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Title: Obituaries

Pages: 81

   

Author: Editorial

Text: 
Obituary

Camille Gray-Prokofieva

When the exhibition Art in Revolution opened at the Hayward Gallery in March 1971, it was the first time since the twenties that the general public had the opportunity to see a representative exhibition of Russian art of the Revolutionary period. Not only the conception of the exhibition, but its actual realisation was due to the enthusiasm and untiring effort of Camilla Gray who died in December on the Black Sea coast. Born in 1936, the daughter of Basil Gray, curator of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, and of Nicolette Gray, author on typography and pioneer in the appreciation and understanding of English twentieth century painting, and granddaughter of the poet Laurence Binyon, she was educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Hammersmith, remaining throughout her life a committed Catholic.
She first went to Russia in 1955 to pursue her interest in the ballet. And upon her return set out to master the Russian language. Meanwhile, her interest in Russian art was growing. Her first article - on Malevich appeared in The Times in 1958.
The greater part of that year she spent in America studying the collections of Russian art in New York and the Yale University Russian material. In 1959 she published an article on El Lissitsky in Typographica. At the time this article appeared, Lissitsky had been almost completely forgotten, and nobody with whom she discussed her theme had even heard of him. She followed this up by preparing the catalogue for an exhibition of the work of Malevich the first in England - at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
In 1960 Camilla returned to Russia where she spent six weeks carrying out research for a book on the modern Russian art movement. Not confining herself to working in museums and libraries, she preferred to make contact with people. For this she had a most remarkable gift and in a very short time she managed to meet and know well an extraordinary number of the people who had been active in the movement. Her visit to Russia was at precisely the right time. A few years earlier it would have been impossible for her as a foreigner to make contact with Soviet citizens, and a few years later many of the characters vital to her story were no longer living.
Following the publication of her pioneering book on the Russian experiment in art in 1962 she received a further contract from her publisher to write a book on Constructivism, and by winning the Leverhulme Scholarship secured the financial assistance to enable her to carry out her work. Her scholarship had, however, to be endorsed by the British Council, who alone can arrange for student status in Russia, and this they would not do because Camilia had no university degree.
In her attempts to discover the motivation behind the work of the artists she met, and to understand the intellectual climate of the Revolutionary years, Camilla came very close to them. Officially condemned during the thirties, these artists had fallen into anonymity and had been much persecuted. Thus it was that Camilla's strong sense of justice led her to feel that she had a mission to fight for the recognition of the true value of their artistic achievement. Her personal fate became increasingly bound up with Russia - almost as an act of faith. After facing years of seemingly hopeless waiting with infinite courage, she was finally permitted by the Soviet authorities to live there and to marry the man she had long loved Oleg Sergeivich Prokofiev. Their daughter Anastasia was born in 1970.
During the two years she spent in Moscow, Camilla proved a stimulating and enlightened companion for those who sought to understand the climate ,of opinion in the rest of Europe from which Soviet Russia had so long been isolated. She also continued to work hard on Art in Revolution. The effort weakened her health: in Britain she had to overcome not only problems of organisation, but misunderstandings. And in the Soviet Union, she faced the official hostility to abstract art.
Camilla Gray's work was not in vain. Her contagious enthusiasm has stimulated others to continue and intensify research into the themes which she pioneered. The value of the Russian contribution to the modern art movement has now been fully recognised in the West. And this reappraisal has forced the subject into the open in the Soviet Union itself. Camilla was herself much heartened by the fact that the Soviet authorities had worked with her on her exhibition - the first time they have cooperated on an exhibition of this kind. In recent years moreover students have been more readily granted access to original material in the Soviet Union, and many of Camilla's friends have been rehabilitated.
John Stuart

 

 

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