Irina Antonova was 85 when she posed behind the actor Jeremy Irons on the back of a motorcycle to promote an exhibition of American art at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow in 2007. “I not only posed, I took a ride to the Lenin Library and back,” she said.
Antonova joined the Pushkin when Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, took charge the year before the Cuban missile crisis and outlasted every leader until Vladimir Putin. Not only was she charming, she outmanoeuvred or trampled everyone in her path.
Through political cunning, populist showmanship and formidable determination “Madame Antonova” turned the Pushkin into one of the world’s great museums. Among its treasures are works by Matisse and Picasso as well as a