We have all seen it, many have worn it on their t shirts, some have had it tattoed on their skin, a few embroidered in their underwear and who knows where else. It’s the icon of the liberty fighter, the legendary Che, photographed by Alberto Diaz Guttierez – Alberto Korda – in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.
It’s the subject of an exhibition at Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, a (post) colonial institution that has turned into a politically correct information centre about the third world, specifically the tropical part of it. It looks more like a huge school facility than a museum, actually, and on Sundays it is graced by the presence of many youngsters and children plus respective parents, all of them mostly misbehaving. A nice family outing it is, in case of bad weather, and combines educational values with the thought of eternal summers. So it is a huge success. Braving the noise and the crowds, I climbed three steep monumental flights of stairs with revolutionary verve and entered at last the small section that was dedicated to the famous icon, dodging all the rest. I went in looking for food for thoughts and came out with a fierce appetite, still there is much to be said in favour of stimulating instead of quenching one’s thirst for knowledge, I guess.
The display starts well, with the original frame, not cropped, exactly the way Korda took it with his Leica M2 and 90 mm lens, on that faithful day in Havana. Furthermore we are treated to the contact sheet of the very film, Kodak Plus X Pan, and the fatal frame number 40 followed by 41 shot in vertical. On the same roll many times Fidel, and also unexpectedly but not surprisingly, Sartre and de Beauvoir. But none of these have the power of the two, no, the one frame showing a young and bearded Che Guevara fiercely looking in the distance. The full frame shows more than that, there is also a palm tree in one corner and a face in profile on the other side, so still and statuary that I can’t make out whether it is made of flesh or stone. Korda cropped these potentially distracting elements out of the picture, and turned it into a portrait that was to become hugely famous.
What is it about this photograph that makes it so special?
Instead of getting entangled into a complex reconstruction of Che Guevara’s life and politics, I think we can approach this image on another level, as it is safe to assume that many of those who wear the t shirt don’t have but the faintest idea of who Ernesto Guevara de la Serna really was. So this image works on a more subliminal level and requires really little background information to be appreciated. It is exactly what the title says it is: a portrait of a heroic guerrilla fighter. We might add that it is the portrait of a young heroic guerrilla fighter, or even a young heroic guerrilla freedom fighter and we have all the elements we need to make it a success. It appeals to the ever present ambition or hope of each generation to face the future, change things, shape its destiny. The fact that most of us, and indeed of the generations, fail in this respect doesn’t deter new ones from being born and wishing for the same, firmly believing to be the first ever to have thought their thoughts and wished their wishes. Che Guevara also fits the hero expectations in another respect: true to the classic Greek tradition, a hero gives his life in pursuit of his goal. This is the ultimate test of his worth, the only possible closure of his adventure, the seal that conclusively proves his virtues. Regardless of how one feels about his politics, die he did, young at that, fighting a lost cause in the mountains of Bolivia. Still all this is factual background, doesn’t account for the image. In fact there are more photographs of him, and none have the same magnetism, some are quite boring, or show a somewhat arrogant man smoking a ridiculously enormous cigar and wearing combat fatigues in an office. Those look incongruous, and not so inspiring. It’s the fighter become minister, the same man but not shown in his essence.
So let’s look at the image itself again: taken from below, it has been said, in accordance to Soviet propaganda style. That is not true. The low point of view is by no means a prerogative of soviet style at all, but is used by any regime or system wishing to enhance the status of a personality, from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia to some glamour shots of Hollywood stars. Besides, this is a reportage shot taken by a photographer from street level, of authorities standing on some kind of stage, making speeches. What other angle would have been available to him? So this is probably not staged – call me naïve but I intend to take Alberto's word for it-. He cropped it all right, but still his shot retains something unpolished and authentic about it, not retouched. Soviet style would probably have called for a haircut, maybe even a shave at the hand of some brush artist to give it the distinctive mummy like communist hero look which has been so well translated in western homo eroticism by Gilbert and George or later in some ads for Jean Paul Gaultier. No, no. This is rough, more true to life, simple and therefore effective and believable. It has the smell of truth.
Now I want you to be brave and follow me over the top on a huge leap from Cuba to Florence. When Michelangelo gave life to his David, carving the huge marble block into the young hero, he decided to set the action at a particular moment: a revealing instant. David is a young man, at the dawn of his manhood, faced with a great danger and a serious challenge. He is not shown holding the giant’s severed head like in Donatello’s gracious bronze boy, the feat accomplished, but in the moments before the battle. His body is a classical combination of tension and relaxation, strength and calm, but his gaze is determined. It’s an image of defiance: a symbol of the young republic of Florence faced with external enemies, about to rally its citizens in defence of its newly acquired freedom. David is measuring up his enemy, confident of his own inner strength, focused on the task ahead and sure of his ultimate victory.
A great artist like Michelangelo has created something that will stand forever not only as a celebration of male beauty but also as a symbol of youth and its generous commitment to the fight for liberty. This will in practice mean very different things for different times and places and hopefully will not entail the use of violence in the future, but the intensity of the moment, the look of the eyes, is the same through the ages. The intense gaze as devised by the “divine” Michelangelo was captured by the quick Alberto Korda in a split second, maybe in instant recognition, certainly in confirmation, that the revelation of good photography and that of art must eventually come together, being, by definition, both moments of deeper truth.
I like to think that this is what we respond to in the image of “El guerrillero Heroico”: it’s an ageless symbol of the relentless effort to realize the ambitions of our youth and the legitimate will to determine our own faith defying those who want to control it or the history that has preceded us.
Hasta la Victoria, siempre!