Irina Antonova came to work at Moscow’s renowned Pushkin Museum the year the World War II ended. She built herself up to director, brought the Mona Lisa to the Soviet Union and outlasted every leader from Josef Stalin to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin to become the doyenne of Russia’s art world.
On Monday, Antonova was unceremoniously let go. Some blamed her age — at 91, she has been director of the museum, which houses a major collection of 19th and 20th-century European art, since 1961. However, she remains as sharp as when she was challenging Soviet authorities to display the work she loved so much, from Marc Chagall to Wassily Kandinsky, considered traitors for fleeing the motherland.
Instead, it appears Antonova has fallen victim to a scandal that has shaken Russia’s art world, pitting Moscow against St Petersburg, the Pushkin against the Hermitage and forcing all to face a history that many would rather forget.
It began in April, when Antonova appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual televised call-in show, hoping to get his support for a pet project that would revive a major museum of Western art destroyed by Stalin in 1948 as the Cold War raced ahead.
The prized collections of the Pushkin and the Hermitage were partly borne of the destruction of the State Museum of New Western Art, with dozens of works divided between them, including paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and Van Gogh.
Reviving the museum has long been a goal of Antonova’s, who has said she visited it daily in her youth. Much less keen on the idea is the Hermitage, which has refused to let its paintings go.
Antonova’s public raising of the issue launched the closest thing the art world has to all-out war. She and Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, took to the press to argue their cases. The state intervened, proposing an online “virtual museum” so the issue could be put to rest. Antonova refused.
In May, Putin’s spokesman said the president would not get involved but “the chances of creating such a museum fall significantly” considering Piotrovsky’s disapproval.
Antonova continued to lash out, telling Agence France-Presse last month: “Those who are against [re-establishing the museum] are adhering to a decree of Stalin.”
On Monday, widely reviled Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky announced at the Pushkin that Antonova would be leaving her post.
“Irina Alexandrovna is a legendary person, who made the Pushkin Museum legendary,” he said. “There are no longer such people in the world.”
He said she would move to the ceremonial post of president of the museum. Antonova will be replaced by Marina Loshak, a respected curator who heads the Manezh exhibition space near the Kremlin.
“I love the museum and I’m grateful to the museum for my life and thankful to all of you with whom I worked, in my opinion rather successfully, for so many years,” Antonova told the crowd.
The announcement was a surprise. Sources say Antonova only recently renewed her five-year contract to run the museum and appeared to have no plans to stand down.