The Che Cachet
An Exhibition Traces How the Marxist Revolutionary's Photo Inspired an Army of Capitalists

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

NEW YORK Just look at what they have done to Che.

The glowering visage of the Cuban comandante and ur-Marxist pops up everywhere -- in art, on the cover of magazines and, more blasphemously, on lighters, wallets, coasters, T-shirts, hoodies, key chains, tissue packs, nesting dolls and something called Red Cream Soda.

It's always the same shot, the one where the man born Ernesto Guevara stares into the middle distance with fiery resolve, a military beret perched on his head, a leather jacket zipped up to his neck, hair rakishly blown by the wind. Rifle-wielding freedom fighters around the world have revered this image the way Christians revere saints. But entrepreneurs love it, too. One company slapped the likeness on a frozen treat called Cherry Guevara, vanilla ice cream on a stick, wrapped in chocolate and cherry-flavored sauce.

"The revolutionary struggle of the cherries was squashed as they were trapped between two layers of chocolate," reads the copy on the wrapper. "May their memory live on in your mouth."

Cherry Guevara and other examples of what could be called Che abuse are now on display at the International Center of Photography in midtown Manhattan for an exhibition titled "¡Che! Revolution and Commerce." (The show runs until Feb. 26.) It's the story of a single photograph and its flukey journey from contact sheet to international ubiquity and then into the farcical maw of commercial kitsch. Shot by a onetime fashion photographer named Alberto Korda, it might be, according to the show's curators, the most reproduced image in the history of photography.

The exhibit works, too, as an object lesson in the power -- and on some level, the formidable beauty -- of market economies, which can absorb and commodify anything, even their bitterest enemies. Today, there are dozens of Web sites selling stuff with Korda's Che shot emblazoned on it. Places like Thechestore.com and Fidelche.com mostly target young people who, one assumes, aren't actually gearing up for armed insurrection.

"Our other big seller is beer pong shirts," says Shayn Diamond, a college student in London, Ontario, who a few months ago started selling Che-wear with some friends at Cheguevarashirts.com. "He's a rebel, and along with rebel comes the cool factor and trendiness."

Translation: Viva los fashionistas!

The beginning of all this was more dignified. Korda took the shot the day of a rally in Cuba, organized to protest an explosion in Havana harbor of a ship loaded with ammunition. More than 100 people died in early March 1960, and many Cubans believed it was a CIA-orchestrated crime, not an accident. The following day, maximum leader Fidel Castro turned a mass funeral into a mass protest and Korda, on assignment from a newspaper called Revolucion, was there to capture the event.

Che didn't speak that day, but he showed up briefly on the podium to gaze at the crowd. Korda squeezed off two quick shots with his Leica. The image first turned up publicly in April 1961, in the pages of Revolucion, to promote a conference where Che was the star speaker. Yes, fittingly enough, "Guerrillero Heroico," as Korda called his photo, started off as an advertisement.

Then it just spread. Korda never kept a grip on the copyright, and the shot eventually turned up on the cover of magazines and newspapers in Europe and across the United States. National Lampoon published a satirical version in 1972 with Che taking a pie to the face. Madonna did a variation for her "American Life" album in 2003. When Taco Bell used a Chihuahua in a Guevara-like beret to promote its "revolutionary taco," the company took incoming from Cuban exiles in Miami. The vice president of the company said the ads were intended to represent revolution "generically."

Artists have long played with the iconic power of the image. Among them is Pedro Meyer, who created "Five Dollar Bill," which is in the ICP exhibit and features a blowup of the U.S. fiver, with Che's face where Lincoln's ought to be.

"The U.S. has always had the ability to appropriate rebels," says Meyer, on the phone from his studio in Mexico. "It's a cheap way to deal with your urge to be rebellious. You buy a T-shirt and you don't have to do anything more."

Korda, who died in Paris in 2001, apparently never earned any royalties from his most famous portrait. He did, however, win an out-of-court settlement in England against Smirnoff after the company ran an ad with "Guerrillero Heroico," along with the words "A complete flavoured vodka," a riff perhaps on John Paul Sartre's claim that Che was "the most complete man of his age."

"I am categorically against the exploitation of Che's image for the promotion of products such as alcohol," Korda is quoted as saying, "or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che."

Why Che? How did this Argentine doctor with a bad case of asthma acquire such astounding worldwide cachet, not to mention enduring commercial appeal?

The hunky looks don't hurt. Actually, they help, quite a bit. And few doubt the man's sincerity, even if his sincerest wish was a dreary, centrally planned bummer.

"Even his ideological foes admire him because he represents the great virtues it takes to be a revolutionary," says Jon Lee Anderson, a New Yorker writer who penned the biography "Che: A Revolutionary Life." "Bravery, fearlessness, honesty, austerity and absolute conviction. Those are the prerequisites to carry others into what is actually quite a miserable existence. He lived it. He really lived it."

After he helped to overthrow the Batista government in Cuba, he headed to other countries, including the Congo and Bolivia, to try to foment revolution there. Adding to the mythology, he died a martyr's death in 1967, captured and executed at the age of 39 as he battled U.S.-trained troops in Bolivia. Reportedly, his last words to the soldier who shot him were "Shoot, coward, you're just killing a man."

And, it seems, creating a brand. He's lionized by insurgents around the world, according to Anderson, in places as varied as Burma and Afghanistan. Last month, the new president of Bolivia asked for a moment of silence at his swearing-in to remember, among others, Che Guevara. The Cuban government, meantime, has tapped heavily into Che-mania, presenting Guevara to tourists as the public face of the island ever since the Russians withdrew financial support. Che T-shirts are among the first things you'll see after landing at the Havana airport.

But at least the Cubans know whom they're glorifying. In the United States, Che's life story and ambitions seem beside the point, or maybe they've just been reduced to caricature. The guy's face is shorthand for "I'm against the status quo." He's politics' answer to James Dean, a rebel with a very specific cause. And since very few people know anything about the cause, or the rebel -- besides the basics -- the Che shirt has about it the whiff of inside info. It makes you part of the thrift-store intelligentsia, even if your real focus is beer pong.

This, in brief, is why capitalism won. It's the only system that understands that we'd all like to change the world, but we are way too lazy for that sort of thing. Especially if there's ice cream around. When you get done with a Cherry Guevara, you're left with a wooden stick with the words "We will bite to the end!" stamped on it. If there are nails in Che's coffin, this, no doubt, is what they look like.

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