Irina Antonova dedicated 75 years of her life to the Pushkin Museum and became its true symbol. In the years of her leadership Museum became the most important cultural venue of the country and received wide international recognition. Dozens of major exhibitions were held here, the festival December Evenings of Svyatoslav Richter, created by Irina Alexandrovna together with the great musician forty years ago, became legendary.
In the years of the World War II, after completing nursing courses Irina Antonova worked in the Krasnaya Presnya Hospital. After graduating Moscow State University on the 10th of April 1945, she started her career at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts as a fellow in the Department of Wester European Art. In 1946-1949 she completed her postgraduate education and research degree at the Museum. At that period her scientific interests were focused on the Italian Renaissance Art. From February 1961 to July 2013 she took the position of the Director, and then the President of the Pushkin Museum.
In the past decades The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts under leadership of Irina Antonova like no other museum in our country, had a unique mission to open the treasures of the world art to several generations of domestic viewers. It was Irina Antonova's bold decision that made it possible to hold an epoch-defining exhibition Moscow — Paris. 1900–1930, (1981), which, under conditions of strict ideological control, became a major breakthrough in the reconstruction of a true picture of Russian artistic culture of the 20th century. The international authority of the Director of the Pushkin Museum allowed to display the most famous work of world art - La Gioconda by Leonardo da Vinci in Moscow (1974).
Among other exhibitions organized under the leadership of Irina Antonova, one must mention The Treasures of the Tutankhamun Tomb (1973), Marc Chagall. For the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of the Artist (1987), Etruscan world (1990 and 2004), Moscow — Berlin. 1900-1950 (1996), Claude Monet and Marcel Proust (2001), Russia — Italy. Through the Centuries. From Giotto to Malevich (2005), Turner. 1775-1851 (2008), Alberto Giacometti (2008) and many others.
In 1974, after a major renovation of the Museum, Irina Antonova initiated the largest project of a renewal of the permanent exhibition of the Museum. Overcoming criticism from the professional community and the public, Irina Antonova decided to significantly reduce the exhibition of casts on the second floor in order to expand the display of the painting collection — including Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists.
During the years of Irina Antonova's leadership, the size of the Museum expanded significantly due to the transfer of buildings in the surrounding neighbourhood. This began back in 1961, when The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts received its current House of Text. Later, Irina Antonova initiated the creation of the Museum quarter, which was a dream of Ivan Tsvetaev, the founder of the Museum. Active work on the buildings’ reconstruction is underway now, and Irina Antonova's purpose will be achieved in the coming years.
Since 1967 and at the initiative of Irina Antonova The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts has held an annual International Research Vipper conference, dedicated to the memory of the outstanding art critic Boris Vipper. The particular characteristics of this Symposium is a comprehensive approach to the artistic and cultural problems based on the materials of the most significant exhibitions of the Museum.
Irina Antonova actively promoted rediscovering of the forgotten names of collectors, in particular Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Abramovich Morozov, and supported Ilya Samoilovich Zilberstein’s initiative for opening in January 1994 the Museum of Private collections (now the Department of Private collections) at the Pushkin Museum.
Irina Antonova was an Honorary Member of the International Council of Museums, Academician of the Russian Academy of Arts, Russian Academy of Education, Honorary Doctor of the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), Honoured Art Worker of the Russian Federation.
Irina Antonova is a Full Cavalier of the Order For Merit to the Fatherland, she was awarded a number of state decorations of the Soviet Union - the Order of the October Revolution, the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, the Order of of Peoples’ Friendship, and also became a laureate of the State Prize of the Russian Federation in 1995 and 2017.
She is a Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (France) and Knight of the Legion of Honour. Irina Antonova was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun (Gold and Silver Stars) for her contribution to the development of cultural cooperation between Japan and Russia.
For decades, the Museum was impossible to imagine without Irina Antonova - without her unbending will and inspired enthusiasm. Irina Antonova lived the life of the Museum until her very last days, constantly taking part in discussions of long-term tasks and current projects, defending her point of view with her natural passion and coherence.
Her passing away is a great personal loss for friends and colleagues, comparable to the loss of a family member. The passing of Irina Antonova is the end of an entire era of cultural life in Russia for numerous visitors of the Pushkin Museum, viewers of her programmes on the Kultura TV-channel and for all enlightened people in the country.
Over the half-century of her leadership, she has formed the current appearance of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, brought up generations of its employees, and today’s mission of the Pushkin Museum is to continue her noble cause of service of High Arts, maintaining the interrelation of times and cultures.
Marina Loshak, Director of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts:
It is difficult to imagine the Pushkin Museum without Irina Antonova, who became its invariable component, its face, its symbol – part of the myth of the Pushkin Museum in all its manifestations. She came to the Museum in 1945 as a young girl and until today, with the exception of a few months of this year associated with the Coronavirus, she was coming to the museum almost every day, and we are used to feeling her presence. Even when we did not talk to her about business, even when we simply heard the rustling of papers or the sound of her voice outside the door of her office, we knew she was there and felt her around. That was the presence of a person who is very emotional, very open, who loves not for appearance’s sake and is very strict in her attitude to life. It is difficult for me to name a similar institution which would be so tightly fused with the image of a person as the Pushkin Museum and Irina Antonova are. Irina Antonova was absolutely fearless – both as a professional and as a person. In her work life she took very bright actions towards the new, the actions of a person who was ready to take risks. These were the actions of a person who understands that her work and principles are more important than anything else. All this was happening during a rather difficult time of Irina Antonova’s work at the Museum, in the Soviet years, when much of what we are now used to was banned. This is why her achievements are especially valuable: "Moscow-Paris. 1900-1930" (1981), "Moscow — Berlin. 1900-1950" (1996), exhibitions related to the names of the world's greatest artists, the arrival of the "Mona Lisa" to the Museum. All this was preceded by her work during the safekeeping of the Dresden gallery collection at the Pushkin Museum. The destiny of this woman at every moment of her life is connected directly to the Museum's history - victorious and unique. The Museum staff will miss her, her uncompromising attitude to life, her honest opinion, her open-mindedness, her ability to move away from the moment and demonstrate her courage. We will miss this woman, who has undoubtedly become part of us and our own lives.