Guillotine Died in the Guillotine
About the book:
Through this story, we get to discover the literary side of Alberto Greco, one of the most influential Argentine artists of the 20th century. Guillotine Died in the Guillotine is the first text to gather the unabridged mythical manuscripts written by Greco in the 1960s, while he was living in Spain.
Just like in his famous Vivo-Dito series, where he would draw the attention of the audience to people and objects inhabiting our daily lives using markings and simple resources, here Greco makes some kind of collage of stories he hears, news articles and ads he collects, conversations, and debates he has with friends and other artists. Using this technique, he builds a detective story around perceptions and conversations from his everyday life, and thus he offers a vivid painting of the bohemian characters in Franco’s Madrid as well as the global shock caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
This book includes facsimile reproductions of Greco’s manuscripts and drawings, along with a revised transcription and critiques by specialists Rafael Cippolini and Laura Pellejero, providing context for the work and showing its links with the life and death of the Argentine artist.
1,000,000 people guillotined
Alberto Greco’s literary crimes – Reading guidelines with spoilers
By Rafael Cippolini
I think that what you’ve written now is remarkable… well, I think it’s great. It’s what hundreds of writers that I know would like to write…, but they can’t because they lack what you have… precisely because you’re not a writer. People work—they work all year round; you write like a painter, which is what you are.
Alberto Greco quoting Gonzalo Torrente Malvido
Claiming to know Alberto Greco’s work and failing to understand what his literature is about is just like being the director of the Picasso Museum and not being aware of the fact that Guernica was painted by a bald guy.
Madrid exists to be written about. And to commit a crime. Or maybe several crimes. It is 1963 and Alberto Greco is not only painting, drawing, and making Vivo-Ditos, but also handwriting tirelessly. He writes everything down. What he is thinking; what he overhears; what his friends and the people sitting in a bar or walking down the street are saying. There are also fleeting associations, witticisms, abrupt reflections, but at no point does he stop or reread his words, although sometimes he crosses things out, doodles in the margins, adds new ideas. He acquired this habit long ago because he does not want to miss anything: he goes on, and on, and on, as if his dopamine could only manifest itself at boiling point. Working on a single sentence, he capitalizes words for emphasis, adds ellipses here and there, rotates the notepad, writes crazy page‑long paragraphs from one margin to the other, gets distracted, gets distracted again, goes back to something he had left on standby on a previous page. And he uses the present tense. It is always now; it is always I am; it is never I was. Present, present, and more present, even though he lets the past tense slip by every so often. Sometimes, he seems to be writing for himself, while on some occasions he needs to clarify some details. Intuitions, figments of his imagination—everything is written down on paper or a line, in a sudden order. He cannot overlook anything. He does not decant: he pours everything out. If something looks like a meditation, it will be shaped rather like a supersonic meditation—whatever is meant by that.
His compulsive writing is nothing new: a similar whirlwind characterizes the manifestos, recipes, letters, phrases in drawings and paintings he has been incessantly writing for a long time, as he plays with his unmistakable handwriting in automatic mode. We are not sure about how closely he read Macedonio Fernández’s work. This metaphysician from Buenos Aires used to say that he thought with pen in hand. Greco heard, smelled, chewed, talked, laughed, got angry, and had fun with pen in hand. We could, in Plutarch’s style, write our own Parallel Lives filled with the dazzling contrasts between Macedonio and Greco. But we should leave that for later.
To Greco, writing is a way of devouring each second, where (and when) the unpredictable happens, and he has a word for everything, with graphic symbols like a mental movie of his surroundings. It is a 360° autobiography in an inescapable present tense. He has been doing it for a while, but now he is in Madrid, in 1963, and things are different. Greco decides to write a detective story. We do not know why—someday we will propose some hypotheses—, but he is dead set on writing a detective story, perhaps a novel. He will soon confess to not having a clue of how to do it, to not having even read detective books—all he knows comes from radio dramas or maybe movies—, and to wanting to read Georges Simenon.
So, as readers, in the first part of this story, we witness that moment: Greco capturing it all, filtering and mixing everything together (as mentioned, his writing is messy, and he leaves ideas unfinished, he then adds a reference, and he finally retraces his steps). This is what he has been doing so far, but he is carefully looking for the moment when he will be able to smuggle in something as appalling as a crime while his perception keeps working at a dangerous speed. He is carefully analyzing his writing, so that it will reveal to him, just like a satori, where and when the crime is going to appear. And what is more: what he will be able to do with this crime. He keeps writing, waiting to know.
The first glimpse, perhaps a memory: the news of the death of M.J., “best known for biting Pola Negri’s ear.” This is an intriguing anecdote Kenneth Anger chose not to include in his encyclopedic Hollywood Babylon. One of the key devices used by Greco throughout Guillotine is worthy of mention: from the first paragraph, he divides his narrative self into two dimensions, one for the writer and one for the main character. It is possible to tell these voices apart because he uses the first and the third person. At times it is I, and at times it is He, yet it is always the same person. It is as though one chased the other, recording everything.
I WANT THAT, but what’s the point…
He sat with his big fat ass on the bed with the blue and white striped bedding that reminded him of the national colors of his country in an almost funny way…
The device is used from the very beginning, so that we can get used to the split. We should not be surprised if I and He seem mismatched; sometimes they do harmonize, but only sometimes. He remembers the incident of Pola Negri’s bitten ear, but quickly dismisses it. He thinks of something better, and it is not a memory but rather an action he can throw himself into without hesitation:
He opened the door almost dragging himself, his ears and mouth purple. Making a tremendous effort, he reached the second-floor landing, wanting to scream to the people downstairs, HELP! I’m dying.
Just like that, out of the blue, to the rhythm of his own ideas. Page after page, he tries to introduce, within the domain of his present I and his real-time chronicle, the element ensuring the fantastic crime his story deserves. It needs to be as seductive a crime as his best painting. Greco might have known Degas’s famous quote: “An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.” Remember that it was also the French artist who said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
About the author:
Alberto Greco (1931-1965) was an Argentine visual artist whose work became key to understand the development of conceptual art in Argentina, Brazil, and Spain. Greco’s most famous work is the Vivo‑Dito series, in which he carried out different kinds of interventions to draw attention to daily‑life objects, people, and places, so they could be transformed into living works of art. He exhibited his work and created Vivo-Ditos in Paris, Rome, Madrid, and the Spanish village of Piedralaves. Charismatic and irreverent, Greco produced strongly politically laden art.
Translated by Mariel Kozynski Waserman - Edited by María del Carmen Propato