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Pushkin Museum’s president Irina Antonova - a legend in her lifetime

Irina Antonova passed away on November 30

MOSCOW, December 1. /TASS/. The president of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Irina Antonova, has died at 98. She was a legend and a pillar of the museum industry and national culture in general, appreciated in Russia and the world over. She largely takes the credit for the Pushkin Museum’s current world renown. With her death a whole era came to an end, say her friends and colleagues.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Pushkin Museum’s director, Marina Loshak, told TASS that Antonova passed away on November 30. Sources at the museum later said that her death was due to the coronavirus infection in combination with cardiovascular diseases. The date of the funeral will be announced later.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered deep condolences to Antonova’s relatives and dear ones. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media Putin had known Antonova very well, repeatedly visited her museum and appreciated her deep knowledge of fine arts.

Deputy chief of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, too, has offered condolences to Antonova’s dear ones and described her as a remarkable connoisseur of fine arts and an outstanding representative of the national and world museum community.

"It is an irreparable loss for her relatives and friends, for Russian culture and for all of us," Medvedev said. "Antonova won acclaim as an outstanding public figure and authored and promoted projects that invariably met with tremendous interest from all fine arts devotees."

An example to follow

The museum community has lost a great teacher and an example to follow, says the general director of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, Yelena Gagarina.

"It is a tremendous loss for the whole Russian culture. Antonova dedicated her whole life to a cause that she believed in and that was her source of energy and strength to carry on in the most dramatic moments in life. Her professionalism, exceptional artistic taste, self-sacrifice and willpower accomplished the impossible: she turned a museum that had been originally conceived as a museum of replicas into an organization of renown respected around the world. During the Iron Curtain years she arranged for some exhibition projects that far from every museum will mange to cope with these days," Gagarina is quoted by the press-service of the Moscow Kremlin’s Museums as saying.

Antonova was one of those people who embody Russian culture. She possessed remarkable sophistication and willpower, said the president of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts, Zurab Tsereteli.

"Today we all feel deeply aggrieved. The genius of Irina Antonova has left us. She was one of the great personalities in the world of art and science who are an embodiment of Russian culture. She possessed a unique combination of aristocratism, intellect, sophistication and remarkably strong character. Some people are said to be worthy of the era of Renaissance in scale. Irina Antonova’s personality fully matches this definition," he stressed.

Tzereteli said he would always remember Antonova as a "unique person strongly dedicated to art and beautiful in all respects."

"I’m unable to say aloud Irina Antonova’s life is over, because her life was the life of her museum. And not only of the Pushkin Museum, but of all other museums in Russia and around the world. She was well-known at all museums. She was an integral part of this life. She has been, still is and will always be part and parcel of the history of Russia’s life, Russian culture and Russian museums. Her life is an example for all or us, an example of energy that is derived from the love of what you do," said the Russian Museum’s director Vladimir Gusev.

The Victory Museum’s director, Alexander Shkolnik, has told TASS that Antonova’s tremendous contribution to the museum culture is yet to be grasped and appreciated.

"She was an example of the highest professional and moral principles in her attitude to art. Today it is impossible to imagine not only the Pushkin Museum, but the whole Russian and world culture and the world of art without Irina Antonova. She was one of those people who have can have no substitutes," he said.

Rare combination of knowledge and intuition

Irina Antonova boasted a rare combination of knowledge and intuition. She largely takes the credit for the fundamental reconsideration of the mission of museums as cultural and social institutions, the Moscow State University’s rector, Dmitry Sadovnichy, told TASS.

Antonova was one of the best graduates of the Moscow State University and during her whole life she served the ideals of beauty and harmony, he said.

"Irina Antonova had a unique combination of fundamental knowledge and intuition. She was an art manager of genius, long before this profession emerged in this country. Until her last days she remained amazingly industrious and committed to her calling and her principles. She invariably remained a very bright and talented lady. We will keep lasting memories of this outstanding scholar, a person of unique fate in science and the arts and of her tremendous services to national and world culture," Sadovnichy said.

Legend in her lifetime

The president of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts Irina Antonova was keen to create conditions for the freedom of artists’ creative endeavor. She managed to surmount seemingly insurmountable obstacles, said the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, General Director of the Jewish Museum and Center of Tolerance, Rabbi Alexander Boroda.

