Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon/ Sixties Graphics, V&A Museum
It is thought to be the most reproduced photo-graph in history: Che Guevara snapped by Alberto Korda with his Leica in 1960.
Taken from below, it captures Che, with a stylish light, leather jacket, beret, wild hair and designer stubble, staring straight ahead, and thus above and beyond the viewer — a line of sight appropriate to a man of destiny, though Korda described the look as “angry and pained”.
Paris-Match and radical Italian publisher Feltrinelli had already used the image before Che’s death in 1967, at the hands of CIA-directed Bolivian forces secured him immortality as an icon of radical romantic revolution.
Since then, stylised and warped versions of the image have adorned everything from protest posters to beers, cigarette packets and porn mags, via canvases and prints by artists from Warhol to Gavin Turk.
The process by which such icons emerge and become drained of meaning through overuse is fascinating, informing John Updike’s observation that “fame is the mask that eats into the face”.
But the show here, a collection of multiple manifestations of the Che portrait, adds little depth to the subject and merely presents a colourful succession of images. It would have been more effective to compare the reality of Che’s beliefs with the vacuity of the icon.
It would have been interesting to show the opposite of Korda’s image, the photo by Freddy Alborta of Bolivian troops posing with Che’s corpse. As Mao Zedong pointed out, revolutions weren’t about album covers, but “acts of violence by which one class overthrows another”.
Those who’d disagree with Mao’s reductive view of politics may find comfort in a small but forceful display of graphic works from the Sixties in which pretty pictures, in the main psychedelic album covers and music posters, abound.
Michael English’s powerfully voluptuous, brash, comic-style lines formed lips and words to advertise the UFO club on Tottenham Court Road; German artist Edelmann’s LSD-inspired cartoons helped shape the image of The Beatles; while the likes of Oz Magazine deployed a range of tactics to force cultural change.
As with Che, the radicalism of these styles and images rests firmly in the past, yet they live on in a weird Frankenstein afterlife, reanimated by the global industries of mass consumer culture.
Sixties Graphics until 12 November; Che Guevara until 28 August. Information: 020 7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk.