University of Toronto professor Kate Holland asked her SLA314 Dostoevsky undergraduate students to visit the Robarts Library exhibit Crime and Punishment at 150: Global Contexts and write up their reflections on one exhibit item. Their writing, collected here, reflects not only the global spread of Dostoevsky’s influence, but also the diversity of media used to engage with his 1866 novel. To learn more about the exhibit, read curator and Toronto PhD student Barnabas Kirk’s blog post from last month.
Piotr Dumala’s Zbrodnia i Kara
Zbrodnia i Kara, the short animated film released by Polish filmmaker Piotr Dumala in 2000, is a provocative contribution to the canon of artistic works inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Avoiding a linear retelling of the novel, the plaster-scratch animation instead enhances specific themes from the story, all drenched in the sinister atmosphere created so masterfully by Dumala through his unique artistic process. Hazy pictures fading into darkness, cloud-muffled visions of the city, and faces marked by shining feverish eyes do an excellent job of portraying the world seen through Raskolnikov’s tortured mental state. The detective story takes on an aspect of horror through the eerie piano score, grotesque images of insects, grubs and flies that fester under ground and behind walls. There is the mysterious figure of the old man who peers out of windows and through keyholes, who, according to one’s interpretation, could be Svidrigailov, the malicious Luzhin, or Dostoevsky himself, spying on his characters actions. The redemptive relationship between Sonia and Raskolnikov is whittled down to the offer of an extended hand and the smile on Sonia’s beautiful, understanding face.
In its visual form, the story is stripped of much of its philosophical discussion of man, God, and morality, leaving instead the impression of three characters alone and unable to connect. Despite the fact that together they occupy the claustrophobic and hostile environs of the city depicted in the film, each is restricted to their own solitary struggle; Raskolnikov and his schismatic need for greatness but also for love; Sonia’s tightrope existence of a pure soul consigned to prostitution; the old man’s attraction to both life and oblivion through suicide. By distilling the much broader scope of Crime and Punishment down to these essences, Dumala manages to tie the great ideological struggle of Dostoevsky’s characters to that central problem of humankind; needing, but never achieving, perfect understanding and connection to another.
Mikhail Chemiakin’s Illustrations of Crime and Punishment
Chemiakin’s illustrations captivated me foremost because of their unique, discomforting style, and further because of the parallels between Chemiakin’s and Dostoevsky’s lives. Both artists were political exiles who rebelled against the Russian intelligentsia of their respective eras. Chemiakin refused to conform to socialist realism, the official artistic doctrine of the USSR that went virtually unchallenged until Stalin’s death in 1953.[i] Instead, he created his own philosophy, metaphysical synthesism, “dedicated to the creation of a new form of icon painting based on the study of religious art of all ages and peoples.”[ii] His emphasis on religious iconography and symbolism is apparent in the first illustration of the exhibit. Crosses placed in the windowpanes, as well as a skull and axe reflected in water, juxtapose traditional Christian symbols of redemption with murder. In the second illustration, Porfiry’s interrogation of Raskolnikov is depicted, and features a large question mark in the foreground. This overt symbol recalls the second-guessing of each character’s motives, Raskolnikov’s own propensity to self-scrutinise, as well as the main interpretive crux of the novel, that is, the motivation for committing the murder. Chemiakin’s use of colour is also symbolic, mirroring Dostoevsky. The viewer is drawn toward the centre of the first image, as it is rendered in colour rather than the dull grey surrounding it. Raskolnikov’s room is a sickly yellow, and in the bottom right corner is Sonia, cleverly linked with Raskolnikov via the top of her blonde head, and at a direct diagonal with his gaze. The yellow marks each as contaminated with sin, but also implicates them in a shared spiritual destiny; conversely, the green space in the uppermost corner is the distant possibility of redemption.
Crime and Punishment in the ‘Graphic Canon’ by Kako and edited by Russ Kick
Crime and Punishment in the ‘Graphic Canon’ is a visually mesmerizing piece in its depiction of Raskolnikov’s violent murder of Alyona Ivanovna. What I found most interesting about the piece is that Kako offers a unique twist on the Dostoevskian classic with his inserts of the horse slaughtered senselessly in Raskolnikov’s dream during the act of murder. So not only does Kako convey Raskolnikov’s intense subjectivity through thought bubbles but with a visual accompaniment of the slaughtered horse that articulates Raskolnikov’s unstable dream state. Readers of Dostoevsky understand that fantasy has a massive influence in developing Raskolnikov’s drive towards murder. But as the inserts of the horse suggest, Raskolnikov goes through with the murder in a frantic, desperate manner as opposed to the well-executed, clean manner that he envisioned. In his rich interplay of fantasy and reality, Kako demonstrates that he is well-informed about Crime and Punishment and successfully offers a dynamic interpretation of the Dostoevskian classic.
Kako’s piece on Crime and Punishment is found within Volume Two of the ‘Graphic Canon’ series. The ‘Graphic Canon’ series is a set of graphic interpretations of other classic literary works across various time periods and locations, spanning three volumes. The series as a whole emphasizes a dynamic re-imagination of classic literary works as opposed to “a literal interpretation of the text in the pictures.”[iii] The ‘Graphic Canon’ project serves as a confirmation to the lasting influence of Crime and Punishment, not only through literature but also in alternative forms of media like comics, movies, and music. Crime and Punishment can be appreciated by individuals of varying statuses, hence the universal appeal. Simply put, Crime and Punishment transcends literature and its interpretations spread across all kinds of art.
