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Che Guevara, revolutionary or chic icon?

As Fidel Castro continues to recover from surgery, an exhibition featuring an iconic image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Castro’s former friend, confidante, and fellow leader of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, is causing controversy in London.
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A visitor to the exhibition on Ernesto "Che" Guevara at London's Victoria & Albert Museum views an enlargement of the iconic image the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary leader.Fiona Hanson / AP
/ Source: NBC News

It took only a few seconds for Cuban photographer Alberto Korda to snap the photograph of Ernesto “Che” Guevara that would help turn the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary leader into an icon.

Korda shot the photo for a local newspaper in 1960 while covering a mass funeral in Havana held by Fidel Castro for a group of Cubans killed in the explosion of an ammunition-laden freighter.

Korda's newspaper never published the photo of Guevara’s steely gaze as he prepared to speak that day and for years the image existed only as a decoration on Korda’s studio wall. Now one of the most reproduced images of our time, gracing t-shirts, posters, hats, billboards and tattooed torsos around the world, Korda's photo is also the subject of a popular new exhibit at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

While Castro, who celebrated his 80th birthday on Sunday, recovers from his recent stomach surgery, Guevara, the Cuban leader's former friend, confidante and fellow leader of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, is still causing controversy on this side of the Atlantic.

The exhibit’s creator has accused the Victoria and Albert of stripping Guevara’s image of meaning by exploiting its commercial use.

Symbol of rebellion or chic icon?
The exhibit, entitled “Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon,” runs from June 7 until Aug. 28. It examines how Korda’s classic image of Guevara has morphed into an icon larger than the man himself, and taken on a life of its own in popular consciousness and culture.

The exhibit explores the various meanings that Guevara’s image has adopted over the past four decades.

To some, Korda’s classic image symbolizes an abstract sense of rebellion and anti-establishment, while to others it is merely a chic icon in popular culture.

The culture of the era in which Korda’s photograph was originally disseminated — the turbulent and bohemian 1960s — had a profound impact on the way Guevara’s image was received.

“The transformation from symbol of violent revolution to emblem of sixties cool was complete, and Che has remained more Lennon than Lenin ever since,” journalist Sean O’Hagan is quoted in the exhibit as saying.

However diluted or abstract Guevara’s image may be in the popular consciousness today, his legacy as a revolutionary still carries weight for many who see his image.

“Che’s image may be cast aside, bought and sold, and deified,” said Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes, “but it will form a part of the universal system of the revolutionary struggle, and can recover its original meaning at any moment.”

Myriad adaptations
The Victoria and Albert exhibit takes a look at many of Guevara’s photograph’s adaptations.

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It features a myriad of images, paintings, prints and other visual media forms showing objects that feature Korda’s Guevara.

The exhibit shows Guevara as a pop icon, consumer marketing and political propaganda tool, Christ-like figure, revolutionary inspiration, fashion statement and generic symbol of rebellion.

But the exhibit has ruffled feathers as well. Trisha Ziff, the exhibit’s creator and original curator, has expressed her disdain for the way the Victoria and Albert has altered the exhibit.

She is particularly disgusted with the blatant endorsement of commercialism, which she says strips Guevara’s image of meaning and violates the law by not having approval from the Korda estate.

Shift of emphasis?
In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Ziff said the exhibit focuses on the design element only and removes the deeper meaning that she intended to convey.

“They wanted to remove the political aspects of the show,” she said.

“Every museum is entitled to its perception, but when you rent a touring exhibition, you’re renting something that really exists already. Yes, you can make it so it fits into your museum space, but what they did was really attempt, or manage, to kind of shift the emphasis,” Ziff said.

“They wanted to call it ‘Revolutionary Icon,’ as opposed to ‘Revolutionary and Icon,’ which would have made the exhibit only precisely about the iconic meaning of it, and remove the aspect of Che. I fought for the title to sustain the parallels of the content, but it didn’t reflect that in the end in the actual exhibition,” she added.

The museum is selling a wide range of Guevara merchandise, ranging from t-shirts and pins to lip balm.

Even Ziff’s book, “Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon,” which accompanies the exhibit, contains a quote from Korda’s daughter, Diana Diaz, in which she laments the way her father’s photo has been turned into a marketing tool.

“We are constantly demanding that the use of this image be respected. It’s not that it shouldn’t be used; the idea isn’t that the image should not be reproduced. ... My father wasn’t opposed to the image being used. He opposed its misuse. He never wanted it to be used to sell alcohol or cigarettes or perfume,” Ziff’s book quotes Diaz as saying.

Ziff is currently working with British filmmaker Sylvia Stevens to produce a documentary, entitled “Consuming Che,” that is scheduled to be released in 2007 to mark the 40th anniversary of Guevara’s death. The documentary is being directed by Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezski, and will also examine Guevara’s image and how it represents the man himself.

If Ziff’s creative influence on the film is more extensive that she says it has been at the Victoria and Albert, we may see a much different face of Guevara’s personage emerge.