Obituary: Oleg Prokofiev
Wednesday 26 August 1998
He had a touching and infectious enthusiasm for the new. Yet his life had not been straightforward, and he went through a series of personal tragedies and losses. The second son of Sergei Prokofiev and the singer Lina Codina, he was born in Paris in 1928. He and his elder brother, Sviatoslav, were often separated from their parents who spent long periods touring the Western world and, increasingly often, Russia.
When in 1936 Prokofiev pere decided to settle back in Moscow, he took his family to a country already in the grip of Stalin's purges. The following years were sombre; Sergei Prokofiev soon left his wife who, unlike him, went through the war years in Moscow, alone with her two sons. In 1948, Lina was arrested by the KGB and sent to Siberia for eight years, so that her sons were left to fend for themselves. In spite of these difficulties, Oleg was highly stimulated by the artistic environment he lived in, and he studied art at the Moscow School of Art from 1944 to 1947.
After a first unsuccessful marriage, he met and married a young British art historian, Camilla Gray, who would later on write a ground-breaking study of Russian avant-garde art, The Great Experiment: Russian art, 1863- 1922 (1962). Tragically, Camilla died after a short illness while pregnant with their second child. Allowed by the Soviet authorities to bring his daughter Anastasia to England, Oleg Prokofiev settled first in Leeds, where he was awarded a fellowship in the Fine Arts Department of Leeds University (from 1972 to 1974) and where he met his third wife, Frances Child. Oleg and Frances had five children, one of whom, their second son Quentin, died of leukaemia while still a young boy.
In spite of these terrible upheavals and even though the legacy left him by his father forced him to relive and recall the past over and over again, Oleg Prokofiev looked and moved forward. Over the past 20 years, he successfully struck a balance in his own life, making his name as an artist, while dedicating a considerable part of his time too to his father's music. The old signature on his paintings, "O. Prokofiev", gave way to "Oleg". He exhibited his wood sculptures and paintings in a number of countries and, most significantly for him, in Moscow last winter. His style was constantly evolving, as a response to the new shapes and lights he discovered in his many journeys to America, Africa and, most recently, India. Some of his poems have also been published.
At the same time, he became increasingly involved in the promotion of his father's work and life, and it is in this capacity that I best knew him. As the curator of the Prokofiev Archive at Goldsmiths' College in London, I was guided, supported and inspired by his profound knowledge of Sergei Prokofiev's music, and also that of musical life in Soviet Russia.
He often appeared on television and radio, the last time being on Radio 3 for the performance of his father's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution at this year's Proms. It was however behind the scenes that he was most active. He kept a huge correspondence with artists, musicologists, performers and film directors working on Prokofiev and Soviet music. Deeply modest, he would always make time for anyone genuinely interested in his father's music. I shall never forget the fascinating presentation he gave at Goldsmiths' in a lecture room packed with first- year undergraduates. For more than two hours, recollections and critical arguments alternated with humorous impersonations of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
On another occasion I invited him to the Prokofiev Archive to sign copies of a book he had translated and edited in 1991, Sergei Prokofiev, Soviet Diary 1927. For three hours, he spoke to undergraduates, postgraduates and lecturers alike, inspiring and delighting them with his testimony, enthusiasm and accessibility.
Just as his father had spent years of his emigre life promoting the music of many contemporary Soviet composers, Oleg Prokofiev helped and patronised a great number of Russian artists in this country. "He was a man I saw little of," said one young Russian artist to me, "but every time we met, he gave a new dimension to my life over here, to the life of so many creative people."
Oleg Sergevich Prokofiev, painter and sculptor: born Paris 14 December 1928; married first Sofia Koravina (one son; marriage dissolved), 1969 Camilla Gray (died 1971; one daughter), 1974 Frances Child (two sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Alderney, Channel Islands 20 August 1998.
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