The Scotsman


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by Duncan Macmillan
11 August 2004

MAO TSE TUNG, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor - they are modern icons: we know them above all by one picture, and that is because of Andy Warhol. He saw that the ancient idea of an icon, of a picture of an individual that carries a special kind of power, was alive and well and living in the newspapers. So he took simplified, grainy, newsprint pictures of these people, and others like them, and, reducing them even more radically into graphic patterns of light and dark, turned them into modern icons.

But the most familiar icon of all, the person who we really do not know any other way, is Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

An Argentine doctor, Guevara became one of the architects of the Cuban revolution. He saw it through, then tried to move the revolution to Bolivia, where he was murdered. The CIA was behind his capture, but not his death. They knew he was more dangerous as a martyr than defeated and alive in some remake of a Roman triumph. They were right. Martyred, his image lives on undimmed. Gazing over our heads into the future, from posters, T-shirts, badges, buttons, in Warhol’s familiar simplified pattern of red and black, he is everywhere. He can currently be seen both on Ricky Gervais’s posters for a comedy show, Politics, and in Gavin Turk’s exhibition at Edinburgh Printmakers, Faces, a show about celebrity in which Turk has created self-portraits of himself as Che, in the style of Warhol.

Ironically, though, this is not a Warhol icon - Warhol never made a picture of Guevara. The image comes from a photograph taken by the Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, at a funeral service when Guevara stepped on to the podium to speak. Korda took other pictures of the revolutionary, but the celebrity of this one means it is the only image, the icon, by which alone we know him.

The actual photograph includes a bit of background, but in the centre is that unforgettable face, eyes uplifted like some Baroque saint. Perhaps he is foreseeing his own martyrdom. It is certainly a visionary picture, and that is its appeal.

The photograph was not published at the time, but the artist gave a print to an Italian journalist, and when Guevara died it was published as a poster in Italy. The original poster seems to be anonymous, and it owes an obvious debt to Warhol, but it became universal. Occasionally it is reversed, but such is its iconic status that it doesn’t matter.

Korda himself never received any royalty for his picture. However, when the Smirnoff Vodka company used it in an advertising campaign, he sued them, saying: "As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world, but I am categorically against the exploitation of Che’s image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che." He won an out of court settlement and gave the proceeds to the Cuban hospitals. In ironic contrast, it was Warhol himself who was the first artist to co-operate with Smirnoff’s rivals, Absolut Vodka, when they began their still ongoing campaign to co-opt modern art to the cause of selling spirits.

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