Che: The icon and the ad
By Stephanie Holmes
It is perhaps the most reproduced, recycled and ripped off image of the 20th Century.
Che Guevara, his eyes framed by heavy brows, a single-starred beret pulled over his unruly hair, stares out of the shot with glowering intensity.
It’s now 40 years since the Argentine-born rebel was shot dead, so any young radicals who cheered on his revolutionary struggles in Cuba and Bolivia are well into middle age.
But the image has been infinitely repeated – emblazoned on T-shirts and sprayed on to walls, transformed into pop art and used to wrap ice-creams and sell cigarettes – and its appeal has not faded.
“There is no other image like it. What other image has been sustained in this way?” asks Trisha Ziff, the curator of a touring exhibition on the iconography of Che.
“Che Guevara has become a brand. And the brand’s logo is the image, which represents change. It has becomes the icon of the outside thinker, at whatever level – whether it is anti-war, pro-green or anti-globalisation,” she says.
Its presence – everywhere from walls in the Palestinian territories to Parisian boutiques – makes it an image that is “out of control”, she adds.
“It has become a corporation, an empire, at this point.”
The unchecked proliferation of the picture – based on a photograph by Alberto Korda in 1960 – is partly due to a political choice by Korda and others not to demand payment for non-commercial use of the image.
Birth of an icon
Jim Fitzpatrick, who produced the ubiquitous high-contrast drawing in the late 1960s as a young graphic artist, told the BBC News website he actively wanted his art to be disseminated.
The birth of the image happens at the death of Che in October 1967 – he was good-looking, he was young, but more than that, he died for his ideals
Trisha Ziff, curator
“I deliberately designed it to breed like rabbits,” he says of his image, which removes the original photograph’s shadows and volume to create a stark and emblematic graphic portrait.
“The way they killed him, there was to be no memorial, no place of pilgrimage, nothing. I was determined that the image should receive the broadest possible circulation,” he adds.
“His image will never die, his name will never die.”
For Ms Ziff, Che Guevara’s murder also marks the beginning of the mythical image.
“The birth of the image happens at the death of Che in October 1967,” she says.
KEY FACTS ON CHE GUEVARA
1928: Born in Argentina
Studies medicine in Buenos Aires
Witnesses poverty travelling around South America
1954: Joins Fidel Castro’s 26 July movement
1959: Helps overthrow Cuba’s Batista
1959-61: Heads Cuba’s National Bank
Leads rebels in Bolivia
1967: Executed 9 October in Bolivian village
1997: Corpse discovered, exhumed and reburied in Cuba
“He was good-looking, he was young, but more than that, he died for his ideals, so he automatically becomes an icon.”
The story of the original photograph, of how it left Cuba and was carried by admirers to Europe before being reinterpreted in Mr Fitzpatrick’s iconic drawing, is a fascinating journey in its own right.
Alberto Korda captured his famous frame on 5 March 1960 during a mass funeral in Havana.
A day earlier, a French cargo ship loaded with ammunition had exploded in the city’s harbour, killing some 80 Cubans – an act Fidel Castro blamed on the US.
Korda, Fidel Castro’s official photographer, describes Che’s expression in the picture, which he labelled “Guerrillero Heroico” (the heroic fighter), as “encabronadao y dolente” – angry and sad.
The picture was one of only two frames taken. The original shot includes palm fronds and a man facing Che, both subsequently cropped out.
Unpublished for a year, the picture was seen only by those who passed through Korda’s studio, where it hung on a wall.
One man who brought the image to Europe was the leftist Italian publisher and intellectual, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who distributed posters across Italy in 1967.
Fitzpatrick got the image from a Dutch underground movement
After that, Korda’s photograph made an appearance in several European magazines. Mr Fitzpatrick first came across it in the German weekly, Stern.
“One of the images was Korda’s but it was so tiny that when I blew it up all I got was a dot matrix pattern. From this I did a quasi-psychedelic, sea-weedy version of Che,” he said.
Only months later, when he finally got his hands on a larger version of the photograph, was he able to produce the image that has such universal appeal.
“I’d got an original copy of the image sent to me by a guy involved with a group of Dutch anarchists, called the Provo.”
This underground movement was in turn rumoured to have been given the image by French philosopher and radical Jean-Paul Sartre, who was present at the Havana funeral when it was taken.
Capitalism and Catholicism
After Che Guevara’s death, an outraged Mr Fitzpatrick furiously reprinted originals of the poster and sent it to left-wing political activist groups across Europe.
Part of his anger stemmed from vivid memories working behind a bar in Ireland as a teenager, and seeing Che walk in.
The revolutionary was briefly exploring the homeland of his Irish ancestors – the full family name was Guevara-Lynch – during a stopover on a flight to Moscow.
Alberto Korda and his image of Che Guevara
The original hung, unpublished, on Korda’s wall for a year
“I must have been around 16 or 17,” Mr Fitzpatrick remembers. “It was a bright, sunny morning and light was streaming into the windows of the bar. I knew immediately who he was. He was an immensely charming man – likeable, roguish, good fun and very proud of being Irish.”
Mr Fitzpatrick’s version of Che arrived on the continent as many countries were in a state of flux, says Ms Ziff.
“His death was followed by demonstrations, first in Milan and then elsewhere. Very soon afterwards there was the Prague Spring and May ’68 in France. Europe was in turmoil. People wanted change, disruption and rebellion and he became a symbol of that change.”
As time went on, the meaning and the man represented by the image became separated in the western context, Ms Ziff explains.
It began to be used as a decoration for products from tissues to underwear. Unilever even brought out a Che version of the Magnum ice cream in Australia – flavoured with cherry and guava.
“There is a theory that an image can only exist for a certain amount of time before capitalism appropriates it. But capitalism only wants to appropriate images if they retain some sense of danger,” Ms Ziff says.
But in Latin America, she points out, Che Guevara’s face remains a symbol of armed revolution and indigenous struggle.
Indeed, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez often appears wearing a Che T-shirt and visitors to the offices of Bolivia’s leader, Evo Morales, are reportedly greeted with a version of the iconic image fashioned from coca leaves.
Combining capitalism and commerce, religion and revolution, the icon remains unchallenged, Ms Ziff says.
“There is no other image that remotely takes us to all these different places.”