Chapter 12 Spain

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Carmen Cañete Quesada
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Helios Gómez (1905–1956). Activism, Resistance, and Struggles of a Left-Wing Gitano Artist


The revindication and inclusion of Spanish Gypsies or Gitanos in civil life has been a constant feature in Spain’s history since their settlement in the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century. In the context of the interwar period, which is the focus of this volume, Gitano attempts at achieving equality have manifested in various ways. One possible path was the initiative of Colegio Gitano, a primary school proposed by the members of the poor Gypsy quarter of Triana (Seville) during Spain’s democratic Second Republic (1931–1939) (Chilla, 2018). Another avenue was professing religious faith, like Ceferino Giménez Malla or Emilia Fernández Rodríguez, both victims of the Spanish Civil War, subsequently beatified by the Catholic Church. Other left-wing Gitanos, such as anarcho-syndicalist Mariano Rodríguez Vázquez, or the subject of this essay, Helios Gómez Rodríguez, played an active role in representing the Spanish Gypsies for the rehabilitation of justice. Either from an educational, religious or political approach, these Gitanos sought a path that they believed would best advance the acknowledgement and integration of their ethnic group in Spain’s nation-building process.

Capturing in a few pages Helios Gómez’s convoluted life vis-à-vis his prolific artistic trajectory, with all the twists, turns, and intrigue that these experiences entailed, is a complex, if not hopeless, endeavor. With this in mind, this portrait approaches some of the struggles of an engaged artist, whose story is shaped in large part by his adherence to progressive affiliations acknowledging the poor, the proletariat, the Gypsy, and other marginal groups in Spain. It is precisely Gómez’s manifold marginalities as a working-class artist, as a Gitano, always struggling against the tide as a militant, that makes this figure so relevant to modern discourses of race and national identity. Born and raised in the poor, rural region of Andalusia, he found a space to express his social, ethnic and political claims as a painter, as a writer, and as a revolutionary.

Along with illustrating this riveting case to the English-speaking reader, the following pages look into these aspects of Gómez’s life and work. While the revolutionary movements that this artist took part in emerged from an ongoing class-based fight of oppressed groups, he enjoined to this cause his advocacy for the Gitano people, whose degree of marginality was double or triple that of any other underrepresented sectors of society. I am here revisiting several episodes of Gómez’s activism, his struggles as an advocate for underrepresented groups in Spain, and his capacity for resilience, all of which were expressed through his artistic representation of the oppressed.

Considering his extraordinary trajectory, it is enticing to underline the stunning qualities of this charismatic figure while shunning obscure episodes that could put into question the artist’s integrity. Some of those ambiguities in his biography have been brought here intentionally. They reveal the most vulnerable side of the artist. They also illustrate his pitfalls and flaws along the way; and they envisage Gómez’s iconoclast temperament, his ideological discrepancies and strong political beliefs that took him to live as a permanent fugitive.

The information has been organised in two parts. The first provides a biographical account of the most significant aspects of Gómez’s trajectory as a left-wing militant. In an attempt to make this figure more accessible to a broad audience, the portrait offers a revisionist narrative of Gómez’s accounts that could be more appealing to an international reader. The second part is less factual and more analytical. It explores Gómez’s self-expression as a Gitano artist, which is commonly in dialogue with his revolutionary convictions. It also illustrates avenues of research regarding the artist’s representation of a Spanish ethnicity, and his efforts to incorporate the Gypsy in the revolutionary cause.

Helios: The Militant

Gómez’s origins are fundamental in understanding the artist’s course of political action in advocacy of the marginal subject. Gómez’s son, Gabriel Gómez Plana, tracks the artist’s life-course in his recent memoirs Un gitanillo en la Ciudad de los Muchachos (A Little Gypsy in the Boys Town) (Gómez Plana, 2020). The artist was born on May 22, 1905, in the province of Seville, the capital of Spain’s Southern region of Andalusia. He was the oldest son of a large family with seven siblings, four brothers and three sisters. His father, Juan Gómez Sánchez, was from Jerez de los Caballeros, a small rural town located in Badajoz (Extremadura). He and his wife, Justina Rodríguez Naharro, originally from another town in Badajoz, Talavera la Real, migrated to the city of Seville and settled first in the historic center of the town, where their first son Helios was born (Ibid., 2020, p. 136). The family moved soon after to Triana, a Sevillian district located on the other side of the Guadalquivir river, and largely populated with Gitanos at the time.

The artist’s son tells of his paternal grandfather working in the cork industry while in Jerez de los Caballeros, his role as secretary of the General Association of the Cork, and his social mobility years after they moved to the Andalusian capital, working as secretary of Camas City Hall (Ibid., 2020, p. 136). Other sources highlight the artist’s father’s activism. Pedro G. Romero describes him as a ‘agitador sindicalista’ (syndicalist agitator) and underscores him being one of the first militants in Seville of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) (Romero, 2010, p. 26). In El socialismo en Sevilla (The Socialism in Seville), Ángeles González Fernández points out Gómez’s father’s association with the masonic lodges ‘Tierra y Libertad’ (Land and Freedom) and ‘Perseverancia’ (Perseverance) (González Fernández, 1996, p. 290).

