Dostoevsky’s Drawings and Calligraphy

by Konstantin Barsht

The Drawings and Calligraphy of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Bergamo: Lemma Press, 2016) is an updated, deluxe edition of my earlier work, available for the first time in English (and Italian as well as Russian). It features numerous examples of Dostoevsky’s graphic heritage, including more than 100 portraits, several hundred Gothic architectural drawings, more than 1,000 calligraphic writings, and other forms of ideography. Based on extensive research, this volume asserts that this large body of graphic material forms part of Dostoevsky’s creative process, enabling him to move from image to word as he realized his literary ideas.

310_110The volume begins with the peculiarities of Dostoevsky’s education, namely his training at the Military Engineering Academy: the method of drawing he learned there became the foundation for creating his literary images.  Significantly, Dostoevsky’s drawings include portraits of the historical figures, literary colleagues, and relatives whom he thought about while writing: Peter the Great, Vissarion Belinsky, Ivan Turgenev, Viktor Askochensky, Mikhail Cervantes, Voltaire, F. P. Haase, William Shakespeare, Roger Tichborne, Germaine de Stael, Tikhon of Zadonsk, Timofey Granovsky, Napoleon Bonaparte I, Gioachino Rossini, Mikhail Dostoevsky (his older brother) and Mikhail’s wife Emilia Fyodorovna, Dostoevsky’s own young son, Fyodor.  All portraits are identified in the Lemma Press volume, which also includes some self-portraits.

Chapter 3 describes the way Dostoevsky portrays characters in the novels Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, A Raw Youth, and The Brothers Karamazov. A special chapter analyzing the interaction between words and images in Dostoevsky’s creative process discusses Dostoevsky’s fascination with physiognomy, properties of portraiture in verbal and figurative art, elements of gothic architecture, his “penmanship,” and features of narrative form and narrative ekphrasis in his work. The book includes an index of names, geographical locations, and Dostoevsky’s works, as well as 202 pages of high-quality facsimiles featuring the drawings in Dostoevsky’s manuscripts.

Ideography, a key component of Dostoevsky’s creative notebooks, vividly captures many changes in the external and internal conditions of the writer’s life.  Most importantly, his ideography provides an extremely precise and productive source of information about his creative process. The volume holds that Dostoevsky’s works can be studied only by consistently and systematically analyzing all the texts and languages involved in his fictional process. Far from being an offshoot of Dostoevsky’s world, the drawings he made during his writing can be seen as a cardinal axis along which he crafted the desired artistic form. It shows that the texts of Dostoevsky’s draft manuscripts were not written in a single textual language accompanied by drawings, but in several languages that form a complex hybrid of textual-graphic languages and ideography. Within the framework of this new understanding, all drawings and notations, all signs in Dostoevsky’s manuscripts, irrespective of their intelligibility or external aesthetic, are fundamentally of equal importance for his art.

When looking at these portraits, examining the ornamental Gothic compositions, or reading Dostoevsky’s polished calligraphy, readers can feel the intense mental struggle of feelings and ideas which drove the writer’s process of “contemplation with pen in hand” that then flowed out onto the pages of his novels – a glimpse into the Holy of Holies of Dostoevsky’s creative consciousness. This experience allows us to view his artistic world “from within,” in direct, visible form, just the way he created it. Although Dostoevsky was capable of more artistically successful drawings, he had no time to draw better: his thought moved swiftly alongside his graphic art and through it to artistic form. The image1ingenious novels that Dostoevsky created through the medium of these sketches – Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, A Raw Youth and Brothers Karamazov – offer sufficient grounds for us to forgive the novelist for not completing some of his graphic sketches. The discovery of the world of images created by Dostoevsky’s hand helps us to better understand his works and to more profoundly assimilate the universal values found in them. Although separated from us by many decades, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky as writer and artist moves closer to us as we immerse ourselves in his graphic productions. At the same time, our ability to approach this classic writer of Russian and world literature as well as his works, makes it possible for us to understand ourselves better. This is why we should read Dostoevsky’s “graphic words” in the language in which they were written.


Konstantin Barsht is a Professor and Leading Research Fellow at the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has published more than 232 books and articles, including the following books on Dostoevsky’s work: The Story of the Timeless (about Dostoevsky’s Demons) (St Petersburg, 1994), Drawings in Dostoevsky’s Manuscripts (St Petersburg, 1996), and F. M. Dostoevsky’s Drawings. Catalogue, which appeared as vol. 17 of The Complete Works of F. M. Dostoevsky (Moscow, 2005). You can reach him on email at konstantin_barsht (at) pushdom (dot) ru.

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