When the Model was opened in the early 20th century, the prison was far from the city, but little by little, Barcelona grew and it was engulfed by the city. The Centre Penitenciari d’Homes (Men’s Prison) had its grand opening on 9 June 1904, and it was named “the Model” because it was designed to be a shining example for the penitentiary system. However, the Model would end up becoming the most sinister place in Barcelona.
The prison was built according to a hygienic theory called panopticon. The central tower of the prison, which six galleries extend from, was designed with the intention of providing effective control over the prisoner, “the all-seeing eye”. This supervision was to be accompanied by good nutrition and education: the prisoners were supposed to be taught to read and write. However, the reality was quite the opposite. It would be children, the marginalised, workers, politicians, anti-Francoists, homosexuals and even a President of the Catalan Government who did time at the Model, as well as common criminals. In addition, it was the site of forty executions. Ferrer i Guàrdia, the founder of the Modern School movement, was sentenced to death here; and Salvador Puig Antich would be garrotted at the Model. After each execution, a black flag was raised.
According to the institution’s chaplain, during the first years of the Franco regime, around thirty-five thousand people passed through the Model. However, from within that sordid atmosphere, a flower bloomed. The artist Helios Gómez painted a mural. Helios was serving a sentence on charges of illegal association and propaganda. The spiritual director of the prison in the 1950s, Father Lahore, asked him to paint some frescoes dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy (the patron saint of prisoners, as well as the patron saint of Barcelona), in a cell in the fourth gallery which was used as a chapel, located just opposite death’s row. Helios Gómez, with gypsy roots, painted the Black Madonna, and beneath the image he depicted a chilling scene: seven prisoners, starved and half-naked, entangled in a thorny thread that symbolised their lack of freedom. Gómez, likely inspired by the song of the day, Angelitos negros (Little black angels), by Machín, decided to depict the protagonists of the religious scene with gypsy features. The cell served as an oratory and was known as the Gypsy Chapel. From the 1980s onwards, the cell remained closed. Unfortunately, in 1998, this unique work was covered by a coat of paint, alleging hygienic criteria as the reason, a decision made by the prison authority of the Catalan Government. All said and done, an absurd attack on this artistic heritage, as it seems that the work is irretrievable.
Helios Gómez, born in Seville, was a painter, poster artist and poet, a member of the cultural avant-garde of Barcelona in the first half of the 20th century. He also stood out for being a founding member and first president of the Professional Illustrators Union of Catalonia, created in 1936 in Barcelona. At the same time, he was the most emblematic representative of the Spanish graphic design of that time.
Helios began as an Ultraist, an artistic movement opposed to Catalan modernisme that appealed to strong, sometimes shocking images, with references to the modern world and new technologies. He passed through Dadaist-constructivist and Productivist periods, the latter being a Soviet movement, which considered that art should play a practical and useful role. After the Civil War, he also experimented with surrealism.
His language was figurative, synthetic, direct, elegant, and with a preference for black and white, although his colour painting was vibrant. The work he did as an illustrator and graphic designer was quite remarkable. He made book covers and published in workers’ newspapers and magazines. He also worked for some German and Soviet publications. In these media, he adopted expressionism with a strong Cubist influence, due to the typographic limitations of the magazines he collaborated with.
Helios Gómez had travelled to Berlin, Belgium, Vienna and Moscow, and was making a name for himself as an artist. Today, his posters are still a paradigm of avant-garde art. One of his paintings, which was exhibited in the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic during the International Exposition in Paris in 1937, is kept at the MACBA. Titled ‘Evacuation’, this is a universal scene of a group of people fleeing the war, but in this case, those fleeing are the gypsy people, as an oppressed group.
The artist was an anarcho-syndicalist and a militant gypsy. During the Civil War, he fought on the front lines in Majorca, Madrid and Andújar and finally in the 26th Durruti Division on the Aragon front, where he organised a cavalry battalion with gypsies named the Ramon Casellas column. In 1939, he had to cross the Pyrenees to take refuge in France. He was interned in the Vernet and Algiers concentration camps and was later deported to French Algeria. Fleeing the torture and harassment of the Djelfa camp, where he was interned with the writer Max Aub, he managed to gain a letter of safe passage to return to Spain in May 1942, where he resumed the anti-fascist battle underground. Arrested, without a trial or sentence, he was imprisoned for eight years in the Model prison in Barcelona. There he painted a work of art, since lost, a cry of anguish from the prisoners that could have been a magnificent record of the wickedness that was experienced within those walls. Helios Gómez died in 1956, shortly after his release from prison. He lived a life made for the big screen and he left behind a prolific body of work, despite never becoming a well-known artist, however relevant he was.