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Grande dame of Russian museums still fighting at 91

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

She has led Moscow's renowned Pushkin Museum for over half a century, helped Russians discover the art of her friend Marc Chagall and battled to bring late impressionist art out of the vaults and into public view.

And at the age of 91, the doyenne of Russia's museum directors Irina Antonova shows no sign of letting up.

Her extraordinary career has seen her work under Kremlin chiefs from Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin and cross paths with some of the greatest names in 20th-century art.

Now Antonova has set herself the challenge of righting what she sees as a wrong wreaked by Stalin in 1948 when he ordered the dissolution of one of the world's finest museums of impressionist and early modern Western art.

"No one else is going to do this. I was in this museum, I was present when it was dissolved," Antonova, who has led the Pushkin Museum since being appointed under Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, told AFP in an interview.

Antonova sent a shockwave through Russia's usually staid museum world when she bluntly told Putin during his annual nationwide question-and-answer session that the museum should be recreated just as it was before Stalin's intervention.

All very well, but refounding the museum would mean taking away some of the most prized exhibits of the venerable Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg which was given an allocation of the collection when the Museum of New Western Art (GMNZI) was broken up.

And the Hermitage -- whose rivalry with the Pushkin Museum dates well back to the Soviet era -- has made it clear in no uncertain terms that its paintings are not going anywhere.

"We are not going to lie down on Palace Square (in front of the Hermitage) as a sign of protest," said Antonova. "It's their own business," she added icily.

But in a swipe at her Saint Petersburg colleagues, she added: "Those who are against (re-establishing the museum) are adhering to a decree of Stalin."

-- 'The best museum in the world' --

The now defunct GMNZI boasted 51 works by Matisse, 48 by Picasso and others by Renoir, Monet, Cezanne and Van Gogh.

"It was the best museum in the world," Antonova recalled, saying that as a student she used to go "every day".

Stalin ordered the museum shut down in 1948 because it was deemed that the concentration of Western art was an example of decadent bourgeois culture damaging to the development of Soviet art.

The museum was founded in 1923, five years before the MoMA in New York, with the impressionist, cubist and fauvist masterpieces that had been bought by savvy Russian collectors in imperial times and were then confiscated by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution.

"The museum was punished for its independence," Antonova said. "It was managed by remarkable people who had contacts abroad."

In 1949, the Pushkin Museum was given the dubious honour of hosting a grotesque exhibition of gifts received by Stalin. To make room, some of the pictures from the dissolved museum were handed to the Hermitage.

"We play the music of Shostakovich and we rebuilt the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Why should we not recreate the museum?" she asked.

The authorities, likely fearing an ugly standoff between the Moscow and Saint Petersburg museums, have proposed recreating the museum as a virtual space that can be visited on the Internet.

But Antonova has made clear that she does not feel beaten yet.

"Before this discussion started many people did not know that such a museum had existed. My idea will come back at a more opportune moment," she said.

In 1973, she showed herself to have no fear of controversy by somehow managing to convince Communist Party bosses to bring out works by impressionists that had languished in the stores for years.

"I was summoned to the central committee to make my explanations. I had a resignation letter in my pocket," she said. Instead, Antonova stayed in her post and the exhibition enjoyed huge success.

In 1974, she managed to have the Mona Lisa put on show in Moscow for the first time. In an era when borders were closed, Muscovites queued for up to eight hours to see it.

Fluent in French, Italian and German, Antonova commands huge respect among colleagues abroad and has managed to organise shows of works by the likes of Picasso, Modigliani and Caravaggio which rarely leave their homes.

In 1981, the Pushkin museum hosted an exhibition from the Paris Pompidou centre featuring Malevich and Kandinsky.

She also managed to organise a retrospective of Marc Chagall in 1987, by then unfortunately two years after his death.

Antonova's influence goes beyond the visual arts. Her friendship with the late great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter led to the creation of the December Nights music festival that has been held in the Pushkin museum annually since 1981.

Meanwhile, she also hosted blockbuster and wildly popular exhibitions on fashion designers Chanel and Dior whose creations were presented alongside works from painters who inspired them.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130607/grande-dame-russian-museums-still-fighting-at-91