Che exhibition opens in London's V&A Museum

Campaign News | Saturday, 3 June 2006

Richard Gott of the Guardian reviews a major new retrospective on the famous photograph by Korda

Poster boy

His face has become an iconic image, used both as a symbol of protest and a fashion accessory. Richard Gott traces the story of Korda's photo of Che Guevara

Saturday June 3, 2006

The Guardian,,1789301,00.html

The famous photograph of Che Guevara snapped by Alberto Korda in 1960 has circulated throughout the globe in the past half century, endlessly reproduced in increasingly exotic forms, each created with different intentions and evoking varied responses. Jesus Christ, Madonna, Princess Diana have all had their picture adapted and inserted under Che's familiar red star beret, and framed by the same shaggy locks, in a subversive format pioneered by irreverent manipulators of the Mona Lisa.

Che the icon has overtaken Che the revolutionary practitioner and theorist, and inevitably this transition is now the subject of books, exhibitions and doctoral theses.

While several books have dealt with the photographic and artistic portrayal of Guevara over the years, a new exhibition, originally shown at the California Museum of Photography and coming to the V&A this week, concentrates specifically on the history and legacy of the Korda portrait, often known as the Guerrillero Heróico, the startling image with eyes gazing fiercely into some distant horizon, traditionally displayed in students' rooms.

The original photograph was taken at a dramatic and dangerous moment at the start of the Cuban revolution's second year. Seeking to arm itself against a US invasion everyone knew would come, the new revolutionary regime had ordered a boatload of weapons and ammunition (mostly rifles and grenades) from Belgium, an imperial arms-manufacturing country that was trying, at the time, to disentangle itself from its African colony, the Belgian Congo. Several tons of this vital cargo, carried by a French ship, La Coubre, exploded in Havana harbour in March 1960 as it was moored ready to unload. The crew and 75 Cuban dockers were killed, and more than 200 were injured. Extensive damage was caused to the installations of the port.

For Cubans with a sense of history, the tragic explosion recalled the destruction of the US battleship Maine in the same harbour in 1898, an event that killed 258 sailors and sparked off the US invasion of Cuba that same year. Did this fresh disaster presage another American attack? And was it sabotage or (as the Maine was subsequently revealed to be) an accident?

No one knew, but, at the funeral ceremony for the dockers held the next day, Fidel Castro claimed immediately that it was the work of the Americans. Crowded on to the improvised platform beside him were Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and behind, in a zippered jacket arriving late, was Che Guevara, the man who had invited them to Cuba. Alberto Korda, a photographer then working for the newspaper Revolución, snapped away at the celebrities, recalling the event years later to Jorge Castañeda, one of Che's biographers. "Che was not visible; he was standing behind the rostrum. But for a moment there was an empty space in the front row, and in the background the figure of Che appeared. He unexpectedly entered my viewfinder and I shot the photo horizontally. I immediately realised that the image of him was almost a portrait, with the clear sky behind him."

Korda took two shots, the first with Guevara framed alone between an anonymous silhouette and the frond of a palm tree, and the second with someone's head appearing above his shoulder. The first picture, with the intruding material edited out, became the original famous portrait. Neither photograph attracted the attention of the picture desk of Korda's newspaper. Other shots were available of the Cuban and foreign dignitaries at the funeral parade, as well as of Castro speaking, and these were the ones used in the paper. Korda's photo of Che was first printed a year later in an advertisement for a lecture that Guevara was about to give in April 1961. It appeared twice, because the lecture was postponed as a result of the Bay of Pigs invasion by US-backed Cuban exiles that had been expected at the time the photograph had been taken.

The picture then disappeared for several years, like Guevara himself. He left Cuba in 1965 to help organise guerrilla operations elsewhere, first in Africa in the Congo, and later in Latin America. Not until August 1967, when he was known to be fighting in Bolivia, engaged in his final guerrilla war, after Havana had published his last revolutionary message - "Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams" - was the Korda photograph first printed abroad. This was to accompany an article written by French journalist Jean Lartéguy about the guerrilla movements in Latin America, which appeared in Paris Match

Two months later, in October, Guevara was captured in the hilly scrub of eastern Bolivia and shot on the orders of the Bolivian high command. Castro addressed a huge memorial rally at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, facing an immense blown-up photograph of the Guerrillero Heróico that had been placed over five storeys of the building housing the Ministry of the Interior. (A more permanent metal silhouette remains there today.) The vital connection between the recently martyred Che and Korda's mournful, elegiac and evocative photograph had been established.

