Irina Antonova, Grande Dame of Russian Museum World, Dies at 98

MOSCOW — Irina A. Antonova, a commanding art historian who led Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts for more than a half century, used it to bring outside culture to isolated Soviet citizens and turned it into a major cultural institution, died in Moscow on Tuesday. She was 98.

The cause was heart failure complicated by a coronavirus infection, the museum said.

Ms. Antonova steered the museum through the isolationist and rigid cultural policies of the Soviet Union and into the period following the fall of Communism. In recent years, she expanded it to adjacent buildings — sometimes angering their tenants — to accommodate mushrooming exhibitions.

From early on, Ms. Antonova used her inexhaustible energy to build connections with the world’s leading museums. She brought Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1974. Hundreds of thousands of people stood in long lines to see it, the only queues the Soviet government was proud of at the time. Many knew that with the country’s borders shut, it might be the sole opportunity to see the famous work during their lifetime.

Exhibitions of 100 paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and of the treasures of Tutankhamen further opened the world to Soviet people.

The Pushkin museum on Ms. Antonova’s watch also exhibited abstract and avant-garde works by Russian and international artists. That was generally unimaginable in a country where an unofficial art show was once broken up with the help of a bulldozer, and whose leader Nikita Khrushchev, while visiting an exhibition of new Soviet art in 1962, shouted that some abstract paintings were made with a “donkey’s tail” and that even his grandson could do better.

The museum in 1981 hosted “Moscow-Paris, 1900-1930,” a landmark exhibition that mixed works by French artists like Matisse and Picasso together with highlights of the Russian avant-garde of the time, including works by Chagall, Malevich and Kandinsky. The exhibition showed how Russian artists fit in well with Western European trends and how they sometimes helped form them.

Thanks to her Bolshevik father, Ms. Antonova had the pedigree that made it easier for her to negotiate with Soviet cultural bureaucrats. Using her charm and wit, Ms. Antonova was able to transform what was still largely a collection of plaster casts of famous statues into a comprehensive museum worthy of a major capital.

“We were allowed to do things that were never allowed in other places,” Ms. Antonova said in a documentary film dedicated to the museum’s 100th anniversary. “It was very easy to ban. They didn’t even have to do much, while we were still allowed to do something.”

After the Soviet collapse, Ms. Antonova continued her quest of bringing Russia closer to the outside world with exhibitions of Joseph Beyus and Alberto Giacometti among others.

She also moved to uncover art treasures that were seized by the Soviet army in Germany during the war and hidden in the museum’s depositaries. However, critics faulted her for moving slowly and even for failing to acknowledge their existence. But Ms. Antonova argued that it would have been impossible to act during the Soviet period.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Ms. Antonova deserved professional and public acclaim, having “served Russian culture with inspiration” as a “devoted expert, enthusiast and educator.”

Irina Aleksandrovna was born on March 20, 1922, in Moscow. Her father, Aleksandr A. Antonov, was an electrician who later became the head of a research institute; her mother was Ida M. Heifits, who worked in a printing house.

She moved with her family in 1929 to Germany when her father was sent to work at the Soviet Embassy. She lived there for four years, learning German and acquiring a taste for European culture.

During World War II, Ms. Antonova trained as a nurse and cared for Soviet pilots, many of whom were severely injured, in Moscow hospitals.

She later graduated from Moscow State University and was sent to work at the Pushkin museum shortly before the war ended. The museum had been founded in 1912 by wealthy merchants; when she arrived, the building had no heating and its glass roof had collapsed during bombings.

“In 1945 she began to work in the Pushkin museum with a deep conviction that culture and art have no borders: temporary, geographical, national,” Olga L. Sviblova, a friend and director of the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow, said. “She defended these convictions under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and during the 30 years that she lived and worked in new Russia.”

She was appointed the museum’s first woman director in 1961 and occupied the post until 2013, when she became president and relinquished day-to-day administration to concentrate on strategic development. Her overall tenure in various roles spanned 75 years.

During Soviet times, Ms. Antonova herself was lucky to be able to travel, but she said that she sometimes cried when leaving an Italian city, knowing it might be her last time there.

Ms. Antonova became a towering cultural figure. Together with the acclaimed Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter, she began hosting a series of concerts inside the museum’s expansive halls every December. The concerts, called December Evenings, are still some of the most sought-after performances in Moscow.

Her husband, the art historian Yevsey I. Rotenberg, died in 2011. She is survived by her son Boris.

“It is hard to imagine the Pushkin museum without Irina Antonova, who turned into its irrevocable part, its face, its symbol — a part of its myth,” said Marina D. Loshak, Ms. Antonova’s successor as the museum’s director.

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