Museums Russian Federation

Still firmly in the saddle at 90: Madame Antonova of the Pushkin Museum

In addition to a milestone birthday, the doyenne of the Russian museum world celebrates more than six decades at the helm of Moscow’s Pushkin Museum

Out for a ride: Irina Antonova with the actor Jeremy Irons in front of the Pushkin Museum on 23 July 2007 (Photo: Anton Tushin, TASS)

Today, 20 March, is the 90th birthday of Irina Antonova, the director of Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. She has served there for 67 years, joining it one month before the end of the Second World War.

“It was August 1945”, she remembers: “The works of art confiscated from the Dresden museums were arriving as war reparations [most were returned in 1955 as part of a political treaty with East Germany]. I was there with my museum colleagues and some young soldiers, lucky ones who had come back from the front intact. We opened crate number 100, and there she was, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.”

“All of us had lost someone we loved, I my parents in the siege of Leningrad. Time seemed to stop at that moment; it marked each of our lives, but also the history of that picture.” Antonova tells this story in a filmed interview on “Russia Today”.

Since 1961, she has been the highly respected director of the museum, which is only ten years older than herself. Its centenary and her birthday will be celebrated together in great state at the Bolshoi Theatre on 31 May. Directors of the leading museums of the world, members of the exclusive and discreet Bizot Group, a kind of museum summit, are coming to pay homage to a woman who has skillfully navigated the dangerous political shoals of her country and has represented it with distinction abroad. She has been awarded the Order of the Red Flag of Labour, the Order of the October Revolution, the Order of Merit of the Fatherland First Class; she is an Honoured Artist of the Russian Federation, Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Commendatore dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica italiana: her honours mark the chapters of her history.

Born into a highly cultivated diplomatic family, she grew up in Germany. But her experience of the miseries of war gained in a Moscow military hospital made her implacable opponent of the restitution of works of art removed from Germany by the Red Army in 1945 and still in Russian museums. Many are in the Pushkin.

In other respects, however, Madame Antonova—as all non-Russian colleagues call her—has been a museum director of the Western sort: flexible, caring of her public’s needs, as adept today at exploiting the capitalist beau monde as she was at manipulating the Soviet apparatchiks. Last year, she hosted an exhibition of Dior dresses financed by Bernard Arnault, the head of the LVMH luxury group, with an opening attended by oligarchs and their extravagant companions.

Together with the great pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, she founded an annual music festival in the museum linked to the theme of whatever exhibition was on. Thus, last year, to accompany the exhibition of William Blake, the music was all English, with a particular emphasis on mysticism.

She has the support of the government, which has approved a sum of $650m to modernise and expand the Pushkin to a design by Foster and Partners by 2018. In the meanwhile, Antonova will be able to enjoy a celebratory exhibition to which some of the most important institutions of the world will be lending, on the theme of André Malraux’s “Musée imaginaire”—an appropriate tribute to a woman who has managed to make her museum suit all the cultural and ideological vagaries of her country.

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