Days of ire. Libertarian communism, flamenco romanies and avant-garde realism
05.11.2020 – 07.02.2021
Curator: Pedro G. Romero
Helios Gómez (Sevilla, 1905 - Barcelona, 1956), Sevillian, Romany gypsy and Barcelonan, participated in some of the most interesting European creative networks of his time. His work lies in a paradoxical nodule amidst apparently antithetical elements, emerging as both anachronic and ahead of its time. He was at once a realist, a populist and avant-garde, a political activist and militant advocate of Romany identity, a libertarian communist and a practitioner of flamenco, of the kind that sing and dance.
As someone both known and unknown, Helios Gómez (Seville, 1905 – Barcelona, 1956) was an artist whose career was unique. He identified himself as Sevillian, Romany gypsy and Barcelonan, and participated in some of the most interesting European creative networks of his time. His work is a paradoxical nodule amidst apparently antithetical elements, emerging as both anachronic and ahead of its time. He was at once a realist, a populist and avant-garde, a political activist and militant advocate of Romany identity, a libertarian communist and a practitioner of flamenco, of the kind that sing and dance. The relevance of the work of Helios Gómez constitutes a unique case in the European artistic panorama of his time.
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 recognized as a point of reference in the Romany context.
Furthermore, as a popular and even populist artist, his formal avant-garde militancy is especially relevant, expressed in what he defended as realism. His was a true realism, able to transmit, visualise and express—from subordinate positions, yet with the same complexity as the science, philosophy and literature of this period—the years he so intensely lived, the society he sought to transform and the human communities he struggled alongside for emancipation.
Helios Gómez found a free and radical terrain in the avant-garde laboratory, enabling him to synthesize disparate features, including the heterodoxies he was called to live with. At the beginning he was close to Ultraism, and was later a Dada-Constructivist and then a Productivist until towards the end of the Civil War, which found him bound to surrealism. His work’s resolution can be reread today from out of this experimentation and experience, considering it from the perspective of what is known as the graphic turn. In this regard, it not only privileged the graphic arts and typography as base techniques, but also performatively developed the applications owed to older craft woodcut techniques in agitprop, while also exploring poster design, graphic activism, the press and public murals, amongst others, to the point, for example, of turning the Sindicat de Dibuixants Professionals (SDP) [Union of Professional Illustrators] of Catalonia, an entity which he founded and directed from the start, into an artistic instrument.
His anarchist militancy also took an interesting turn. Trained in his father’s Masonic socialism as well as under the tutorship of Felipe Alaiz in Seville, from where this latter headed up Solidaridad Obrera, the libertarian anarchist daily that had been closed down in Barcelona, he later shifted to communism, which he always would present as libertarian. Then, in the middle of the war and against the grain, he returned to his anarchist filiation, continuing after the defeat of 1939 with formulas connected to Andalusian and Romany associationism (he founded the Andalusian Centre in Barcelona), while also working avidly to give a political shape to some kind of national reconciliation.
The case of Helios Gómez is therefore exceptional, and the revision of his work as proposed here is precisely an attempt to understand his unique identity by revealing it in the cultural, social and political contexts it transited. The importance of his graphic work and the recognition of his creative style is beyond all doubt, and in many works (books, films, essays, and so on) following the Spanish Civil War his presence is overwhelming, although often without being appropriately cited. Still, what interests us here is to show his work in the context of the networks that he moved in, allied with the artists and movements he was active with, underlining the deep communitarian conviction of his activity. Early on this context meant his involvement with the Seville Ultraist movement; it continued with the Dada-Constructivists in Germany and the graphic artists union he began in the midst of the Civil War. It also featured fellow Romany gypsies, with the political shift he sought to mark his identity trait with, as well as flamenco artists (an expressive field he felt closely allied with), the proletariat and even the lumpen underclass, to the point of being able to consider him ahead of his time in what, following Mario Perniola, could be called lumpen-productivism.
With the image of the “rogue who becomes an objector”, Jean Cassou deftly summed up Helios Gómez’s unique way of working. The subordinate classes most Romany belonged to, which Marx called the lumpen-proletariat, resolved to have a voice of their own, calling for their own emancipation. Furthermore, Helios Gómez carried through with this process without concealing the insults proffered upon them, which ran the gamut—lazy, gamblers, folkloric, exotic, crooks. What is more, his idea was to turn these vexations into identifying markers, defending those very aspects wielded as reasons to despise them.
To be sure, in consonance with the conceptual example of Helios Gómez himself, in this exhibition we have not sought to conceal certain paternalist or stereotyped views—he was seen an entertainer, a collaborationist or a confident—the Sevillian artist had to put up with and which, perhaps, explain why still today his work does not occupy the central place it rightly deserves in the art of his time.
Futurist, exotic and populist in nature, Helios Gomez’s way of working magnificently resolves that (so highly productive) misunderstanding, which, as Fredric Jameson warned, arises between modernity and modernismo (art nouveau) in the cultural spheres of Spain and Latin America. As a result, perhaps, there is no other artist, from the perspective of Romany culture, who so aptly incarnates this vision of the future and revision of the past, stamping these anachronistic energies onto the political struggles of the time he was destined to live in. Helios Gómez draws his strength from forgotten pasts and imminent futures, as José Esteban Muñoz would say, and his black-on-white prints are particularly expressive of the negation of the state of things that distinguished his everyday reality.
His identity as subordinate, Romany and cosmopolitan, as well as the historical period he lived through, imposed by capitalism and carried out by fascism, led him from the freedom of European bohemia to jail, a prison-boat and a concentration camp, in constant ebb and flow. Utopia and dystopia coincide in Helios Gómez. Nomadism, exodus, exile—black swan, dowser of the great beyond—his way of being, the way he lived.