Long-term resident

Went to see the Gipsy

I’m as useless at predicting election results as I am at riding a bicycle, so this article, with its mid-January deadline, will avoid speculation about the Catalan elections to be held on February 14, decisive though they will be.

Which doesn’t mean we have to abandon politics altogether, given that until the end of the first week in February, Barcelona’s Palau de la Virreina is hosting an exhibition about one of the most politically engaged – and talented – artists of 20th-century Europe: Helios Gómez, who, although he died at 51, managed to create more, travel more, learn more languages, defend more causes and meet more people than most of us could manage if we lived to be a hundred. Born into Seville’s Romani community in 1905, he was 18 when he began to frequent the city’s Kursaal Internacional, a pioneering anarchist social club, concert hall and modern art gallery. There he had his first exhibition of paintings and engravings, and joined the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the CNT, before moving to Barcelona. At 22, the far-right dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera obliged him to go into exile, first to Paris, until he was expelled from France for having demonstrated in support of the Italo-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti; he moved to Brussels, where he worked as a book illustrator, and then on to Amsterdam, Vienna and the USSR, picking up tips from the avant-garde movements from each place – while publishing his work in Dutch, Austrian and Russian newspapers, books and magazines along the way. He eventually ended up in Berlin, where he studied typography while completing his first major work, a graphic novel avant la lettre called ’Days of Fury’. Once Primo de Rivera had resigned for health reasons (1930), Gómez returned to Barcelona, where his illustrations appeared in a wide range of anarchist and communist publications in both Catalan and Spanish. Undergoing a change of revolutionary heart, he now joined the Workers and Peasants Block (BOC) a communist-affiliated organisation. Having helped liberate the Barcelona Women’s Prison, he moved to Madrid, joined the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), and worked for their house organ. Following a right-wing shift in Spanish politics in 1931, he was jailed in Madrid and then Jaén. Released on bail, he fled to Brussels and from there again to the USSR, where he published his second graphic novel (’Spanish Revolution’) and had an exhibition in Moscow. Back in Barcelona in time for the 1936 revolution, he joined the Catalan communists (PSUC), founded a union of Catalan poster artists, led a squad of Gipsy cavalrymen to free Mallorca and Ibiza (they weren’t able to), then fought on three different republican fronts before being expelled from the PSUC, accused of Trotskyism. He went back to the anarchist movement and joined the Durruti Column, working on layout and illustration for its paper. After the Fascist victory, he went into exile and was incarcerated in several French concentration camps. Back in Barcelona in 1944, he founded a clandestine pro-republican group, for which he was imprisoned for five months. On his release, he had a surrealist exhibition in a major gallery and painted some important mural works in two Barcelonan buildings before being arrested yet again (on unclear charges) and jailed in the city’s Model prison for eight years, where he painted his last great work: the Gipsy Chapel, a homage to freedom and the Romani people, whose history and traditions had inspired his initial anarchism. Released in 1954, he died two years later, the Model having damaged his health irreparably. Throughout his travels, exile and imprisonment he had befriended Salvador Dalí, the Catalan presidents Macià and Companys, the German artist George Grosz, the Spanish writer Max Aub, the French poet Louis Aragon, and many others.

It’s a pity, that with a life so packed with events, there is no space left to explain how ground-breakingly good his work is.

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