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Irina Antonova (1922–2020) – Artforum International

Irina Antonova (1922–2020) - Artforum International


Irina Antonova (1922–2020) – Artforum International

Irina Antonova, who headed Moscow’s acclaimed Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts for fifty-eight years, died December 1 of Covid-19 at the age of ninety-eight. During her tenure at the institution, which saw the death of Stalin, the rise of glasnost and the accompanying perestroika reforms, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the establishment of a democratic government, Antonova brought the Mona Lisa to Moscow and shepherded the return of hidden Russian masterpieces to the Pushkin.Born in Moscow in 1922, Antonova moved with her family to Berlin when her father took a job with the Soviet Embassy there. The family returned when the Nazis rose to power in Germany. During World War II she worked as a nurse in a Moscow hospital; in 1945, she graduated with honors from the art history department of Moscow State University and took a job at the Pushkin. Though she described the museum as initially depressing, owing to its postwar state, she quickly put this first impression in her rearview mirror, rising to become director of the institution in 1961. She would hold the position until 2013, when she was forced out and given the title of president.An expert in Italian Renaissance art, Antonova pushed tirelessly to introduce European work to a Soviet citizenry that had been forbidden from seeing it, in 1974 hanging celebrated works by Cubists and Impressionists alongside the work of Russia’s most fabled Impressionists. That same year, she brought Leonardo’s Mona Lisa to the Pushkin in a bulletproof box and under a multimillion-dollar insurance policy. The work was exhibited under bulletproof glass, with thousands of visitors lining up for the chance to savor an uninterrupted fifteen-second encounter with the masterpiece.Under her leadership, the Pushkin enjoyed what is widely known as a “golden age,” with exhibitions of treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb, artifacts from Troy, and works taken from Dresden’s Picture Gallery at the end of World War II. Antonova would later face criticism over the Pushkin’s retention of works looted by Stalin’s Red Army from Nazi Germany; in defending the decision not to return them, she cited the severe injuries of the soldiers and pilots she treated as a nurse in Moscow, in 2016 telling Deutsche Welle, that though a number of works had been returned, the rest “remain here as a deposit, the price paid for remembering.”Antonova remained undimmed as a force in her later years, posing on the back of a motorcycle with actor Jeremy Irons in 2007 to promote an exhibition of American art at the Pushkin (the pair went for a ride on it afterward); bringing a major Picasso exhibition to the institution in 2010; and in 2012 petitioning President Vladimir Putin via a call-in show to reunite the collections of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Schukin, which had been languishing in storage at the Pushkin and the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg following the Bolshevik Revolution. The reunion ultimately took place on a temporary basis, with the works appearing together at both museums in an exhibition that additionally traveled to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.Over the course of her storied career, Antonova taught in Russia and abroad, lecturing widely. She amassed a wide circle of friends in the art world and outside of it, including Putin, inaugural post-Soviet president Boris Yeltsin, and legendary painter Marc Chagall. Ultimately, though, she made no secret of where her allegiance lay. “Politicians come and go,” she is quoted as saying, “but art is eternal.”


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