Along with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Pushkin Museum, inaugurated in 1912 as the Alexander III Museum of Fine Arts, is one of the preeminent artistic institutions in Russia.
Ms. Antonova joined the Pushkin upon her university graduation in 1945, a month before the end of World War II. A specialist in the Italian Renaissance, she became director in 1961 and remained in that role until 2013, when she assumed the title of president. In the international press, she was often described as a grande dame of Russian cultural life.
“Communism fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, but some things in Moscow never change,” a New York Times reporter dryly observed in 2002. “At the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Irina A. Antonova is still the director.”
She described the early years of her employment as “a terribly sad time,” when the entire museum was commandeered to display gifts to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Under Stalin, and for years after his death in 1953, officially sanctioned artwork emphasized a socialist realist glorification of the heroic proletariat. Many of the museum’s most prized holdings were consigned to storage.
“For so many years, we weren’t allowed to exhibit what we had in our collections,” Ms. Antonova told the German publication Der Spiegel in 2012. “Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne were considered formalistic and bourgeois artists.”
Through unyielding resolve, Ms. Antonova helped resurrect the works of those artists and others, such as Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky, who were regarded as traitors for having left the Soviet Union for the West.
In 1974, according to the Times, Ms. Antonova threatened to resign if she was not permitted to display the exuberantly colorful works of French painter Henri Matisse, a chief exponent of the artistic movement known as Fauvism.
The same year, she arranged for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to be transported to Moscow from the Louvre in Paris and displayed at the Pushkin behind bulletproof glass — one of several celebrated exchanges she orchestrated during the Cold War.
In collaboration with the Centre Pompidou, also in Paris, she mounted a groundbreaking exhibition, “Moscow-Paris,” in 1981, with works by Chagall and Kandinsky, among other Russian and French artists. Other Soviet museum administrators had balked at such an idea.
“The director of the State Tretyakov Gallery said, ‘Over my dead body,’ ” Ms. Antonova told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. “I said that we will put on this exhibition, and we won’t need a dead body.” When the show opened, she said, people “poured here to see their own artists, our own national art, which for decades they had been denied.”
Another category of artwork that spent decades in storage at the Pushkin and in other repositories — although for different reasons — were the thousands of works of art taken from Germany by the Soviet army in the final days of World War II. For years, Soviet officials and museum administrators, Ms. Antonova among them, denied knowledge of their existence.
In the 1990s, when the “trophy art” was revealed and eventually exhibited — prompting protests from the German government — Ms. Antonova steadfastly defended its place in Russia. The works were a form of reparations, she argued, for the innumerable works Germany had destroyed or stolen from the Soviet Union during the war.
“To be entirely clear, the issue of trophy art is primarily one of an ethical nature,” she told Der Spiegel. “It has to do with 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. This is a historic lesson for the entire world.”
A centerpiece of the disputed artwork was a trove of gold treasures from ancient Troy discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, an amateur German archaeologist, in the late 19th century. They were hidden at the Berlin Zoo at the end of World War II, discovered there by the Soviets, and eventually secreted away in repositories of the Pushkin. Ms. Antonova displayed the collection in 1996 in an exhibit that attracted international attention, and controversy.
If the Soviets had erred, she said, they had done so in not exhibiting the works earlier.
“It was one of the stupidities of that period,” she told the New York Times in 2002. “In 1945, after the war, everyone knew that some things came to the museum, but nobody was really working on them. It was stupid because we should have from the very first said that it belongs to Russia, because it was compensation for the enormous, unbelievable damage done to our country. Everything should have been put on display right away.”
Irina Alexandrovna Antonova was born in Moscow on March 20, 1922. Her father was a diplomat at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin, where the family resided from 1929 to 1933.
Ms. Antonova had recently finished her first year of university study when Germany invaded Russia in 1941 and worked at an ammunition factory and as a nurse at a military hospital during the war.
“During my first operation, I had to hold a leg while the surgeon amputated it,” she told Der Spiegel. “Suddenly I was holding it in my hand. I was shocked.”
She studied art history at Moscow State University and graduated in 1945. The experience of working at the Pushkin, where the reproductions of her university textbooks were replaced by genuine works of art, exhilarated her.
According to several accounts, as a young museum employee, she helped unload or catalogue early deliveries of trophy art from Germany.
Despite the suffering that Russians endured under communism, Ms. Antonova told Der Spiegel in 2012 that “perhaps I’m going to disappoint you now, but I haven’t lost faith in socialism to this day. It’s obvious that Stalin was a tyrant. We chose the wrong path to socialism in the Soviet Union. But that doesn’t mean that the idea is worthless.”
In the final period of her tenure as director at the Pushkin, she publicly called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to rebuild a state museum of Western art that was destroyed under Stalin and whose holdings had been split between the Pushkin and the Hermitage. The decision not to rebuild the museum, she argued, amounted to adherence to “a decree of Stalin.”
Her appeal, which the Hermitage opposed, sparked a contretemps that by some accounts contributed to her departure as director. She was 91 at the time.
Reflecting on her longevity at the museum, she liked to joke that she had one husband and one job her entire life. Survivors include a son, Boris, who according to the Art Newspaper was severely disabled.
Also reflecting on her longevity, she told Der Spiegel that “I serve art.”
“Politicians come and go,” she said, “but art is eternal.”
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