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Viva La . . . Logo?

The image of Che Guevara is popping up everywhere yet again, overshadowing the man himself.

June 01, 2008|Ben Ehrenreich | Special to The Times

If THIS were a photo session, you couldn't have asked for more. The model, long-haired with steely gaze and wispy guerrillero beard. Jacket zipped to the chin. Collar up and hair uncombed. Jaw set in anger. Beret at a perfect, rakish tilt. There's tension even in his pose: his shoulders turning one way, his face another. And those eyes, mournful but defiant, staring up and to the right as if at some distant vision of the future, or a giant, slow-approaching foe.

Snapped in March 1960, Alberto Korda's iconic image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara is possibly -- who's counting? -- the most-reproduced photograph in the world. Some version of it has been painted, printed, digitized, embroidered, tattooed, silk-screened, sculpted or sketched on nearly every surface imaginable. Brick and mortar city walls. Poster board waved high above a crowd. Gisele Bundchen's bikini.

And though he never went away -- except in the strictly mortal sense -- Che is suddenly everywhere again. In October, an Iranian student militia organized a "Che Like Chamran" conference, attempting to enlist the martyred Marxist in the Islamic revolution. (They made the mistake of inviting his daughter, who pointed out that her dad did not believe in God.) Hollywood is at it as well: Steven Soderbergh's long-anticipated, two-part Che biopic ("The Argentine" and "Guerrilla") premiered May 21 at Cannes, with Benicio Del Toro playing the legendary Argentine-doctor-cum-internationalist-revolutionary. And "Chevolution," Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez's documentary on the mass dissemination of the Korda image, is now making the film festival rounds.

Images have a way of shedding context, shaking off history. But just so you know: Korda snapped the shot in the idealistic first blush of the Cuban Revolution, before the Bay of Pigs invasion, before Fidel Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union. One day earlier, an explosion in Havana harbor ripped through a Belgian cargo ship bearing munitions for the nascent regime. Castro blamed the CIA. At the memorial service for the many dozens killed, Korda clicked the shutter and caught Guevara on the podium, angry but determined, staring fearlessly off into the yonder.

The image spread mysteriously, apparently with a will of its own. Revolucion, the Cuban newspaper, used it to announce a conference on industrialization at which Dr. Ernesto Guevara, then minister of industry, planned to lecture. Korda gave a print to the Italian leftist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who distributed it as a poster when he got home. Around the same time, Paris Match somehow got a copy and published it beside a July 1967 article asking "Che Guevara -- Where Is He?" And on the facing page, there is a photo of a crowd gathered in Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion. Waldo-like, Korda's portrait is there already, printed on a placard carried by the crowd.

The portrait would outlive its subject. Immediately after Che's death in October 1967 (in the highlands of Bolivia, where he is now worshiped as a saint), the image multiplied. Marchers carried it through the streets of Milan, Italy, to protest his execution. May '68 swung fast around the corner. There he was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and in Prague, in Mexico City, Paris, Washington, Vietnam.

Transformation

The IMAGE quickly mutated. It was not just the age of protest after all, but of Pop Art and the sly Warholian conflation of culture, celebrity and commerce. Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick flattened out the shading into a bold, T-shirt-friendly graphic in black, white and red. He wanted the image "to breed like rabbits," and it did.

But the shadows and complexities of Che's life and legacy disappeared as well. The man became a logo. As Ivan de la Nuez, a Barcelona, Spain, museum director quoted in Ziff and Lopez's film puts it, "Capitalism devours everything . . . even its worst enemies." Che has proved an abundant meal. His image has sold Converse sneakers and Smirnoff vodka. "Viva Gorditas," barks the Taco Bell Chihuahua, donning a Che beret.

"You think it's funny," the Clash once sang, "turning rebellion into money." Maybe not funny but quite a trick: There's Che beer, Che cola, Che cigarettes, the inevitable Cherry Guevara ice cream. Online at theche store.com, you'll find Che's face on hoodies, beanies, berets, backpacks, bandannas, belt buckles, wallets, wall clocks, Zippo lighters, pocket flasks and of course, T-shirts. La La Ling in Los Feliz sells Che onesies for the wee 'uns. I bought my 3-year-old niece a plush Che doll one Christmas. She abandoned him for Dora the Explorer.

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