Why Che Guevara's image is still a bestseller

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Fidel Castro nowhere to be seen, it was left to the ailing Comandante's brother, Raul, to front last week's celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. But in Havana's vast Plaza de la Revolucion, another hero of 1959 was more visible than either Castro. His features, frozen in time for more than 40 years, bolted to the forbidding Ministry of the Interior in the form of a gigantic sculpture, must be among the most recognisable in modern history.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara might not have become so famous were it not for that image. He probably would not be the subject of a four-hour, two-part movie epic directed by Steven Soderbergh: Che: Part One was released on New Year's Day to coincide with the anniversary of the revolution, the armed communist struggle in which Argentinean Guevara was Castro's second-in-command.

The film will doubtless cause a spike in demand for Che memorabilia; his likeness has been seen on millions of T-shirts and posters. But there's also been Gisele Bündchen's bosom, seen a few years ago supported by a "Che" bikini; Liz Hurley's Louis Vuitton handbag, embroidered with Che's face; and the Guevara T-shirt worn by Lindsay Lohan in Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen.

How did a revolutionary Marxist militant, who died 42 years ago, become a poster-boy for conspicuous consumption and a hipster-friendly logo of radical chic? And how much do Lohan, Hurley, Bündchen, and successive generations of students with wall space to plaster, really know about the man with the flared nostrils, gold-starred black cap and eyes exploding with emotion?

Che had good timing, says David Crowley, a design historian at the Royal College of Art and co-curator of Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970 currently at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. "By the 1960s, the image of revolution in the Communist world had become enervated," he says. "But the Cuban revolution injected electricity into it. The Che image was very much tied up with that excitement, which was so attractive to radicals in the West."

Nobody wanted Brezhnev on their T-shirt – but Che was different. Che was hot. But how many of the people who brandish his bearded image on their chests can claim to be "radicals"? At some point in the past 50 years Che idolatry became Che chic. "I think it's to do with a fetish we have for the 1960s," Crowley explains. "A fascination with that period runs throughout our culture."

The Che image also speaks to the wider popularity of the communist aesthetic. Yellow-starred T-shirts in Hanoi, Soviet propaganda posters in Moscow, Mao watches in Beijing; all of the above worn on the streets of London, New York and Tokyo. The trend dates back to the birth of Constructivism in 1920s Russia, a movement in art, design and architecture. "The imagery testifies to a moment when people imagined the future could be better," Crowley says. "It's hard to make that claim today, which makes that imagery look even more utopian and attractive."

Che's face has become so popular that Crowley sought an alternative to what he calls the famous "overworked image" for the V&A exhibition. The omission might disappoint the man most responsible for its proliferation, Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick. The 65-year-old painter met Guevara as a barman in the early 1960s. Che had stopped off in Ireland on a trip to Moscow to investigate his Celtic ancestry. "He was immensely charismatic," Fitzpatrick recalls.

Later, Fitzpatrick, then a committed republican and revolutionary, was struck by a snapshot of his hero in the German magazine Stern. Taken at a memorial service in 1960 by Castro's photographer, Alberto Korda, it had hung largely unseen on Korda's wall until a radical Italian publisher disseminated it to draw attention to Guevara's plight; the revolutionary was then leading a doomed rebellion in Bolivia, the country in which he was to be executed, in 1967.

Fitzpatrick decided that, as a poster, the image could have a greater impact, so he created the first red, white and black rendering of the shot. "It was my revenge for Che's brutal murder," Fitzpatrick says. "I felt he had been disassembled and would be forgotten. But he was a hero and a Marxist and I felt very strongly that that shouldn't happen."

Fitzpatrick prolonged the memory of Guevara but never profited from the image's ubiquity. Korda, too, relinquished the copyright to his photo, until, in 2000, Smirnoff used it in a Vodka commercial. Korda sued and today both men are trying to pass the copyright for their images – and the huge royalties they would harvest – to a Havana children's hospital...

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