Batman and Crime and Punishment
Robert Sikoryak’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment (C&P) is perhaps the most interesting item in the exhibit. It is a parody of Dostoevsky’s work which is a fitting concept since Dostoevsky himself parodied various works. Sikoryak cleverly connects Batman and C&P in two ways. First, he bridges the characters on an artistic level by illustrating Raskol as a hybrid between Batman, the masked hero, and Raskolnikov, the axe murderer. Alyona also looks strikingly similar to the the Joker.[iv]
On a narrative level, Batman and Raskolnikov are quite similar. For instance, both are suffering from an ethical dilemma due to their utilitarian view of life. Specifically, they contemplate who gets to die for the sake of everyone. In this case, Batman is conflicted about whether or not he should kill the Joker whereas Raskolnikov finds justifications to murder Alyona. Furthermore, both characters are ordinary humans; they have limitations and dilemmas which Superman is immune to.[v] Despite their similarities, Batman is unable to kill his enemies, claiming that doing so would bring him to a level of a murderer.[vi] Ultimately, the synthesis between the two allows the parallel novels to intersect into one literary work.
One personal critique however, is Sikoryak’s failure to illustrate the window scene during the murder. The scene is quite significant because of the great contrast Dostoevsky depicts: the darkness of Alyona’s room versus the bright outside. This suggests the importance of setting and the restricting and isolating effects of a room. However, it seems that Sikoryak compensates for this by superimposing the murder scene with a target background. Alyona’s head is just outside the bull’s eye, suggesting that Raskol’s carefully planned murder is not going to work out. This is evident as Raskolnikov murders Lizaveta and ends up feeling guilty for his crime. While Sikoryak’s version has less depth than C&P, it nonetheless provides a great step to introducing Dostoevsky to people because it combines pulp fiction with high art, similar to what Dostoevsky depicted in Poor Folk.
Prestuplenie i Nakazanie by Edison Denisov
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment has inspired many authors and artists over the last century and a half, with numerous plays, movies and novels commemorating this renowned work of literature. Dostoyevsky’s presence in music, however, is far more scarce, thus making Edison Denisov’s Prestuplenie i Nakazanie an interesting work of art to analyse. Denisov, a famous Soviet composer wrote the first musical adaptation of Crime and Punishment in 1977, which was meant to accompany Yuri P. Lyubimov’s theatrical production at the Taganka Theater. While maintaining a close relationship to the novel and musically reflecting key plot elements, Denisov’s Prestuplenie i Nakazanie is a prime example of post-Shostakovich Soviet music. The combination of rhythmic ambiguity, jarring dissonance and brief passages of classical tonality make this composition a noteworthy example of the aforementioned genre, as opposed to being a mere theatrical accompaniment.[vii]
The piece itself is split into seven movements, and composed for mixed choir, celesta and percussion. Denisov favoured musical freedom above all compositional styles, and despite his piece being riddled with atonality, he rejected the twelve-tone row technique promulgated by the Second Viennese School of music, opting for a disjointed series of notes that were not subjugated to any rules of repetition.[viii] This technique gives Denisov’s work a sense of suspended fragmentation, alluding to Raskolnikov’s frenzied state of mind throughout the novel. This sense of disunity is found mainly in the movements featuring solo celesta with percussion accompaniment. The remaining four movements feature the choir, which sings tonal harmonies set to Eastern Orthodox liturgy. This measured shift from dissonance to more traditional tonality represents Raskolnikov’s gradual spiritual transition. The final movement was meant to embody Sonia, Raskolnikov’s confessor, and has the female choir sing Oh Gladsome Light, an ancient Christian hymn directly referencing God’s grace as a redeemer.[ix] Denisov’s work is highly teleological in nature; the harmonies, melodies, phrasing and textual setting all lead to the symbolic and triumphant seventh movement that ends in C major, a key considered to represent simplicity and purity, thus demonstrating Raskolnikov’s redemption.
The virtual exhibit continues with a second group of students’ posts here: A Virtual Visit to the Robarts Library, part 2.
Crime and Punishment at 150: Global Contexts was on display at the Robarts Library in Toronto in the fall of 2016. It was co-curated by Ksenya Kiebuzinski, Barnabas Kirk, and Kate Holland. The exhibit was part of the 2016 global outreach program Crime and Punishment at 150. For more information, visit the CP150 project website.
[i] Elizabeth Rogers. “Socialist Realism.” The School of Russian and Asian Studies, 28 Feb. 2012
[ii] Maria Gadas. “Mikhail Shemyakin: Royal, Religious, Artistic.” Journal Desillusionist.
[iii] Calvin Reid. “Graphic Canon: Comics Meet the Classics”. Publisher’s Weekly. Feb 3 2012.
[iv] Richard Bruton. “Robert Sikoryak’s Aptly Named Masterpiece Comics.” Forbidden Planet Blog. Comics, Reviews, 02 Aug. 2013.
[v] Peter Bebergal. “A Talk with Robert Arp and Mark D. White What Batman Teaches Us about Philosophy.” Boston.com. The New York Times, 13 July 2008.
[vi] Steve Brie and William T. Rossiter. “Spandex Parables.” Literature and Ethics: From the Green Knight to the Dark Knight. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010, p. 210.
[vii] Kholopov, Y. N. Edison Denisov: The Russian Voice in European New Music (Berlin: Kuhn, 2002), 154.
[viii] Kuprovskaia-Denisova, Ekaterina. Edison Denisov: Compositeur De La Lumière (Paris: Centre De Documentation Sur La Musique Contemporaine, 2011), 75.
[ix] Kholopov, Edison Denisov, 172.