RA Magazine Winter 2007
Issue Number: 97
Doyenne of directors
Irina Antonova is the grande dame of Russian art. She began work at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow in 1945 and has been its director since 1961. At 85, she is still going strong and presiding over a major expansion programme. In a rare interview conducted in French, she talks to Sarah Greenberg about her past, her love for the collectors Shchukin and Morosov and her new plans for the Pushkin
Irina Antonova Photo courtesy the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
RA Magazine: What is your view of the concept of the RA’s exhibition From Russia, which explores the artistic cross-currents between Russia and France from the nineteenth century to the Russian avant-garde?
Irina Antonova: The Pushkin has lent works but since I have not helped organise the RA exhibition, nor have I seen the catalogue, I cannot comment on it. But the concept is well-known. Many years ago, in 1981, I curated the show Paris-Moscow with the Pompidou, which was the first show to make this argument about the artistic relationship between Russia and France.
RA: But for another generation of viewers, this idea might be illuminating. Your exhibition, Paris-Moscow, was famously seen at the time as a symbol of détente and it was one of the most renowned examples of the great modern art in Russian museums travelling to the West. Now there is a different context for the relationship between Russia and the West.
IA: Yes, it is true that the Russian and French painters at that time were in contact and influenced each other. We already established that idea in the exhibition Paris-Moscow. But I will need to see From Russia before I can comment.
RA: How can the Pushkin benefit from showing its collection abroad?
IA: In the Royal Academy exhibition the works we are lending are of immense quality and have never been shown in England before, but they are only a tiny part of our collection. We are always interested in exchanges and have collaborated with many museums around the world. We are always happy to do this and ready to work with colleagues. This is not the only show we are participating in at the moment. In Verona the Pushkin is currently lending works to the Italian painting show Italy in Russia. Events like this are a great joy and they make new friends for our museum. Now we are also showing our paintings by Diego Rivera in Mexico. And at the Pushkin we have a big show about Chanel.
RA: Are there some works at the Pushkin that never travel?
IA: Matisse’s Pink Studio never travels – it’s a very fragile painting. All the paintings of that era are very fragile. The painters didn’t work with very high quality materials. There are always problems with their conservation. Everyone in the museum world knows that there’s a problem with the period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.
RA: Can you tell me about the history of the collectors Shchukin and Morosov? Works from their collection are highlights of the RA show and are among the stars of your collection.
IA: They were truly two incredible men. Why is it that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, they understood that they had to buy paintings by Picasso and Matisse and other artists who were not yet accepted or considered museum quality? These two men, however, understood that they were great masters. And that still remains enigmatic for me. For example, why was it like this, when even in France, the Louvre refused to put the paintings of the Impressionists in its collection when it was proposed? Why did it take two Russian businessmen to understand this? They had taste without doubt, but there was also something in the air at the time, particularly in Russia there was a sense that great turbulent things were about to happen. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a revolution in art that began a great and new era – Shchukin and Morosov understood that. But their collecting wasn’t rational – it was instinctive.
RA: Not only were they wonderful collectors, they were also the only collectors of this art in Russia – it wasn’t fashionable, they weren’t part of a club.
IA: People didn’t understand them very well in Russia and they mocked them. They had many enemies. Even though Shchukin always allowed people to see his works, very few people understood what he did and many called him scandalous because of his prominent paintings of nudes. He himself was often uncertain, even disturbed, about the art he bought. You know that famous story of the two paintings by Matisse – The Dance and Music – he bought them, but when he was on the train, he sent a telegram to Matisse saying that he didn’t want them and to cancel the order. Then in a few days, he sent another telegram saying ‘Give me the paintings’, so even he wasn’t always sure of what he was doing, but he went on instinct.
RA: In his impulsive acquisitions of art, sometimes buying 30 paintings at a time, it seems almost as though Shchukin was slightly unbalanced.
IA: He was rational, but he was very moved by art. When he bought his first Cubist Picasso, he hid it in a corner of his house. He said that when he passed through that room, he was a bit frightened, but afterwards, he moved that painting from room to room until finally he showed it to everyone. And of course he had a whole room full of Picassos in the end. But he was always – and this is very dear to me – in the process of learning. It wasn’t easy. I don’t know why he wanted to do this, but he understood that it was very important. He got to know his paintings.
RA: It is interesting that Shchukin’s collection, and to a certain extent Morosov’s, inspired the Russian artists who saw them, but they didn’t inspire other collectors to buy such works.
