MOSCOW — Irina A. Antonova, a commanding art historian who led the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow for more than a half-century, used it to bring outside culture to isolated Soviet citizens and turned it into a major cultural institution, died on Monday in that city. She was 98.
The cause was heart failure complicated by a coronavirus infection, the museum said.
Ms. Antonova steered the museum through the rigid and isolationist cultural policies of the Soviet Union and into the period following the fall of Communism. In recent years she expanded the museum to adjacent buildings — sometimes angering their tenants — to accommodate mushrooming exhibitions.
From early on, Ms. Antonova used her inexhaustible energy to build connections with the world’s leading museums. In 1974, she brought the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris. Hundreds of thousands of people lined up to see it, the only queues the Soviet government was proud of at the time. Many knew that with the country’s borders shut, it might be the sole opportunity to see that famous Leonardo da Vinci work during their lifetimes.
She further opened the world to the Soviet people with an exhibition of 100 paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamen.”
On Ms. Antonova’s watch, the Pushkin museum also exhibited abstract and avant-garde works by Russian and international artists. That was generally unimaginable in a country where an unofficial art show was once broken up with the help of a bulldozer, and whose leader at the time, Nikita S. Khrushchev, while visiting an exhibition of new Soviet art in 1962, shouted that some abstract paintings were made with a “donkey’s tail” and that even his grandson could do better.
In 1981, the museum hosted “Moscow-Paris, 1900-1930,” a landmark exhibition that mixed works by French artists like Matisse and Picasso with highlights of the Russian avant-garde of the time, including works by Chagall, Malevich and Kandinsky. The exhibition showed how well Russian artists fit in with Western European trends, and how they had sometimes helped form those trends.
Thanks to her Bolshevik father, Ms. Antonova had a pedigree that made it easier for her to negotiate with Soviet cultural bureaucrats. Using her charm and wit, she was able to transform what was still largely a collection of plaster casts of famous statues into a comprehensive museum worthy of a major capital.
“We were allowed to do things that were never allowed in other places,” Ms. Antonova said in a documentary film dedicated to the museum’s 100th anniversary. “It was very easy to ban. They didn’t even have to do much, while we were still allowed to do something.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she continued her quest of bringing Russia closer to the outside world with exhibitions of works by Joseph Beuys and Alberto Giacometti, among others.
She also moved to uncover art treasures that had been seized by the Soviet Army in Germany during World War II and hidden in the museum’s depositaries. Critics faulted her for moving slowly and even for failing to acknowledge their existence. But Ms. Antonova argued that it would have been impossible to act during the Soviet period.
In a message of condolence upon her death, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said Ms. Antonova deserved professional and public acclaim, having “served Russian culture with inspiration” as a “devoted expert, enthusiast and educator.”
Irina Aleksandrovna Antonova was born in Moscow on March 20, 1922. Her father, Aleksandr A. Antonov, was an electrician who became the head of a research institute; her mother, Ida M. Heifits, worked in a printing house.
Irina moved with her family to Germany in 1929 when her father was sent to work at the Soviet Embassy. She lived there for four years, learning German and acquiring a taste for European culture.
During the war, she trained as a nurse and cared for Soviet pilots, many of them severely injured, in Moscow hospitals.
She graduated from Moscow State University and was sent to work at the Pushkin museum shortly before the war ended. The museum was founded in 1912 by wealthy merchants; when she arrived, the building had no heating, and its glass roof had collapsed during bombings.
Olga L. Sviblova, a friend and director of the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow, said in an interview that Ms. Antonova had brought to the museum “a deep conviction that culture and art have no borders: temporary, geographical, national.”
“She defended these convictions under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and during the 30 years that she lived and worked in new Russia,” Ms. Sviblova added.
In 1961, Ms. Antonova became the first woman appointed director of the museum. She held that post until 2013, when she was named its president and gave up day-to-day administration to concentrate on strategic development. Her overall tenure in various roles spanned 75 years.
During the Soviet era, Ms. Antonova had been lucky to be allowed to travel, but she said that she sometimes cried when leaving a culturally rich Italian city, knowing that it might be her last time there.
In those years, together with the acclaimed Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter, Ms. Antonova began hosting a series of concerts inside the museum’s expansive halls every December. The concerts, called December Evenings, remain some of the most sought-after performances in Moscow.
Her husband, the art historian Yevsey I. Rotenberg, died in 2011. She is survived by her son, Boris.
She was succeeded as museum director by Marina D. Loshak, who said, “It is hard to imagine the Pushkin museum without Irina Antonova.”