Gómez grew in this trade union environment, raising awareness of the social fight on the side of the proletariat at a very early age. According to Gómez Plana, the young artist used to work crops during his adolescence, collecting cotton and olives as a day laborer (Gómez Plana, 2020, p. 137). He was employed “as an apprentice, first in the Triana pottery workshops and later as an assistant ceramics painter in the Cartuja de Sevilla, an important ceramics factory of the period with a great deal of trade union activity and as a student of Fine Arts on a night course at the Escuela Industrial de Artes y Oficios” (Romero, 1998, p. 241). His influential relationship with Felipe Alaiz, journalist and director of the anarchist newspaper Solidaridad Obrera (Workers’ Solidarity) led him to join the labor union, Confederación Nacional del Trabajo – CNT (National Confederation of Labor) (Ibid.).

Thanks to the scholarship of Ursula Tjaden (1996, 1998) and Pedro García Romero (1998, 1999, 2004, 2010, 2016), it is possible to envision the artist’s earlier years as an eager anarcho-syndicalist. We learn about his former works being exhibited (Seville, Madrid, and Barcelona), from his self-directed encounter with avant-garde currents, his run-ins with the authorities, including recurrent absences from his home-town, to his fleeing from Spain and turning up in other parts of Europe (Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna, Moscow, Berlin), where he left a significant artistic legacy. Following this intense activity during his formative stage, over the course of the subsequent twenty-five years, from when he started Días de ira (Days of Rage) as an exile in 1929, until he completed the Capilla gitana (Gypsy Chapel) as an inmate in 1954, Gómez’s intricate episodes in life strain credulity. His most significant sketches were published under extreme circumstances: The collection of graphics and poems Días de ira (1930) in Berlin, during Miguel Primo de Rivera’s regime; the second album of graphics, Revolución española (Spanish Revolution) (1933) from Stalinist Moscow; and Viva Octubre: dessins sur la révolution espagnole (Long Live October: Drawings of the Spanish Revolution) (1934), during his exile in Brussels, under the Black Biennium of Spain’s Second Republic. Throughout these years, and due to his long fight against right-wing totalitarian regimes, he fluctuated between anarchist and communist groups, perhaps in search of an answer for a more effective revolution, but perhaps, also, moved by an urgency for a change in the structures of power.

In July, 1930, after ten dutiful years given to the anarcho-syndicalist movement, Gómez expressed publicly his “rectification in the revolutionary methodology” (Gómez, 1996, p. 207). The title of that manifesto was Por qué me marcho del anarquismo (Why I Am Leaving Anarchism). The language there employed could not be more blunt. Anarchism, in the artist’s view, was submerged in the past, fossilised. He denounced the inability of their leaders to bring about broad revolutionary action, their lack of disciplined organisation, and their excess of demagogy. Gómez concluded his assessment proposing a solution to the proletarian fight: “There is no other way out. The ones who do not come with Communism, regardless their ideological language, will end up, sooner or later, in the ranks of Fascism” (Gómez, 1996, p. 212).

With this belief the visionary militant left behind his long-time ties with the anarchist labor union CNT, and his affiliation with the anarcho-syndicalists from the Asociación Internacional de los Trabajadores – AIT (International Workers’ Association). The latter had edited Días de ira with a prologue by Romain Rolland, Nobel literature laureate and secretary of the AIT. Paradoxically, it was precisely when Gómez renounced on his convictions as an anarchist that Días de ira came to light endorsed by his former comrades, as Rolland’s quote illustrates: “Our comrade HELIOS GÓMEZ, who has done this work to the memory of his companion in arms, has taken direct part in the battles of the Spanish proletariat” (Tjaden, 1996, p. 96).

Gómez’s switches and fluctuations evidence the complexity of relations between left-wing forces whose common and main mission –confronting the spread of Fascism– did not hinder them from challenging each other’s ideas and opinions. This explains why Gómez was accused equally of being either a Stalinist or a Trotskyist by liberal groups associated with him, and in conflict with those particular dogmas. Blamed for following the doctrines of Moscow, he was promptly expelled from the Bloc Obrer i Camperol – BOC (Workers and Peasants’ Bloc), a group which emerged as an alternative to the more radical Federación Comunista Catalano-Balear (Catalan-Balearic Communist Federation) and the Partido Comunista Español – PCE (Spanish Communist Party). Conversely, after joining the PCE in Madrid, he was accused of being Trotskyist for expressing his misgivings at the IV Congress of the Communist Party in Seville, in 1932 (Romero, 2016, p. 103; Sierra, 2019, p. 36).

The first months of 1932 were a very proactive but also challenging period for the artist. As well as participating in the PCE Congress in Seville, he collaborated with the communist newspaper Mundo Obrero (‘Workers World’) and exhibited his paintings at the Ateneo in Madrid. He also delivered a lecture titled ‘Bourgeois Art and Proletarian Art’ (Tjadem, 1996, pp. 76–77). At the beginning of May, soon after these pro-soviet activities, he was arrested in the capital and sent to prison in Jaén (Ibid.). The situation becomes even more enthralling when we connect Gómez’s Communist fervor with his affair with Irene (Ira) Weber, a German woman of Russian heritage whom the artist met in Brussels through the labor lawyer and treasurer of the Belgian Communist Party, Jean Fonteyne. The daily newspaper Luz: Diario de la República (Light: Journal of the Republic) reported Weber being arrested in Madrid and sent to Barcelona on May 31, 1932, for disseminating Communist propaganda (Luz, 1932, p. 1). The newspaper Ahora (Now) followed the track of Gomez’s partner, who was expelled from the country two days after her arrest in Madrid, opening the possibility of her return only after she was legally married (Ahora, 1932, p. 8; Luz, 1932, p. 8).

The most striking part of these series of unfortunate episodes (the artist’s persecution and his partner expulsion) is that they took place in the democratic government right after the proclamation of the Spanish Second Republic in April 1931, which was enthusiastically supported by the anti-fascist groups. In a letter dated June 1932 to Belgium writer Max Deauville, author of the book Rien qu’un homme (Just a Man) that Gómez illustrated, the Gypsy artist described with moral indignation the hostile political climate:

For me, this year of Spanish ‘Democracy’ has been, perhaps, the most terrible of my life; a year of fighting against enemies without nobility who hide their aggressions treacherously behind the democratic mask, people who, having enjoyed their prior relationship with us, know our paths and thus wait to stab us in our backs in an unavenged trap. (Gómez Plana, 2020, pp. 151–152).

He also denounced Weber’s charges for not being legally married, which implied a double standard on the part of the Republic regarding gender equality. Precisely for that reason, perhaps as a rebellious act or as a response to the intransigence of the Spanish authorities, the couple would never change its civil status.

The Soviet experience was a peak moment in Gómez’s trajectory as a communist militant. The artist had already exhibited his paintings in USSR for two months, during his first visit in 1928. Years later, between 1932 and 1934, he gained first-hand knowledge of the Soviet model. During his sentence in Jaén, Gómez received a letter from USSR to participate in the International Congress of Proletarian Artists, celebrated in Leningrad by the International Bureau of Revolutionary Artists and the Soviet Artists Union (Gómez Plana, 2020, p. 151). This invitation was possible thanks to his friends Gerd Arntz and Peter Alma, who were working in Moscow, and to his father, who intervened for him to be released on bail (Ibid.). After an interval of a few months in Brussels, between June and October, Gómez and Weber reached the USSR and remained in this country until February, 1934, when he returns to Barcelona. In the Soviet Union Gómez lived in Moscow, travelled to Leningrad (today St Petersburg) and Siberia, exhibited at the Pushkin Museum in 1933, and the State Art Publishing House published the abovementioned Revolution española (Associació Cultural Helios Gómez, 2021).

The artist’s Bolshevik adherence is, perhaps, the most captivating episode of his winding yet fascinating biography, rich in incongruences and inscrutabilities. Upon his return from USSR, Gómez illustrated a Bolshevik dream land in ten reports that appeared periodically in the Republican newspaper La Rambla (The Rambla), between July 23rd and October 1st of 1934. These reports, written in Catalan under the headline of La vida a la URSS: 2 anys entre els bolxeviks (USSR Lifestyle: 2 Years Among Bolsheviks), were interrupted by a further detention of the artist during the so-called ‘bienio negro’ (black biennium). Gómez’s idealisation of the Soviet project should be interpreted as a hope for a revolution of the same competence in his hometown. The artist contemplates the Muscovites that he sees in clubs, theaters and factories as optimistic people, with “risas sanas y francas” (healthy and frank laughs), as if their laughs had also been collectivised (Sierra, 2019, p. 38). The report praised the Socialist economic success –with its power plants, and the fabrics, labs, and workshop schools–, the advances in education and culture –with the eradication of illiteracy and the free access to public and secular education–, and the respect and dignified treatment of women. In sum, the author portrayed a solid, just, and equalitarian nation with all members of society working jointly at the service of the revolution. The pictures included in these reports contribute, as Sierra notes, to instill that sense of order and wellness (Ibid.).

It is, however, difficult to differentiate between what Gómez really experienced and what he imagined in a socialist system with an eye toward propaganda. The propagandistic projection of the Soviet experience might be the case, considering that Gómez’s reports were published during the conservative period of the Second Republic’s Bienio Radical Cedista (Cedist Radical Biennium) (1933–1935), which was ruled by the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas – CEDA (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights). In other words, whether imagined or not, Gómez presented this solid, communist nation as a role model for Spain’s own advancement and democratisation during the Second Republic, and as an inspiration for a revolution during the Spanish Civil War. For example, in the artist’s mind, Spain was a “politically backward” country, among other reasons, for its inability to integrate the Gypsy community into social life and to recognise its racial virtues (De Lara, 1938, p. 147). According to the Soviet press, from October 7 to October 10, 1933, Gómez and other progressive foreign writers visited the city of Novosibirsk. They came to get acquainted with socialist construction in Western Siberia. Foreign guests toured the city, went to the airfield and made a flight over Novosibirsk. They also visited the Novaya Zhizn (New Life) Gypsy collective farm in the Novosibirsk region and the construction site of the Opera and Ballet Theater. The news told how “foreigners unanimously admitted that they had not yet met such a remarkable in its design and grandiose in scope theatrical building. They also held several international meetings, together with the writers of Novosibirsk, and attended a conversation with the secretary of the city party committee, T. Schwartz” (Новосибирский краеведческий портал, 2021).

Stalin’s Soviet Union, however, was not always as unspoiled as Gómez proclaimed it to be. Spanish writer Ramón J. Sender, who met the artist during those years in Moscow, recalled that “Helios Gómez, while he was in Russia, missed the freedom of the Montparnasse. Demanding an artist to adapt to a dogmatic vision of life is completely ridiculous. Not even the artists from the Renaissance who dedicated all their lives to paint for the churches or for the reactionary patrons were submitted to any class of dictatorship” (Sender, 1982, p. 151). According to Sender, Gómez was asked to paint social realism for the communist party, but the artist “declared in a loud cry that neither was what they painted realist nor the life that they advocated socialist” (Ibid.).

Sender’s depiction of Gómez’s USSR sentiment, although not displayed by the painter widely, has its resonance in his long poem Erika: Canto de amor y lucha (Erika: Song of Love and Combat) (1946) that the artist wrote from prison, a few years before his death. Erika’s confessional tone evidences Gómez’s complicity with Weber, a relationship as enigmatic as his ambiguous ties with communism. In this narrative poem, the author describes his time in Moscow with Erika/Ira, using a nostalgic tone. The use of the imperfect tense refers to a remote past when the protagonists followed the directives of Socialism, described as “La Gran Obra Inédita” (The Great Unprecedented Work) (Gómez Plana & Mignot, 2006, p. 333). The candid couple are fervent followers of the party’s dogma: “The line of the Party/was our only goal,/we had our hearts/absent from the body/and yet we love each other, Erika” (Ibid., p. 335). Their priority was to comply obediently with their duties toward the Party, performed by “the body” and softened by the memorable fondness of their love (“the heart”). Gómez’s Soviet experience was remembered 15 years later during his long-term sentence in jail as ‘infantilismo de izquierda’ (childishness of the left) (Ibid., p. 336). The poem also reveals the end of Gómez’s romance with Erika/Ira/Communism, when he flees the country under strange circumstances, separating from his much-loved partner:

A cold day of January
in the third hour
our idyll broke down,
We separated in Moscow
with unusual and mechanical
because you and I,
in the rough gears of the soviet wheel,
we were only
one piece (Ibid., 2006, p. 350).

In spite of stumbling in pursuit of the Soviet ideal, the artist continued professing his political faith in Communism upon his return to Spain. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, he took to the barricades in the defense of Barcelona and joined the Aliança d’Intellectuals Antifeixistes de Catalunya (the Catalonian Alliance of Antifascist Intellectuals). Appointed as a political commissar of the Marxist-socialist’s Unión General de Trabajadores – UGT (General Workers Union), he participated in the liberation of Ibiza and Majorca, and joined the fronts of Aragon, Madrid, and Andalusia (Associació Cultural Helios Gómez, 2021). He killed a captain of the same unit, José Arjona Sánchez, in the Bautista Garcés Battalion in December 1936, in El Carpio (Córdoba) (Moreno Jiménez,1985, p. 394). In Memòries d’un cartellista catalá (Memoirs of a Catalan Cartelist), Carles Fontserè described this episode as an “acte suprem de disciplina militar” (“supreme act of military discipline”), considering that Arjona withdrew some machine guns without permission (Fontserè, 1995, p. 324).

Questions could be raised about the frequency of these disciplinary executions among combatants of the same troop. Was this a common practice on both sides, Franco’s Nationalists and the Republicans, to maintain loyalty and discipline in battle? Historian Francisco Moreno, who referred to Gómez’s incident in La guerra civil en Córdoba (19361939) (Civil War in Cordoba (1936–1939)), explained in a letter to Tjaden that soldiers received the maximum sentence – death – for backing up in the rearguard without receiving orders from their superiors (Gómez Plana, 2020, p. 164). How did these drastic measures affect the dynamics in the battlefield, and to what extent were these executions perceived as a routine military action? In other words, was Arjona’s execution considered a “murder,” in the legal (not moral) sense of the word? A more thorough investigation about the codes of behavior within the context of the war are necessary to understand the repercussions of Gómez’s rigid practices.

Gómez’s compromising military action on the front of Córdoba was not an isolated case. Other examples of his abuse of authority as a commissar were recalled by Josep Bartolí, also an artist and a friend of Gómez: “Helios behaved [in the front of Madrid] as a dictator, he ordered operations under his own responsibility without being authorised by anyone, he sent people to the prison of Carabanchel for disobeying him” (Tjaden, 1996, p. 46). Bartolí also reported a heated dispute on the front of Madrid with another captain, an “estalinista ultradogmático” (ultradogmatic Stalinist), who ended up being shot to death by his opponent, Gómez, who Bartolí described as an “eterno anarquista” (eternal anarchist) (Tjaden, 1996, p. 47). Added to the political dispute, there was also, according to Gómez’s comrade, a rivalry between the adversaries over a woman.

The artist’s impasse between communism and anarchism did not wreak less havoc while fighting against Franco’s troops. After his struggles as a commissar and his expulsion from the Communist party in July 1937, having been accused of treachery and desertion, Gómez left Madrid seeking refuge in Barcelona, in the building of the Sindicat de Dibuixants Professionals (Union of Professional Illustrators) (SDP), which he had cofounded and presided since April 1936. During around two months in isolation, hidden in the basement of the SDP, the artist painted a few drawings of Horrores de la guerra (The Horrors of the War). He also created an oil painting, Evacuación (Evacuation), which was exhibited with Picasso’s Guernica, in the Spanish pavilion of the Second Republic, during the Paris World Fair in 1937. Gómez reunited with the anarchists joining in August 1938 in the 26th Infantry Division, the former company of anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti. As a cultural militiaman he was responsible of the journal El Frente (“The Front”) and participated in the organisation of a tribute in memory of Durruti, who had been killed in action in the battle of Madrid in November 1936. These changes in positions, ideologies and affiliations as a left-wing militant, either as an anarcho-syndicalist, a Bolshevist, a Stalinist, a Troskyist, or a republicano, illustrate aspects of Gómez’s conflicted personality: as an iconoclast detached from any dogma, as a subversive mind with his own beliefs, and as an antagonistic force contrary to the establishment.

Approaching the end of the Spanish Civil War, with the Republican cause lost after the fall of the city of Barcelona, Gómez crossed the border in February 1939 from Puigcerdà to Perpignan with the 26th Division (Tjaden, 1996, p. 82). His odyssey continued with an epic journey whose far-fetched misfortunes make his life a stunning case tilled with yet more mysteries, obscurities, and loose ends. Tracing his father’s life story over the past few decades, Gómez Plana embarked on a thorough investigation about the artist’s whereabouts in exile. Expatriated in France, his father was interned in several camps where thousands of other republicans fleeing Franco’s imminent victory were relocated. Gómez was sent to Bram and Montolieu (from March 1939 until, at least, September 1940). In the archives of the camp of Argelès-sur-Mer his name shows as disappeared on December 7, 1940 (Gómez Plana, 2020, pp. 171–173).

At some point Gómez attempted to sail out of the port of Marseille on route to America with his partner Mercedes Plana, Gómez Plana’s mother. The plan, unfortunately, was failed. In April 1941 Gómez was arrested by the Vichy police in Marseille and sent to Vernet d’Ariège, a repressive camp located in the French Pyrenees and reserved for political prisoners considered “dangereux pur l’ordre public” (dangerous for the public order) (Gómez Plana, 2020, p. 173). Gómez was deported from there to the concentration camp of Djelfa, Algeria (Ibid., p. 174).

This gap in Gómez’s biography, of which we know very little, can be partially solved with the accounts of the interns who survived the experience of the exile in North Africa. Those narratives illustrate the situation of abandonment that Spanish refugees experienced in the camps of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria (Barrera et al., 1981; Morro Casas, 2012). Spanish writer Max Aub, who like Helios Gómez was transferred from Vernet d’Ariège to Djelfa, wrote while in the camp the most heartrending testimony, Diario de Djelfa (Diary of Djelfa) (Aub, 1944). In it Aub depicted in poem form scenes of horror spanning the six months he was retained in that camp, from November 1941 until May 1942.

Acknowledging this life-or-death situation in the camps would explain, in part, Gómez’s possible voluntary repatriation during the toughest years of the post-war, and under Franco’s sturdiest repression. In fact, as Gómez Plana notes, Barrera included Gómez in the list of the 150 interns who were sent back to Spain, but this source mistakenly reports that the artist was soon executed by Franco’s authorities (Gómez Plana, 2020, p. 177). This, although not unlikely, based on the numerous cases of Franco’s reprisals of repatriates, never took place in the case of the artist. Nor did it happen that he requested repatriation. The repatriation was an initiative of the authorities of the camp, who tried to avoid bearing the maintenance of the inmates and requested that the Spanish authorities cover the cost of their return (Ibid., p. 178). Being first rejected based on his criminal record, Gómez finally obtained the authorisation of the Spanish consulate and a laissez-passer from the general governor of Algeria. He arrived in Spain via Melilla on May 23, 1942, reuniting with Mercedes, with whom he had his only child, Gabriel, on April 13, 1943.

Gómez continued his militancy upon his return with the same resolve that he had when he fled the country at the end of the war. He resumed his contact with the CNT and collaborated with the union in the print of eight numbers of Solidaridad Obrera, from March until June 1944 (Gómez Plana, 2020, p. 183). He had also founded at the beginning of that year the clandestine group Liberación Nacional Republicana LNR (National Republican Liberation). The first issue of Lid, the information bulleting of LNR, tackled Francoism as the main enemy of the Spanish people. The unsigned open letter that appears in Lid in January 1944, very likely drafted by Gómez, placed Spain’s dictatorship in a European context during WWII. With a populist tone vindicating the patria on behalf of the Spanish people, this letter denounced Franco’s rapport with the Axis and the concessions offered to the Spanish ex-combatants who fought with the Nazis in the Blue Division. It also condemned the precarious situation of the working-class people and the ecclesiastical campaign against the “reds.” Advocating clemency for the prisoners and the persecuted, Lid’s missive was also full of faith and optimism. It based its hope on the soviet army and antifascist reinforcements coming from the United Nations (Lid, 1945, n.p.). Gómez’s quixotic campaign, as it was expected, did not go unnoticed. In February 1945, he was incarcerated at police headquarters until 31st March and later moved to Cárcel Modelo (Modelo Prison) in Barcelona, where he spent twenty-one days in solitary confinement (Tjaden, 1998, p. 239).

Relocating frequently as a result of his relentless resistance, Gómez was detained “seventy-one times by the authorities of different countries, and has been faced with forty-two criminal charges” (De Lara, 1938, p. 46). In his final years, he lived behind bars in Cárcel Modelo; first from March 1945 until July 1946, and then from October 1948 until September 1954 (Gómez Plana & Mignot, 2006, p. 9). In 1950 he was granted a conditional order of liberation, but instead of being released, he was illegally detained in prison for four more years. It was during this last imprisonment that he painted the fresco of the Capilla gitana (Gypsy Chapel) (1948–1954) at the Cárcel Modelo. After his release in 1954, the artist lived in San Jaime University Hall of Residence. In September 19, 1956, he died in the Hospital Clínico de Barcelona from “hepatic and renal disorders” (Tjaden, 1998, p. 240).

