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Lorca's grand designs go under the hammer

Ten drawings the poet gave to actress Margarita Xirgu are up for auction

There's no shadow of a doubt when it comes to naming the most popular figures in Spanish culture. Along with that of Pablo Picasso, Federico García Lorca is the name that stands tallest within and beyond our borders, whatever the current reason may be.

And the current reason is no small matter: the auction in Barcelona today, at the Sala Balclis, of 10 costume designs that Lorca personally created for his play The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife, which premiered in 1930 at the Teatro Español in Madrid. They are drawings that symbolize, in a definitive manner, the close friendship between the poet and playwright and his actress of choice, Margarita Xirgu.

As a spokesman for the auction house put it on Tuesday: "Lorca generates a lot of expectation and there has been a huge number of people interested in acquiring the drawings ? institutions as well as individuals, many of them outside of Spain."

The 10 illustrations - eight of women and two of men, and which measure 230 by 175 millimeters - are in keeping with the purest Lorca style, characterized by a simple look highlighted by the use of colored pencils, evocative of a childlike world. Elaborate and filled with detail - despite their simplicity - the drawings incorporate annotations by the author where he explained how he wanted the finished costumes to be. On the one that the star has to wear during the second act, he wrote: "Violent red dress and red rose. No earrings. More full-skirted than the previous dress. A bare arm. Stripe around the neck and belt of a different red." On another, two pieces of sample fabric for making the dress are even attached to the paper with a pin. And there it has stayed, now rusted.

The auction house has managed to reconstruct the story of how the designs were preserved. The duo formed by Xirgu and Lorca starred in some of the biggest theatrical hits of the era. After the premiere of The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife - the story of a young woman in a marriage of convenience to an old shoemaker who is plagued by her gossiping neighbors - the author gave the drawings to the actress. Years later, she then gave them to her brother, a teacher who ended up handing them over to one of his pupils. A son of that pupil was the one who brought them to the auction house to sell. "The family's great love of the theater is noticeable, as the drawings are in an excellent state of preservation," Balclis says.

The most recent forerunner to Thursday's auction is one of four Lorca drawings that took place in Madrid in 2004. They ended up going for 10,000 euros each, which is exactly the starting price the Barcelona auction house has fixed. "Bearing in mind that it is one of the few pictorial collections not in the hands of the Lorca family, it is a good price," it says. The only requirement is that the lot is sold as a whole, costing 100,000 euros in total, so that they continue together, just as Lorca conceived them in his day.

One of the people who has been most captivated by the illustrations is Luis Olmos, the last director to put on The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife in Spain, at the Teatro de la Danza: "They are beautiful; it is much more interesting that they are exhibited, because they are delightful; Lorca painted in a naive and very sensitive manner."

José Monleón, author of Vida y obra de un poeta, as well as other writings on Lorca, and one of the greatest authorities on the theater in Spain, thinks that the drawings are compelling evidence of the poet's popular appeal. "His most important aspect was poetry, but he was also very interested in education, in reaching people and, because those people were a part of his own work, by what his drawings have in a didactic sense, as part of that popular language that he wanted to transmit; if there are people who do not understand him when they read him, these drawings give us another way of transmitting his way of seeing the world and his sensibility. It would be good if these drawings weren't split up."

Julio Huélamo, director of the Center for Theater Documents at the Culture Ministry, and a well-known Lorca expert, says the Lorca phenomenon is so huge that everything that emanates and emerges from it becomes something very significant: "Practically anything related to him, such as these designs, has a big repercussion; these drawings are very important, at the same level as the manuscript of The Public."

On Tuesday night Lluís Pasqual, the first director who brought that posthumously published work to the stage, premiered his production of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba in Naples, from where he commented that he was keeping up with the auction and that the drawings are really of great value: "Federico was a great illustrator, and these provide us with a more complete vision of his art," says the director.

The last actress to play Bernarda de Pasqual in Spain was Núria Espert, who has been compared to Margarita Xirgu many times as both are great defenders of advanced contemporary theater, producers and Lorca exponents. Espert, who is currently performing in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece in Barcelona, says the drawings have to end up at the García Lorca Foundation. "It is there where all the most beautiful things have to be collected, in their innocence, drawings that speak so much of the soul of the poet; any statement of Federico's life that serves as a projection of his lesser-known works enriches a lot; everything that is done to ensure they wind up there seems to me like a gesture of generosity, because it doesn't make sense for them to be in the home of an individual."