IA: In the US, there was Gertrude and Leo Stein and Dr Barnes who bought the same type of works. But there were very few. The most difficult thing is to understand the contemporary, the people who are working next to you, who are around you. I recall when André Malraux, who was the French minister of culture, was visiting the Pushkin and he saw our collections and said, ‘But it’s incredible, these two Russians bought all of this great art. Why didn’t anyone do this in France at that time? Why didn’t we have people who did the same thing?’ I will never forget what he said: ‘We must buy all of the art that people are making around us now because otherwise the Russians will come and buy it all up again and we’ll have to look at it in the Russian museums.’ It was very funny.
RA: That is interesting because, today, there is a lot of fanfare in the media about Russians buying up art at any price. Now that we see all these Russian collectors coming to London to buy art, do you see any budding Shchukins and Morosovs on the horizon?
IA: I don’t know much about what is happening in this area today. And I don’t think that, for the most part, they buy challenging contemporary art. Those whom I know of buy primarily Russian art at auction. They buy art that already has a pedigree.
RA: Shchukin and Morosov didn’t need a pedigree.
IA: No. But they were true phenomena.
RA: What were their first acquisitions?
IA: They began buying Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in the last years of the nineteenth century, around 1898. I think Pissarro was their first purchase of such art. But before they bought a lot of both Russian and Scandinavian art and also German – we show these works at the Pushkin.
RA: What happened to Shchukin and Morosov’s collections after the Revolution of 1917?
IA: Like many private collections, they were nationalised. The new government made a special museum of modern art for their works after the Revolution. Then during the War, they were evacuated to Novosibirsk in Siberia. In 1948, their works were divided between the Pushkin and the Hermitage.
RA: How was this division made?
IA: There was a decree signed by Stalin. It was 1948 and, although I was at the Pushkin then, I didn’t participate, so I don’t know for sure. It is possible that the biggest pictures went to the Hermitage because, at that time, the Pushkin was in a bad state. It suffered terribly during the War and we hadn’t yet done much restoration. There wasn’t much space.
RA: After 1948, when Shchukin and Morosov’s works were divided between the two museums, was it possible to show the works on the walls of the Pushkin?
IA: It was a long process. We were finally able to exhibit all of them in 1974. But at first it was difficult. We could only show a few at a time, due to lack of space. Our museum was never originally intended as a museum for paintings. It began as a university museum filled with plaster casts. It was a long process to move the plasters and find space for the paintings.
RA: But I understand that you fought to have the paintings by Shchukin and Morosov displayed. Can you tell me more about what happened?
IA: That’s true. Not everyone wanted to see them. Many preferred the art of the eighteenth century, the classics, and these more traditional styles in art were more in favour. It was a question of taste – and politics too – we don’t hide that. But I’ve said a lot about that in the past.
RA: Between 1948 and 1974, did you show paintings from their collections?
IA: We showed some of them – many Renoirs and Monets, Cézannes, Picasso, Matisses.
RA: Were any works forbidden?
IA: You can’t really say that any works were actually forbidden. But part of it was shown and part not. The problems with showing this art were not political – they were problems around artistic form and taste but, overall, it was lack of space that prevented us from showing all of them.
IA: If you had sixteen works by Claude Monet, you could show six, for example – there wasn’t really a political issue around Monet.
RA: And what about around Picasso?
IA: Picasso was the same. You know we don’t have very dangerous Picassos. Shchukin and Morosov stopped buying in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War, so we have Blue Period and Rose Period and early Cubist. Some of the Picassos were on show.
RA: I was impressed by the Pushkin’s new painting galleries in the recently restored mansion next to the original building, which was opened in 2005. These galleries have an intimacy and a great sympathy with the works that extends from the colours of the walls, to the natural light and the size of the rooms. You feel as though you could be in a private house.
IA: We are very happy about this. Now we are engaged in a major expansion of the Pushkin that will triple its current size, because, like all museums in the world, we have many works in store. In our case, however, far too much of our art is in store – sculptures, paintings, and especially antiquities – and that will change. We have been given the nineteenth-century mansions around our site. It is very important that we preserve old Moscow, so we are going to restore them and build a little city of museums in Moscow – that’s our idea at the Pushkin. The government doesn’t give us much money but they have given us these buildings.
RA: When will this expansion process begin?
IA: It is already underway. On 17 December, we are opening new displays of our antiquities collections in the Pushkin’s original building, where we now have more space because of the new buildings we have been given. We are also opening much bigger new displays of the Old Masters upstairs, which will increase the number of paintings on view by a third – with works by artists such as Cranach, Terborch and Van Dyck taken out of store.
