of her career.
A significant part of her success came from the combination of gritty resolve and wily diplomacy that she deployed to counter Soviet mandarins, performance artists and, most significantly, restitution lawyers.
In 1945 she was present when the contents of Dresden’s Old Masters Gallery, seized by Soviet forces after Germany’s surrender, arrived in the galleries. Ten years later it was returned. She opposed the collection’s repatriation and her unwavering opposition to the restitution of artworks to Germany was to define her term. Such returns, she insisted, would not occur on her watch.
She was as eloquent in her stand as she was rigid. “The issue of trophy art is primarily one of an ethical nature,” she stated late in life. “It has to do with a moral and not so much financial compensation for Russia. One cannot simply invade a country, destroy its museums and try to stamp out the roots of its culture, as the Germans did.”
Indeed, the Nazi invasion had devastated the country’s artistic and literary holdings: over 400 museums and 4,000 libraries were destroyed, damaged or looted, and treasures, such as the Amber Room in St Petersburg’s Catherine Palace, removed and lost in the fray.
While a reported 1.5 million items were returned to Communist-ruled East Germany, many more remain in the vaults of the Pushkin to this day, largely due to Irina Antonova’s intransigence.
“She’s the last of a generation,” claimed Philip Hook, author of The Ultimate Trophy: How the Impressionist Painting Conquered the World. “That conviction that there was no question of it being theft or expropriation. It was perfectly legitimate. The chances of them giving anything up are absolutely nil because it is so tied up with the Great Patriotic War.”
Irina Aleksandrovna Antonova was born on March 20 1922 in Moscow. Her father was a Russian diplomat who relocated the family in 1929 when he was posted to the Soviet Embassy in Berlin.
Growing up in Germany helped shape her interest in art along with her independent spirit. “Germany gave me a love of sports. Even today I still like to swim. I also liked Berlin’s museums. You could run up and down stairs there,” she said in her ninetieth year. “I was a real wild one.”
The Nazi regime soon cast its shadow over family life: “One day my mother came home and said, ‘Irina, don’t go out in the street. The Reichstag is on fire’.”
In 1940, after her return to Russia, she enrolled at Moscow University where she studied under the formalist art historian Boris Vipper. She was celebrating her first year’s results when war was declared and later admitted to feeling a sense of excitement at “experiencing one of mankind’s great moments”.
The reality soon hit home: she lost two sets of uncles and aunts in the siege of Leningrad. After a period packing grenades at a munitions factory, she turned to nursing in a military hospital.
Her first shift in the operating theatre left her reeling: “I had to hold a leg while the surgeon amputated it. Suddenly I was holding it in my hand. I was shocked.” In 1945 she was set to travel to Germany, as a Major of the Red Army, to source works for the museum, but to her great disappointment it was decided she was still too young.
Irina Antonova’s personal passion was for the Impressionists, Expressionists and Modernists of the west, whose works were considered bourgeois by the Soviet authorities.
“The cultural shape of Russia would have been very different if she had not been appointed,” said Mikhail Kamensky, Managing Director of Sotheby’s Moscow, when she stood down in 2013. “She had a very international approach and knew what paintings should be shown and explained.”
Her role afforded her the rare luxury, for a pre-glasnost Muscovite, of international travel and access to the world’s greatest museums. In 1963 she visited the Frick Collection in New York and wept in front of Jan Vermeer’s painting Officer and Laughing Girl. “Now that’s great art,” she said. “Vermeer was a master of illuminating the centuries-old themes of humanity: love, fear, hope.”
In 1974 she pulled off a curatorial coup by persuading the Louvre to lend the Mona Lisa to the Pushkin. The view drew unprecedented queues and it is unlikely that the painting will be seen outside of Paris again. Seven years later she broke new ground by launching Sviatoslav Richter’s “December Nights”, an annual international classical music festival staged at the museum.
In the late 1960s she was introduced to the Russian émigré Marc Chagall, and she visited him at his studio in the south of France. They became friends and she exhibited his work in the Pushkin’s landmark Moscow-Paris exhibition in 1981 and hosted a major retrospective in 1987.
When she described Chagall as Russian in an obituary, however, she was reprimanded by the Ministry of Culture. In fact, she tirelessly promoted the work of exiled artists across disciplines, from Wassily Kandinsky to Sergei Rachmaninoff.
If Vermeer, in her judgment, got to the essence of life, then contemporary artists were, to her mind, needlessly disconnected. “Contemporary artists don’t want to talk about what exists. They talk about what doesn’t exist,” she said. When a performance artist relieved himself in the Pushkin’s galleries in 1993 she was not amused. “It isn’t art,” she snapped, “it’s a mess.”
The final battle of her directorship saw her fight for the recreation of the State Museum of New Western Art, an institution destroyed by Stalin in 1948. Its collections had been dispersed to the Pushkin and the Hermitage.
When the latter’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, refused to give up his part, Irina Antonova accused him of “adhering to a decree of Stalin”. (President Putin released a statement that he would not get involved in the spat.)
Ultimately, however, she believed that the arts should remain unaffected by politics. Shortly before her departure from the museum she was asked to which of the many presidents she had served under she felt the greatest loyalty. “I serve art,” she replied. “Politicians come and go, but art is eternal”.
Irina Antonova was awarded the 1st class Order of Merit for the Fatherland and the Order of the October Revolution and made President of the Pushkin on her retirement.
She married Evsej Roijtenberg, an art-historian, who died in 2012, and had one son who survives her.
Irina Antonova, born March 20 1922, died November 30 2020
Irina Antonova, legendary art historian who ran Moscow’s Pushkin Museum for 50 years – obituary The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ The Telegraph.