Helios: The Gypsy and the Artist

Standing out among the early scholarship acknowledging the artist is the pioneering work of Ursula Tjaden. This German professor from the University of Dortmund published an autobiographical account of the author in 1986, complete with an appendix of the most representative visual art and writings, all of which had remained forgotten or unknown. A decade later Tjaden’s work was available for the Spanish reader, published under the title of Helios Gómez: Artista de corbata roja (Helios Gómez: The Artist of the Red Tie). Thus, it was not until forty years after the author’s death, in the mid-1990s, that Gómez received some attention in the country of his birth. Two art critics and writers undertook this task: sculptor, painter, and essayist Pedro García Romero, and the director of the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno – IVAM (Valencian Institute of Modern Art), Juan Manuel Bonet (Bonet 1998).

A thorough review of these early sources casts an alarming light on the gap in the study of the Gitano as a significant theme in Gómez’s life and work. A few considerations help to explain the critics shunning or neglecting this aspect of the artist’s trajectory. First is the fact that his origins have been put into question, if not denied. With rare exceptions like Bonet’s recognition of Gómez’s “raza gitana” (Gypsy race) (Bonet, 1995, p. 295), this uncertainty led critics to avoid this nomenclature or use it with caution. They either quote the ethnonym ‘Gitano’ (Romero, 2004, p. 45); identify him as ‘self-identified Gypsy’ (autoidentificado como gitano) (González Barrios, 2019, p. 366) and ‘self-claimed Gitano’ (Alonso Carballés, 2009, p. 38); or refer euphemistically to his ‘ethnic background’ (“trasfondo étnico”) (Tjaden, 1996, p. 53).

Other comments by those who met the artist evince the ambiguity of his Gitano roots, suggesting an inclination to the Gypsy-by-choice as opposed to by birth. Sender depicted him as a “típicamente andaluz con alguna calidad gitanoide” (a typical Andalusian with some Gypsy-like quality) (Sender, 1982, p. 150), and Fontserè recalled his friend reciting Federico García Lorca’s verses “a la manera gitana” (in the Gypsy manner) (Fontserè, 2004, p. 536), implying simulation rather than an inherent quality of a Spanish Gitano.

This imprecision in Gómez’s background has recently been addressed by Gómez Plana, who attests that his paternal grandfather, Juan Gómez Sánchez, was of Gypsy descent (Gómez Plana and Mignot, 2006, p. 31). Gypsy activist and Member of the Spanish Parliament Ismael Cortés, conceives Helios Gómez and Ceferino Giménez Malla as “two symbolic figures of the Civil War who were in fact Gitanos” (Cortés, 2017, p. 31). In Helios Gómez: Invisibilidad de la revolución gitana (Helios Gómez: Invisibility of the Gypsy Revolution), María Sierra, Professor in the Department of Contemporary History at the University of Seville, seeks to “deepen in key aspects of the historical process of the formation of Gypsy identity in Spain and its intertwine with other types of political identities” (Sierra, 2019, p. 33).

Regardless of the external perceptions of the artist, whether they address his ethnicity or not, Gómez always proclaimed his Gitano identity with pride and dignity. His Gypsy adherence was also consistent with the artistic representation of the unprivileged that he depicted, as well as the progressive views that he proclaimed. Gómez was, in fact, an emblematic figure for the left-wing Gypsy people in Spain. During the civil war, he was commended by the liberal press as a consummate artist, as an exemplary Gypsy, and as an admirable revolutionary. The depiction of the artist’s Gitano side can be observed in an interview titled as “Un gran artista revolucionario: Helios Gómez. Los gitanos en la guerra civil” (A Great Revolutionary Artist: Helios Gómez. Gypsies in the Spanish Civil War). In October 1936, a few months after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Gómez recalled in this interview published in Crónica how Gypsies were completely integrated in “la gran República de los Soviets” (the great Soviet Republic), and how they had acquired “la misma categoría social que todos los demás habitantes” (the same social rank as the rest of the population), with an equal level of performance and production (Crónica, 1936, p. 4). The artist denounced the stereotypes of Gypsies in Spain and considered the Gitano race “[…] as capable as any other [race] for work, arts, and ideological conceptions” (Ibid.). The interview was translated into English by the students of Hispanic Studies at the University of Liverpool and published in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society of April-June 1939 (De Lara, 1939, p. 146). This evidences Gómez’s early international reputation as a “Gypsy revolutionary” (Ibid.).

Within this skepticism of Gómez’s ethnic affinity, another factor that hinders this focus of research is that his most significant Gypsy-related works have remained unpublished until recently, and this literary corpus has not yet been widely proliferated. The slow pace at which Gómez’s work has been recovered is a fitting reminder that the succession of calamities that beset the artist during his life nevertheless continued many years after his death. Tracing his father’s tracks, Gómez Plana encountered no less obstacles in recovering his artistic legacy throughout the course of an investigation spanning forty years. Determined in this enterprise, he contacted Wilma Katherina (Ika) Rudolf, a German friend of the artist who took illegal possession of his writings, poems, and drawings located in the residence in San Jaime after his death. Rudolph married a German diplomat and moved to Sintra (Portugal), and Gómez’s belongings remained forgotten for years in her hometown in Germany. Gómez Plana was able to retrieve part of his father’s possessions after a trip to Portugal in 2004.