The image soon caught on abroad. Korda clearly liked the picture and had it pinned up in his studio, and he would sometimes give a copy to favoured guests. One of these was Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the radical Italian publisher who made frequent visits to Cuba in the early years of the revolution and had once planned to ghost Castro's biography (and who blew himself up in an ill-advised sabotage operation outside Milan in 1972).

After Che's diary of his Bolivian expedition had miraculously surfaced in Havana in 1968, Castro gave Feltrinelli the Italian rights and the book was published in Italy with the Korda photo on the cover. Feltrinelli also arranged for the printing of hundreds of posters, using the photograph to advertise the book, and these were soon taken up by Italian students demonstrating during the hot summer of 1968. The image, evoking the memory of Guevara's recent death, spread throughout the demonstrations in Europe that year as a symbol of student struggle and international protest. The iconic career of Korda's photo had begun.

The Russian revolution had pioneered the creation and use of political posters as an important propaganda tool, and the Cuban revolution had done the same, adopting the commercial techniques of Madison Avenue for their own ideological purposes to brilliant effect. The enthusiasm of radical newspapers for the photo-mechanical transfer, which enabled simple photographs to be transformed in the darkroom into a half-tone image that was easily and cheaply printed, gave the Korda portrait its trendy, mass-produced quality. It exploded on to the international scene at a very specific moment, when the new wave of Pop Art, which created posters associated with the music business, was sweeping through the western world. The Beatles, Bob Dylan and other rock bands commissioned pop artists to design their record sleeves. The red star in Che's beret was up there with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", and Andy Warhol's silk-screen images of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong were soon adapted to include him.

I have written many times, in this paper and elsewhere, of meeting Che Guevara and being struck by his magnetic physical attraction, comparable to the aura of a rock star. Almost everyone had the same impression, and journalists were particularly susceptible. I thought he was beautiful. Marilyn Zeitlin from the US remembered him as "absolutely gorgeous". Julia Costenlos from Argentina recalled how he was "blessed with a unique appeal ... an incalculable enchantment that came completely naturally". Others, those perhaps who knew him better, recognised that he could be cold and harsh, preoccupied and uncaring, driven by an internal flame that had little time for the sensitivities of others. He was, after all, an exponent and practitioner of revolutionary violence.

Most of those who sport the Che Guevara logo today forget that he was the Osama bin Laden of his time. He believed the US to be the principal menace in the world, and he thought it was the duty of revolutionaries to encompass its destruction. He was living, of course, during the Vietnam war, and the last article he wrote, "Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams", published in 1967, was a call for fresh struggle to be launched around the world to take the pressure off the Vietnamese. "Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism," he wrote, "and a battle hymn for the people's unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America." He called for the struggle to be taken "into every corner the enemy happens to carry it: - to his home and his centres of entertainment." He called for his own death to be celebrated with "the staccato singing of the machine gun", and several of his disciples took him at his word. The Tupamaros, a guerrilla movement in Uruguay, kidnapped and shot a US torture instructor and blew up a nightclub.

Securely insulated from politics, Guevara's image is now largely perceived as a fashion accessory, the logo on the celebrity T-shirt or the handbag. In a pioneering article in the first issue of Another Magazine, Mark Sanders teased out the origins of Korda's aesthetic, having interviewed him shortly before his death in 2001. Korda, whose real name was Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, was born in Havana in 1928 and worked as a young man as a fashion photographer. He photographed the beau monde of the Batista era before the revolution, and models queued up outside his studio to have their picture taken. He aimed to be the Richard Avedon of Cuba. Taken by surprise by the guerrilla victory of 1959, he worked subsequently with Raúl Corrales, Castro's official photographer, to capture the excitement of the revolution. In his image of Che, something survives of his earlier experience with beautiful women. With the extraordinarily long hair and wispy beard, it is a strikingly androgynous portrait, and in the 1970s it inevitably appeared on a poster as "Che Gay".

Judging by the accompanying book, edited by Trisha Ziff, the exhibition will leave much to be desired. The book is a superficial and sloppy piece of historical reporting that relies considerably for its best sections on the expertise of David Kunzle, a brilliant exponent of poster art at UCLA. Kunzle has written a much better book, Che Guevara: Icon, Myth and Message, the text for an earlier exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, in 1998. Yet such is the enduring public appetite for anything remotely connected with Guevara, in all his many representations, this latest show will surely be hugely popular, if only for the graphics.

· Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon is on show at the V&A, London SW7, from Wednesday until August 28. Tickets: 0870 906 3883, Richard Gott's Cuba: A New History, is published by Yale University Press, £9.99

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