"She shared the firm, unshakable and absolutely unbiased belief that for the arts’ development there must be a free dialogue, that if we wish to have ‘outstanding’ artists, then the country’s museums must enjoy a ‘visa-free’ regime. This penetration of seemingly unbreakable borders became possible for all of her compatriots thanks to her work," Boroda’s press-service said.

Boroda believes that such personalities as Antonova are unique. He noted her talent, self-sacrifice and dedication to the cause she served all her life regardless of volatile and adverse external circumstances.

"We are proud we awarded to Irina Antonova the prize of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia called Fiddler on the Roof in the nomination Living Legend.

Antonova was a legend whose professionalism and civil responsibility were dedicated entirely to the museum business. She was a great authority outside Russia, in the world museum community, said Russia’s Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova. In the capacity of the Pushkin Museum’s director Antonova displayed "extraordinary qualities of an organizer."

"Under her guidance the museum hosted the legendary exhibitions Moscow-Paris, Moscow-Berlin, Russia-Italy and large expositions featuring works by Picasso, Modigliani, Turner, Caravaggio and other great artists," Lyubimova recalled. Until just recently Antonova was an active participant in museum work, making preparations for exhibitions and educational programs. The minister of culture said Antonova’s death was an irrecoverable loss for national culture and offered condolences to Antonova’s relatives and dear ones and the whole museum community.

Russian presidential aide, chairman of the Russian Military-Historical Society Vladimir Medinsky, too, stressed that Antonova’s contribution to the emergence and development of the national museum industry was enormous.

"Antonova was a true citizen of her country, who proved her allegiance and faithfulness to Russia with her life and work. She had no equals. No words can speak the deepness of our grief over this great loss," the press-service of the Russian Military-Historical Society quoted Medinsky as saying.

Symbol of the Pushkin Museum

"It is hard to imagine the Pushkin Museum without Antonova, who has become part of its image and its symbol," the museum’s press service quoted Loshak as saying.

Antonova has worked at the Pushkin Museum for 75 years.

"In 1945, she took her first job here and from that moment on, except for several months of this year during the coronavirus lockdown she came to the museum every day. We got accustomed to the feeling she is somewhere near any minute. Even when we did not talk business, even we just heard the rustle of papers or the sound of her voice behind the door other office. We were always aware that she is around. We felt her presence, the presence of a very emotional, very open, very loving person and very strict in all aspects of her attitude to life," Loshak said. "Irina was an absolutely fearless person. She was fearless as a professional and as a personality. Throughout her professional career she took very bold steps towards the new. Those were steps taken by someone prepared to take risks. And by no means casual steps and actions. She was a person who understood that her cause and her principles were most important that anything else," Loshak said.

Antonova’s accomplishments

In 1974, Antonova and her team reorganized the museum exposition. In that same year Leonardo da Vinci’s La Gioconda was displayed at the Pushkin Museum. A number of important expositions followed.

"All that happened during rather dramatic years for Antonova. Many things that are quite ordinary today were under a ban. This makes her achievements most valuable - Picasso’s first exhibition in 1956, Moscow-Paris, Moscow-Berlin, exhibitions of the world’s greatest artists and the display of Mona Lisa," Loshak said.

Antonova’s museum career began when the Pushkin Museum demonstrated masterpieces from the Dresden Gallery.

"Every moment of Irina’s life is tightly linked with the museum’s history, victorious and unique. We, museum staffers, will greatly miss her and her uncompromising attitude to life, her honest opinion, her defiance of risks and her ability to brush aside everything fleeting and unimportant and to demonstrate courage. We will be missing this person, who is surely part of each of us and our own lives," Loshak said.

Top museum league

Antonova was an embodiment of the era of Soviet and Russian cultural life. She managed to steer the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts into the top division of the world museum community, Russia’s special presidential representative for international cultural cooperation, Mikhail Shvydkoi, told TASS.

"Irina Antonova is a whole era of Soviet and Russian cultural life. Her service at the Pushkin Museum lasted an eon - 75 years. She turned the Pushkin Museum into a member of the top division of the world museum community," Shvydkoi said.

"Back in the Soviet years Antonova realized that a museum is not just a place where exhibits of this or that level are kept, but an institution vested with a mission of education, upbringing and research."