The discovery of these files was a revelation and a significant step towards the interpretation of Gómez focusing on the Gypsy. These writings belonged to his last term of imprisonment and his time in the Residencia San Jaime. They contained, among other documents, around a hundred poems; the abovementioned long poem Erika; an unfinished novel, Pacheco; and a long essay under the title of Historia de los gitanos (The History of the Gypsies). In the process of transcribing, ordering, and editing these manuscripts, Gómez Plana raised awareness of an unknown side to his father’s thoughts. In the son’s words: “For the first time, I was conscious of his Gitano descent, and of mine: I was not only the son of an artist guided by his social commitment, but also of a Gitano” (Gómez Plana, 2020, p. 136).

In 2006 Helios Gómez: Poemas de lucha y sueño 1942–1956 (Helios Gómez: Poems of Combat and Dreams) came to light with a thorough introduction by Gómez Plana and his wife, historian Caroline Mignot, presented in three languages: Catalan, Caló (Spanish Romani), and Castilian. The majority of the collection, mostly romance and sonnets distributed chronologically in different sections, often evokes the author’s early times in Seville. They also recreate Spain’s civil war episodes – Sevilla, novia asediada (Seville, girlfriend besieged) –, and his memories in exile, – Éxodo a Francia (Exode to France). Predominant in these and other poems is the use of a neo-popular Lorquian accent, not exempt from a lamented tone and torn between a devious past and his years in captivity. Also visible is a condemnation of Spain’s hierarchical and prejudice society, where the figure of the Gypsy plays a fundamental role. This poetic corpus of Gómez’s most expressive manifestations of the Gitano people is illustrated with Andalusian and folkloric theme drawings, posters, and paintings of the author. The book concludes with the large surrealist poem Erika, where Gómez describes in a confidential tone his convoluted Soviet experience.

Poemas de lucha y sueño is a testament to resilience. It was during Gómez’s last years in captivity, deprived of his freedom to sketch, that he reinforced his skills as a poet, evading a hostile environment and recreating remembrances of his youth. Gómez managed to circumvent the censorship and other adversities found in the penitentiary system, including the scarcity of paper, using small handwriting and encrypted language. The bundle of poems gathered in Poemas de lucha y sueño needs to be read in this context. They represent Gómez’s struggles as an inmate, but also the ostracism that he experienced as a sidelined subject with multiple degrees of marginalities. In particular, this collection is a wake-up call regarding the existence of this ethnic group in Spain, the Gitano, who has been for centuries displaced by the payo, the non-Gypsy Spaniard.

No hables mal de los gitanos (Don’t bad-mouth the Gypsies), is one of Gómez’s most emblematic poems in this collection (Gómez Plana & Mignot, 2006, pp. 103–106). Like Jesús Alonso Carballés already observed in an essay dedicated to Gómez’s writings, these verses denounce the most common prejudices attributed to this collectivity: either as superstitious – “brujos y quiromantes” (sorcerers and fortune-tellers) –; children kidnappers – “que roban a los niños para chuparles las sangre” (who steal the children to suck their blood) –; or unclean and vagrant – “sucios y vagabundos” (dirty and homeless). The narrative voice challenges the payos siding with the Republic: the intellectual, the peasant and the proletarian, seeking their sympathy for, and recognition of, the Gitano people.

Gómez gives voice to the Gypsy in some of these poems, collecting and embodying this unspoken group. A wide range of marginal characters in the author’s lyrical universe speak for themselves. Likewise, Triana, Seville, and by extension, Andalusia, come to life and represent Spain’s fusion of a racial past in conflict with the Occident. In Gómez’s romance A cara o cruz (Playing Hearts or Tails) (Gómez and Mignot 2006, pp. 210–212), for example, the poetic voice is a sort of Moorish Gypsy who resists conversion as a “neo Cristiano” or “new Christian” (Ibid., p. 212). Metonymically speaking, Spain is, in the narrator’s view, a conflation of races. He perceives the nation as the synthesis of the Orient: “La gran síntesis de España / es lo árabe y gitano / y el zumo de la palmera /está en mi sangre mezclado” (The great synthesis of Spain / is in the Arabic and the Gypsy / and the juice of the palm / is mixed in my blood) (Ibid., p. 211).

The depiction of the Gypsy in Gómez’s lyrical universe is marked, undoubtedly and inevitably, by the frightful circumstances of the European wars. The poem Belsen meets this end (Ibid., pp. 254–258). With a German concentration camp as backdrop, the artist denounces “el dolor de una raza / que sufre desde que nace/ el odio feroz de un mundo, / meridiano de maldades” (“the sorrow of a race / which suffers since its birth / the ferocious hatred of a world,/ meridian of meanness”). The poem shows great command of the history of the Gypsy people. It identifies ancient tyrannical dynasties that caused the Gypsies’ wandering life, like the pharaoh Horemheb and the conqueror of Central Asia, Timur. To this cruelty of the Orient, the poem revisits the most repressive episodes of ancient Europe against the Gypsies, particularly in Spain, England, France, and in contemporary times, Nazi Germany. Denouncing the Gypsy genocide, Gómez visualises the annihilation of thousands of Gypsies in gas chambers escorted by the SS. The tragic destiny of this ethnic group, slaughtered for centuries by “príncipes y emperadores” (princes and emperors), continues to offend God with their continuous repression (Ibid., p. 254).

