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Los Angeles Times
July 27, 2003
She works the system
For decades, Irina Antonova cleverly protected the treasures of Moscow's Pushkin State Museum -- and now the world is watching.
By David Holley, Times Staff Writer

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 Joseph 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 State 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 Wassili 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 her country'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 opens today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The exhibit, "Old Masters, Impressionists and Moderns," runs through Oct. 13. It includes some of the finest French art from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, starting with the classical painter Nicolas Poussin.

Other artists on display include Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Paul Czanne, Henri Matisse and Henri Rousseau. Pablo Picasso, who was Spanish, and Vincent Van Gogh, who was Dutch, are represented by works they made in France.

"These are the gems of the museum," said Gregory Guroff, president of the Foundation for International Arts and Education in Bethesda, Md., which helped arrange the tour.

The exhibit, which toured first to Houston and Atlanta, includes 52 paintings that are in the United States for the first time, according to organizers.

"Our goal was primarily to acquaint the American public with our museum," Antonova said. Americans "know the Hermitage quite well, and we wanted to demonstrate that there are other museums besides that."

Antonova said she particularly loves Matisse and Picasso.

"The discoveries of Matisse in the spheres of light and color are astonishing," she said. "He's got this tremendous power of the joy of life about him."

"Matisse had a surprising knack for showing things in a twisted perspective. There is no space there, so the perspective is like in Russian icons," she said, describing "Goldfish," one of the exhibition's star pieces. "At the same time, there's a sense of fluid life, of life changing before our eyes."

Claude Monet's "Boulevard des Capucines," a key work in the history of Impressionism, is also here. The exhibition catalog cites a review by one of Monet's contemporaries, Ernest Chesneau, who viewed the painting at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and praised it yet failed to understand it, considering it unfinished.

" The crowd swarming on the sidewalks, the carriages on the pavement, and the boulevard's trees waving in the dust and light never has movement's elusive, fugitive, instantaneous quality been captured and fixed in all its tremendous fluidity as it has in this extraordinary, marvelous sketch," he wrote.

"At a distance, one hails a masterpiece in this stream of life. But come closer, and it all vanishes. There remains only an indecipherable chaos of palette scrapings. Obviously, this is not the last word It is necessary to go on and to transform the sketch into a finished work."

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 Communist government, form a major part of the Pushkin's French collection and the touring exhibit. More than 20 of the paintings on display in Los Angeles were Shchukin's.

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."

A museum's roots

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, a teaching institution associated with Moscow University.

At first, it focused on a large number of plaster-cast replicas of famous sculptures and monuments. But from the beginning, its founders dreamed of displaying original works. The first big acquisition was a collection of 6,000 ancient Egyptian artifacts purchased in 1909 from a Russian scholar. By the time it was renamed in 1937 to honor the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, the museum also had great European paintings from the 17th to the 19th centuries. These acquisitions gave the Pushkin a particularly strong collection of the works of Rembrandt and other Dutch artists of his era.

The well-maintained museum, not far from the Kremlin in Moscow, is still in the original structure built for it starting in 1898, a classical temple style with an Ionic colonnade along its faade.

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 reemerged 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 U.S. District Court in Los Angeles this month. That suit seeks removal from the show of 25 works once owned by Shchukin and compensation from the museum for damages. The museum described the suit as "without merit" and said the show will proceed as planned.

The State Department, in keeping with standard practice for top-level international shows where there could be ownership disputes, has endorsed legal immunity for the Pushkin paintings while they are in the United States. This is to protect Russia against any attempt by Shchukin's family or other potential claimants to seize the art through the U.S. courts.

"I think it's on perfectly safe legal ground," Guroff said. "At least, none of us is worried about it, nor is Antonova."

Delocque-Fourcaud, speaking before the lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles, said that from time to time "we try to make symbolic acts of harassment, as we did in Rome."

Experts place a value of $3 billion on the works collected by Shchukin and now held by the Pushkin and Hermitage, said Delocque-Fourcaud, director of the National Comic Books and Picture Center in Angouleme.

The family is willing to give up claims to ownership of the paintings, but with conditions, he said. They want the two parts of the Shchukin collection to be reunited at a single Russian museum, with displays that give proper credit to his grandfather, and they are also seeking financial compensation, he said. "Between $3 billion and nothing at all there is a wide field for negotiation."

Antonova confirmed that the museum is getting paid for loaning its paintings, though she declined to say how much. Guroff said that payment to the Pushkin runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Exhibition sponsor Altria Group Inc., formerly Philip Morris Cos., contributed more than $2 million for the tour.

Antonova dismissed the idea that Shchukin's descendants have any legitimate claim to the paintings, given how long ago the Communist 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.

Delocque-Fourcaud expressed unhappiness with the money-making elements of the show, which he called "taking advantage of a Communist act of terrorism to make business with our estate." He noted that paintings, being movable, are different in a practical way from homes, palaces, land and factories.

"Shchukin had a chance to collect not only houses but works of art of such a reputation that they travel to other countries where there was no communist revolution," which allows the claim to be taken to "a democratic court," he said.

No stranger to confrontation

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 Guroff, who describes her as "a first-rate scholar." "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 at the end of World War II.

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 recalled. "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 President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reform policies of the late 1980s.

Antonova maneuvered through such battles not as a dissident but an insider, Guroff noted. "She was a quiet genius of the Soviet system," he explained. "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."

'Old Masters, Impressionists and Moderns:
French Masterworks From the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow'

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday-Sunday: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Wednesdays.
Ends: Oct. 13
Price: $12-$20
Contact: (323) 857-6000

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