"True, many will say: "She passed away when she was very advanced in years.’ People like her are ageless and her loss is incredibly bitter," Shvydkoi said.

Antonova’s efforts turned the Pushkin Museum into a modern educational center and a treasury of world masterpieces, the speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko said in a message of condolences. She described Antonova as a true museum enthusiast, an excellent art connoisseur and a wonderful person, who was keen to safeguard and promote national culture. "Together with her country Antonova struggled through the turmoil of war and postwar years, which molded her character and made it strong enough to cope with any hardships," Matviyenko said.

On a par with the greats

Antonova possessed elegance and firmness, qualities that are both essential for anyone who governs a museum, said the general director of the Hermitage Museum, President of the Union of Museums of Russia Mikhail Piotrovovsky.

"She was always very ladylike and elegant. But at the same time, she was very firm and tough and practical as well, for she always knew what she was doing. All these qualities are crucial to a museum. She knew how to build life brick by brick and she built it in a very decent way," Piotrovsky said during the annual Internet meeting within the framework of the Days of Hermitage festival.

Antonova was well acquainted with outstanding cultural personalities and Russian and European politicians of the 20th century and enjoyed great influence, says a message of condolences uploaded to the website of the Union of Museums of Russia.

"Irina Antonova has left us forever. Some might disagree with her. Others even found her a little bit frightful. She was ANTONOVA. A legendary director of the Pushkin Museum, a firm crusader for its interests, its development and glory. She was the one who helped our audiences discover world art masterpieces. She was a great connoisseur of music and she taught us the skill of enjoying a blend of music and fine arts. She was on a par with the 20th century greats in culture and the powers that be in Russia and in Europe," the message says.

The Union of Museums called the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which Antonova governed for decades, as her "favorite child."

Antonova’s era

Irina Antonova’s activity in the capacity of president of the Pushkin Museum had a tremendous impact on the museum business in Russia and in sense caused a revolution and her contribution to Russia culture is impossible to overestimate, the director of the State History Museum, Alexei Levykin, told TASS.

"What words can properly describe the accomplishments of a great person, who has influenced not only the museum industry in Russia, the country’s culture as such? Irina Antonova’s life was tightly linked with museums and the Pushkin Museum in particular. I am proud I was fortunate enough to meet with her, talk to her and even argue with her in some situations. I was fortunate to be Antonova’s contemporary. Her contribution to the development of Russian culture is invaluable. Researchers and specialists will keep looking back on it again and again," Levykin said.

He said Antonova invariably produced an unforgettable impression on people who chanced to meet her. She was considered a great museum director not only in Russia, but abroad, too. Antonova’s distinguishing features were her boldness and certainty what she was doing was right and proper.

"All of her undertakings concerning the Pushkin Museum left a lasting imprint on the operation of each museum in the country. To a certain extent she made a revolution in the museum business with her persistency, knowledge and the awareness she was on the right side of life. She managed to push through and resolve many issues no other person would’ve dared to approach. She was always right."

The director of the Dal State Museum of the History of Russian Literature, Dmitry Bak, too, noted Irina Antonova’s gigantic contribution to the museum business.

"She was great, because she surpassed any individual period in the country’s history. Antonova was able to work during the thaw years and when the internal climate in society was frigid. She was never distracted by second-rate details and always ‘took care of her own garden’ in defiance of external obstacles," Bak told TASS.

"Irina Antonova was younger than all of us in some respects. In the last years of her long life she sensed the changes that had already happened or were happening in modern art and modern culture. She always postulated that nothing can substitute for real works of art. Many of her predictions forestalled the era that has set in. Irina Antonova’s death was a symbolic event in a sense. The Antonova age is over, but she managed to brief on and warn us of many things that are in store for us," he concluded.

And the general director of the State Vladimir-Suzdal Museum Preserve, member of the presidential council for culture and the arts, Svetlana Melnikova, told TASS she agreed that Irina Antonova’s death put an end to a whole era.

"I was immensely lucky to meet with her and talk with her quite often. I found her viewpoint invariably respectable, whatever subject we might touch upon. Her professional qualities are not a subject matter for a discussion. They are widely known. I will always remember Irina Antonova as an embodiment of professional dignity and the highest professionalism," she added.