RA: When we visited the nineteenth-century painting galleries we were struck that the accompanying texts for the paintings are excellent but they give no details of the provenance of the works – there is no mention that these works were owned by Shchukin and Morosov, for example.
IA: This information is in the catalogue raisonné of the museum. Throughout the whole museum it is like this. We don’t just have works that came from the collections of Shchukin and Morosov, but also works from collectors such as Yussupov, Shuvalov, Ryabushinsky, Sergei Tretyakov (the brother of Pavel, who collected French nineteenth-century art, especially the Barbizon School) Galitsine, Brocard – more than 50 people. There is not a tradition of writing about the collectors who first owned these works in the captions. Maybe it would be a good idea to do this – but if we do it for Shchukin and Morosov, we have to do it for everyone.
RA: Can you tell me something about the origins of the museum?
IA: As I said, it began as a university museum of sculptures and plasters. After the Revolution we made a decision to present world art, to make it a museum of paintings. We nationalised private collections, received donations, did exchanges with the Hermitage, bought a lot and created the collection that it is today.
RA: Can you tell me about the beginning of your long career at the Pushkin?
IA: I entered the museum in 1945, one month before the War ended, after completing my degree in the History of Art at the University of Moscow with a gold medal. My specialty was Italian art of the Renaissance.
RA: I understand you spent a part of your childhood in Germany, while your father was posted there.
IA: Yes, I did, from around the age of seven to ten years old. I learned German. My parents loved art – my mother was a concert pianist who trained at the conservatory. My father was an amateur actor who loved music and theatre and was a friend of the director of the Bolshoi. There were always lots of books, so I learned to read when I was very young. My father was a cultural attaché.
RA: What inspired you to study history of art?
IA: I liked art, and a great friend of mine did her studies in the same faculty and suggested I take a look and I became hooked. I had to take a very difficult exam – the competition was 25 people for one place at a school that was then known as IFLI, the Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History. This was an elite academic centre where many famous writers and thinkers studied. I began my studies in 1940, a year before the War, which started here in 1941. After the War began, they added this institute to the University of Moscow.
RA: What did you do during the War?
IA: I did a degree in nursing. I worked in a Moscow hospital, and I also continued my studies in art history. It was difficult because I studied in the day and had to work at night. I wasn’t right at the front but I saw the face of war in a horrifying way in this hospital because there were truckloads of young men who came straight from the front and needed to be operated on immediately, and of course many then died. It was terrible. I don’t have enough words in French to describe it.
RA: At the end of the war, were you in Germany? There are rumours that you drove tanks through Berlin.
IA: This is a myth, especially since I only learned to drive in 1964. I only went to Berlin many years after the War. People made this up because of the story of the Dresden Picture Gallery, which was transported to the Pushkin after the War as recompense for the damage Germany had inflicted on Russia. I was working in the Pushkin at that time. In 1955, we staged a big exhibition of the paintings from Dresden and after that they were all returned.
RA: In your long and distinguished career, you have witnessed many regime changes in Russia. But since you have remained director for over 40 years, you have somehow managed to survive all the changes.
IA: Like everyone else. As you know, we can’t choose our parents, the countries where we are born or the ideological regimes. Everyone in my country, if they are of my age, has survived. I don’t live in a glass house.
RA: What was it like operating under Stalin and later Soviet regimes?
IA: You know, as I do, that for a long period the ideological conditions were not agreeable for the art world, but we nonetheless succeeded in doing our job. After Perestroika, all of that changed completely. Finally, we could do what we knew professionally needed to be done, without reference to ideology. But the financial conditions changed. Under the Soviet regime, we didn’t receive a large sum but it was constant. The government still helps us; we couldn’t exist without it. But now it is necessary to make more of an effort to work with sponsors. It is another ideology and a new way of working for me and my other museum colleagues and we have to get used to it. We used to just work with the ministry of culture – now we also work with banks and corporations. All of us have had to learn how to work with this new class of very rich people.
RA: Is it very different from working with the Soviet regime?
IA: Under the Soviet Government we found people with whom we could work very well together. For example, when the Mona Lisa came to the Pushkin, it was thanks to help we had from Ekaterina Furtseva, who was then minister of culture. We also organised Paris-Moscow in 1981 before Perestroika. It is not so simple to describe those times. Stalin died in 1953 and life became more encouraging but there were 30 years to go before Perestroika.
RA: What are your favourite works of art?
IA: As an historian of art, if you want to know what is truly the most moving art for me – it is Italian Renaissance art – Piero della Francesca and Mantegna – for me they are fundamental. But for the twentieth century, it’s Matisse and Picasso and also, of course, a Russian – Kandinsky.
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