The relationship between the Gypsy people and Catholicism is another predominant theme in several poems, which are loaded with biblical imagery – Romance biblico (Biblical Romance) –, and heretical symbolism – La gitana y el ángel (The Gypsy Girl and the Angel). Gomez’s approach to religion at the end of his life should not be overlooked, considering his strong criticism against the Church; an institution that he represented in his early times as an accomplice to the Nationalists during the war, and as a collaborator of Franco’s regime. It is difficult to ignore the satire surrounding the sacred space that prevails in his early drawings, with the predominance of “martyrs, crucifixes, penitents, processions, church towels …” (Romero, 2004, p. 47). Among other examples which illustrate this are La religión (The religion) (Fundación Pública, 2010, p. 68), and El patíbulo (The Scaffold) (Ibid., p. 74), from Días de ira; or Au nom du Pere, du Fils, du Saint-Espirit (In the Name of Father and of Son and of Holy Spirit) (Ibid., p. 74), from Viva Octubre (Ibid., p. 118).

Gómez’s strong anti-church position is essential in order not to misinterpret the fresco of Capilla Gitana as a possible religious conversion of the artist during his last years in Cárcel Modelo. The fresco was made in response to the demands of the Mercedarian friar Bienvenido Lahoz, chaplain of the prison, to paint the Virgin of Mercy, patron saint of Barcelona and of the prisoners. Between 1948 and 1954 the artist inmate worked on the drawing of this sacred fresco in one of the cells that had been transformed into an oratory, with the particularity of painting the holy characters with Gypsy-like features. The sobriety and calmness of a Gypsy Madonna and her child, enlightened by the celestial world and escorted by two angels, contrast with the convicts (or salves?) on earth, persecuted by a criminal justice system, imploring mercy and piety to the divine. Another turn of the screw against the restoration of Gómez’s memory and the recognition of his work took place in 1998, when the Catalan Minister of Justice Nuria de Gispert, ordered the whitening of the walls for hygienic purposes. This “anti-Franco manifesto”, as it has been called (El Periódico, 2014, p. 1), is still covered with a layer of plaster, waiting for its redemption in a democratic, but still, fragile system in Spain.

With the attention that the memory of the Gitano people has received in the past two decades, particularly since the promulgation of Spain’s Historical Memory Law in 2007, the figure of Gómez has served as an example of the resistance of the Gitano people against common attitudes of bigotry and intolerance in Spanish society. This helps explain the increased attention given to this figure on the part of scholars interested in the field of Romani studies (Martín Sánchez, 2018; Sierra, 2019) and Gypsy activists (Cortés, 2017). The creation of the Associació Cultural Helios Gómez has facilitated the proliferation of this aspect of the artist’s life and work. This attention on the painter’s ethnicity can easily be perceived in the monographic exhibition of the artist’s work sponsored by the city hall of Barcelona in the Palau de la Virreina (the Virreina Palace), which ran from November 5, 2020, until February 7, 2021. The following description of the exhibition breaks new ground in the focus of research on Gómez’s multifaceted personality, unacknowledged until very recently: “A first consideration is that by claiming his Romany identity and seeking to give it a meaning that was not just cultural or ethnic, but specifically political, he was decades ahead of many of the critical reflections that come to us now through the field of postcolonial studies, where he is recognised as a point of reference in the Romany context” (Romero, 2020). The purpose of the exhibition, specified in this quote, is clearly to attract a broad academic audience to Gomez’s work, and to further interpret his actions, preoccupations, and manifestations as a part of his Gitano identity.

This research area opens new lines of investigation of which very little is known. It is intriguing that Gómez’s Gitano representations accentuate this aspect of his identity during the most challenging episodes of his convoluted life. Stronger association with the Gypsy is particularly noticeable during the darkest years of the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps among the most captivating chapters of his life, frequently mentioned, but of which very little detail is known, is his role in organising the Ramón Casanellas column division with Gypsy militiamen on the Aragón front (Gómez Plana, 2020, p. 162). The artist also self-appropriated the popular Gypsy last name, ‘Vargas’, at different times during the war. He announced a Gypsy character in a comic strip from the anarchist journal El Frente called Gabrielillo Vargas, gitano rojo (Little Gabriel Vargas, Red Gypsy) (Gómez Plana & Mignot, 2006, p. 23); and used Vargas as a pseudonym – most likely attributed to himself – as a delegate of the clandestine LNR in Catalonia (Tjaden, 1996, pp. 53–54). Another tenuous moment in his life, his return to Spain from exile in 1942, is full of examples of the author’s ethnic vindication. It was then that a considerable part of his paintings, writings, and official documents appeared signed with the distinctive mark of the Egyptian cross, the Ankh (Tjaden, 1996, pp. 53–54), and his most important tribute to the Gypsy people, the Capilla Gitana, belongs also to his final years. These and other aspects of Gómez’s life and work are still waiting to be approached in the Gitano context.


This study has received the support of the Franklin Grant of the American Philosophical Society. I thank the Associació Cultural Helios Gómez (Helios Gómez Cultural Association) and its president, Gabriel Gómez Plana, for the sources and the information provided. Other archive material has been facilitated by Judith Montserrat Argelague and Lourdes Prades Artigas, from the CRAI Biblioteca Pavelló de la República (Pavelló de la República CRAI Library) of the University of Barcelona; José Luis Hernández Luis from the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica (Historical Memory Documentary Centre); and Juan Cruz from Fundación Anselmo Lorenzo (Anselmo Lorenzo Foundation).

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