Combining Capitalism and Revolution: The Evolution of an Image

by Jennifer Collins

When I was last home in Dublin, my mam got me to go through a box of my old stuff and decide what I wanted to keep. In the process, I came across a radio documentary I made in the final year of my bachelor degree. I studied journalism for four years at Dublin Institute of Technology and as part of our final year projects, we could either produce a magazine as part of a group or make individual radio documentaries. I opted for the latter as I felt I already had enough experience in print journalism and have always loved radio.

So, I decided to make a documentary about the ubiquitous black and red Che Guevara graphic, mainly because a friend of mine knew Jim Fitzpatrick, the Irish artist who claims to be its creator. I was reading a lot about the Cold War and socialist movements at time and found Che Guevara to be an interesting, complex and almost mythical character.

The story of the graphic is also complex, touching on areas such as global movements, iconography and intellectual property rights. The image is in many respects loaded with meaning. But it has been reinterpreted, redefined and reproduced in so many ways and for so many different causes, one has to wonder whether it has become so completely detached from its original meaning (revolution, change, socialism) as to become meaningless or empty. Perhaps it has in a post-modern sense, but perhaps that doesn’t matter – it makes for an interesting story either way.

The image is based on a cropped photo taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960. Korda took the photo during a funeral mass and described Guevara’s expression as “encabronadao y dolente” (angry and sad). The photo remained unpublished for a year and was seen only by those who passed through Korda’s study. In 1967, he gave the image to wealthy Italian intellectual and leftist, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who distributed it in poster form in his home country.

Jim Fitzpatrick, who is also famous for his Celtic artwork and Thin Lizzy album covers, first came across the photo in the German weekly magazine, Stern. When Jim blew up the tiny picture all he got was a dot-matrix pattern from which he produced his psychedelic sea-weed version of Che.

A few months later, a guy involved with a group of Dutch anarchists called the Provo sent him a larger version of the photograph. Jim used this to produce the high-contrast image that gained iconic status.

Upon Che Guevara’s death, Jim reprinted originals of his oil-paint poster using a light-box and sent it to left-wing political activists across Europe. He wanted the image to “breed like rabbits” so he removed his name from it and built an “F” into Che’s tunic so people would know he was the artist.

Jim’s version of the image arrived at a time when many countries were in flux. Old institutions and norms were being stripped away as the 68ers protested everything from the Vietnam War to women’s liberation and civil rights. Che’s death at the hands of the CIA was met with protests around the world and coincided with the Prague Spring and May 1968.

Jim’s motivation for creating the image stemmed mainly from his admiration for Che’s politics, but he also had vivid memories of having met the Argentinian-born revolutionary in a bar in Kilkee, Co. Clare as a teenager. Che — whose full surname was Guevara-Lynch — was taking some time to explore his Irish ancestry during a stop-over on a flight to Moscow. Jim was working in the bar and was just 16 or 17. He described Che as immensely charming, funny, roguish and proud of being Irish.

Copyright and Originality

It’s only recently that Jim has been acknowledged for creating the black and red graphic. Trisha Ziff curated a touring exhibition of the iconography of Che back in 2004 and attributed the graphic to him, as has the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Jim made his image copyright free because he wanted it to be used and reproduced as much as possible, as did Korda, who never received any royalties for his photograph because Cuba didn’t recognise the Bern Convention on intellectual property rights.

There have, however, been a number of disputes about the ownership of the image and its corresponding royalties. When Jim’s graphic first became popular in Europe, the Irish artist claims Feltrinelli threatened him over the phone with the “bullet or the law” for copyright infringement. Jim said he’d take the bullet as he couldn’t afford a lawyer. Feltrinelli seemed to find the response hilarious and never bothered Jim again.

Then there’s the Warhol/Malanga forgery. Jim’s graphic was used in a 1968 painting attributed to Andy Warhol and sold to a gallery in Rome. The image was actually a forgery created by Warhol’s assistant Gerard Malanga who was in need of some quick cash. When Warhol heard of the fraud, he authenticated the fake on the condition that the royalties went to him.

In 2000, Korda sued Smirnoff over the use of the image in an advertisement. While happy for Che’s likeness to be used to promote his memory and social justice, the photographer said he was against the exploitation of the image to promote alcohol. He donated the $50,000 he received in an out-of-court settlement to the Cuban health-care system.

The legal ownership and copyright status of Korda’s photograph is unclear. There are conflicting claims as to whether the image is sill under copyright, although, Korda’s heirs have sought ownership of the photo for a number of years. Korda’s daughter, Diana Diaz, successfully sued Reporters Without Borders, for using the image in a campaign aimed at dissuading tourists from holidaying in Cuba after the imprisonment of 29 journalists.

The decision by Korda and Jim to make the image copyright-free has allowed it to be become THE icon for most forms of counter-protest and revolutionary movements. (It’s notable that netziens have eschewed it in favour of the Guy Fawkes’ figure from “V for Vendetta”.) However, it has also allowed the man to become separated from the meaning, particularly in the Western world. Che’s image has been used on products from underwear to ice cream. Ironically, consumerist-capitalist culture has absorbed Che’s likeness, turning it into a commodity.

There’s much more I could go into here but I haven’t got time right now. I’ll also post the radio documentary (called “An Icon in Two-Tone”) next week once I’ve had a proper listen to it and tightened it up a bit.