The Protector of Pushkin's Treasures

Pushkin Museum director Irina Antonova, reflecting on a career marked by frequent battles at the intersection of art and politics, was discussing the final years of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin when there was a knock at the door of her office -- and in walked Gina Lollobrigida.

The women chatted briefly about sculptures made by the Italian actress, mostly of herself in movie roles, that the museum displayed this summer in a bit of profile-raising populism by the scholarly but savvy Antonova.

Soon the indefatigable director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts resumed her stories. She recalled the time, long after Stalin's death -- but before the Soviet Union collapsed -- when she got away with displaying a banned Vasily Kandinsky painting. The trick was to seek permission from a Politburo member: "Well, he didn't say, 'Display it.' But he said something in a roundabout way, which I interpreted as that I could display it."

In 42 years heading one of Russia's great museums, Antonova, 81, has combined elite connections, political smarts, love of art, courage and boundless energy to protect and promote its collection. From the 1940s to the 1970s, many of the Pushkin's best pieces were banished to its vaults as ideologically suspect "bourgeois" art. Even after Antonova gradually broke them free, relatively little of the art toured abroad.

But now, this and other Russian museums are reaching out to the world, and the most extensive Pushkin exhibit ever to tour the United States -- a selection of 75 French masterpieces -- opened late last month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibit, "Old Masters, Impressionists and Moderns," runs through Oct. 13.

Among those who quickly came to appreciate the Impressionists' work were two Moscow merchants, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, whose collections, seized in 1918 by the new government, form a major part of the Pushkin's French collection and the touring exhibit.

The men had remarkable taste, said Vadim Sadkov, the Pushkin's curator of American and European art. "You are amazed at their ability to pick paintings, because every artist has better paintings and worse paintings."

What ultimately became the Pushkin Museum was established in the late 19th century and opened in 1912 as the Alexander III Museum of Fine Arts. Besides its famed French works, the museum's collections of Dutch masters and Egyptian treasures remain among its best. Its holdings also include Byzantine icons, old Russian graphic works and original Greek and Roman artifacts.The museum says it has 575,000 objects, many acquired from other institutions, especially the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, which held treasures collected by Catherine the Great and other Russian rulers.

In the late 1920s, Moscow's Museum of New Western Art was founded to house the Shchukin and Morozov collections, but it was closed by Stalin in 1948. Both collections were then split up, with parts of each sent to the vaults of the Pushkin and the Hermitage.

"I think -- and many agree with me -- it was one of Stalin's crimes in the sphere of culture," Antonova said.

From 1949 to 1953, the Pushkin was entirely occupied by a huge exposition of gifts to Stalin. "It was a terribly sad time," recalled Antonova, who was already working at the museum.

In art, the dictator favored "socialist realism" and heroic figures. He battled "the influence of Western culture and the Western way of life on Soviet culture," Sadkov said.

The Impressionist and other ideologically suspect paintings Stalin had banned re-emerged in the decades after his death. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of Shchukin's descendants started pressing claims to paintings that were sent abroad, filing a 1993 lawsuit in Paris and one in 2000 in Rome. In both cases, courts refused to enforce the descendants' claims.

One of the Shchukin heirs, Andre-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, who lives in France and has been pressing the Russian government to reach a settlement with the family, filed another lawsuit in Los Angeles last month.

Antonova dismissed the idea that Shchukin's descendants have any legitimate claim to the paintings, given how long ago the October Revolution occurred and the vast amount of property that was nationalized. The museum never sends anything abroad "without strict government guarantees that things be returned," she added.

In her long career, Antonova has fought many battles bigger than the dispute with Shchukin's heirs.

"The Pushkin Museum at the moment is Irina Antonova," said Gregory Guroff, president of the Foundation for International Arts and Education, which helped arrange the U.S. tour. "She has had an incredible impact on that museum and the preservation of its collection. She's done some extraordinary things."

Antonova -- wavy gray hair neatly in place, anxious to move on from one task to the next -- still projects the discipline, energy and steely determination that served her well over decades of quiet confrontation with Communist bureaucrats. Among the most important of her accomplishments was simply getting the Shchukin and Morozov collections, and many other paintings, out of the vaults and into the public eye.

That process began in a small way after Stalin's death in 1953, accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s, and continued into the 1990s, when the museum showed some of the "trophy art" that the Soviet Union seized from the Nazis.

In 1974, Antonova finally won the right to display all the museum's Shchukin and Morozov holdings. "Certain circles, and I'm talking about Moscow reactionary artists, campaigned against me for a year," she said. "They were saying that I was destroying classical art in favor of bourgeois art. The situation was very complicated, but finally I was allowed to do it as an experiment, and then it stayed. If they hadn't allowed me to do it, I would have resigned."

Antonova said her most memorable fight to display banned art came in putting on the "Moscow-Paris" exhibition of 1981, which included works by Kandinsky, Marc Chagall and other Russian and French artists from the early decades of the 20th century. It was staged in cooperation with the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris.

The possibility of such a show was discussed at a meeting attended by officials from several museums, but the others refused to do it, Antonova said.

"The director of the State Tretyakov Gallery said, 'Over my dead body,'" she said. "I said that we will put on this exhibition, and we won't need a dead body."

When the exhibit took place, the Russian public "poured here to see their own artists, our own national art, which for decades they had been denied," she said.

She now regards the show as "one of the biggest factors" in the cultural sphere that helped lay the groundwork for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies of the late 1980s.

Antonova maneuvered through such battles not as a dissident but an insider, said Guroff. "She was a quiet genius of the Soviet system," he said. "She was part of it but able to create an agenda for the museum, and slowly and surely widen the perspective."

Antonova, who repeatedly turned down promotions to stay at the museum, said that "frankly, I didn't expect such loyalty from myself."

"I thought of myself as a more versatile person," she said, starting to laugh, "but it happened that I have had one husband and one job all my life."