Three Tragedies
By Federico Garcia Lorca
Illustration by Alvin Lustig
New Directions, New York, 1955

Alvin Lustig (1915-1955) crowded an astonishing body of work into a tragically short career, which ended in blindness. Beginning with an unhappy spell in the architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s office, he went on to become a hugely influential designer in many fields. Projects ranged from interiors and furniture to typefaces and, most famously, book covers. He was even responsible for creating a mini-helicopter.

In 1941 Lustig was employed to design jackets for the American firm New Directions, which published a series of contemporary classics. He began with a modernist geometric cover for Henry Miller’s The Wisdom of the Heart. But it is a sign of his versatility that the Lorca jacket reveals more of a debt to the surrealist dream-symbolism of Max Ernst. A full moon and foamy waves sit above a band of sand. Lorca’s name is inscribed on a beach. Below, a large “3” appears. The word “tragedies” runs across an ominous black background. Each of the three plays contained within – Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba – is the tragedy of a family smashed by the waves of tradition. The cover’s lines in the sand suggest a temporary gesture against the inevitable.

Lustig’s 1947 design for the hardback had featured another panel with a crucifix. Perhaps the religious symbolism was seen as off-putting: for the paperback it was gone.

Lustig’s covers were credited with tripling sales of serious literary fiction by New Directions, so much so that the publisher, James Laughlin, expressed reservations about readers judging the book too much by the cover. He thought it sad that Lustig hadn’t become a painter: “his designs must live in hiding on the sides of books”. I would say, rather, that his work attained an exposure and longevity it otherwise would not have had. Thousands of his works are still available.

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