“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.