The Russia House Heads West

Irina Antonova, director of Moscow’s State Pushkin Museum, talks about the blockbuster show of masterpieces she’s brought to Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES — As the director of the great State Pushkin Museum in Moscow for nearly half of her 81 years, Irina Antonova has willed her way through totalitarian regimes, ideological differences over whether so-called “bourgeois” masterpieces should be destroyed (they weren’t), and seeing through the museum founder’s mission of creating an expanded campus to publicly show its canon.

This story first appeared in the July 25, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Today, she’s exerting a bit of her legendary determination in an effort to escape a portrait sitting, albeit in that kind of humble, charming way that prompts everyone hovering to apologize for putting her through the moves.

“I don’t mean to appear coquettish,” she says forgivingly. “I just don’t like to be photographed.” Yet in the name of art and media exposure, she obliges a WWD photographer with a handful of snapshots, before standing up and moving on to the next duty. It’s a characteristic frequently described of this endlessly energetic force in the Russian, and now global, art world.

Antonova chatted in the courtyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wednesday, just days before this Sunday’s opening of the blockbuster show she helped bring to the U.S., “Old Masters, Impressionists and Moderns: French Masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow.” Running through Oct. 13, the collection of 75 master works surveys 250 years of art by French artists and a couple who considered the country their home — Picasso and Van Gogh, including his sublime little-seen “The Prison (1890).”

This Pushkin collection of French paintings — from Nicolas Poussin to Paul Cezanne, Jacque-Louis David to Georges Braque — is considered among the best worldwide, and is on its latest and last stop following exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (which organized the show with the Pushkin) and Atlanta. It’s as much about the art as business, as the Pushkin stands to earn millions from the tour. The trip Stateside also marks Antonova’s first in four decades.

An example of the director’s aim to share these works with a greater audience is in the decision to bring 53 pieces never viewed in the U.S. before. Of them, 20 once belonged to Sergei Shchukin, who along with another fellow Moscow merchant, Ivan Morozov, amassed an impressive Impressionist collection before the Russian Revolution. The collections went into a vault, a move Antonova has called “one of Stalin’s crimes” of culture.

Western culture and its influences didn’t exactly fare well with Stalin’s use of the Pushkin through 1953 as a showcase for the dictator’s gifts. Antonova was already at work in the museum as a researcher during this “unfortunate” period for the museum’s exhibitions. More recently, in another twist in the merchants’ collection, one of Shchukin’s heirs filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles federal court this month requesting removal of the works from the show, along with compensation. But the exhibition goes on unfettered.

The suit is just business as usual for the fiercely resolved Antonova. Besides a staff of 200, including 67 curators, her operational responsibilities include the reconstruction of 11 18th- and 19th-century estates surrounding the museum, slated for completion by 2012. “It was the idea,” she notes, “of the founders to establish a little museum city.”

Antonova is almost matter-of-fact regarding her past wranglings between art and state.

“Of course there were difficult times with ideological censorship, certain exhibitions, certain research work,” she says. “But in comparison to all the other aspects of life, we were still relatively independent.”

With a hint of a smile, she recalls highlights in her mission to show the populace the Pushkin’s treasures. “I got lots of trouble from the Ministry of Art. For example, in 1974, I wanted to display some of the Impressionists. It created a scandal. I was sure that these works had to be exhibited because we could not keep them in the vaults forever. And I said basically if you don’t want that, I am going to resign. So then they gave me the right to ‘experiment.’”

Then there was 1981’s “Moscow-Paris” showcase of early 20th-century French and Russian art, presented with the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris. “It was very hard to get permission to show the Russian avant-garde, even at that particular time. For decades Chagall, Kandinsky and the other Russian avant-garde weren’t displayed in our museums at all. So we had to struggle for each painting to be exhibited. But it helped that we worked with the French. They helped facilitate it.”

Seeing all these works for the first time, she believes, also inspired such national pride that it contributed to the reform policies that brought down the curtain at the close of that decade.

There were also friends in high places in Soviet government who along the way helped out. And, being a woman could have been to her advantage, too, she admitted. “Because I was female, they couldn’t maybe be as strong with me as they would have been, had I been a male.”

“I did what I did because I love art. It had nothing to do with the party line, or anything else. I had my own ideals. I still have them. Even now, I believe that socialism, the way it is suppose to be as a system, is better than capitalism.”