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Che's Afterlife

The Legacy of an Image
By Michael Casey

I was just cleaning up my to-read list, and deleted the entry for this book. Usually I’ll include a little note about where/how I found out about something. Typically it’s a link back to the review or interview that piqued my interest. In this case it was a blog post. About how great the book’s cover is. That should have been a hint.

Though it purports to be a history of how an Alberto Korda photograph of a young Che Guevara became one of the most recognized and iconized images on the planet, Casey seems to know how impossible a task that is (though he could have spent more time on the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick's role in the story - his duotone rendition of the image is pretty clearly the most popular and heavily-reproduced version, in part because he declined to assert copyright over the image) and instead opts for a mix of travelogue (Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia, Ireland, I-forget-where-else, but enough places to make me thoroughly envious of his research budget) and biography (of Korda and Che, primarily, but I learned a fair bit about Castro, too) to enlarge what is too viral and sprawling a narrative to be told in any coherent way.

It's not a bad book, but it's light on the things I was looking for and heavy on what I wasn't. Early discussion of the Korda photograph's strengths as a piece of art gives eventual way to quick-hit Che-spotting around the world (beer! condoms! neo-Nazi icon!). Even this anecdata is less enjoyable than it ought to be, owing to Casey's overwrought prose. I'd here provide one of the many examples I noted while reading, but when I started to type one of them up, I got furious all over again, and this blog is supposed to be my freaking hobby, so screw it. In some ways the book reads better as a Che biography told through the prism of the Korda image than as an analysis of the image itself, but since I was interested in the latter I came away rather disappointed. That said, the volume of notes below should suggest how fun the ride was, and why I kept reading in spite of some sentences that required three or four passes to parse.

Notes!
p. 12 In fact, left-wing politics is so subordinate to the global capitalist system that it has itself become a tradable “product” within it. This is especially so with the symbols and images of the left – no more so than with the Che icon.
p. 38 We even have a scientific measure of Che’s expression, courtesy of University of Amsterdam researcher Nicu Sebe, who recently applied an “affective computing” technique for reading people’s emotions to portraits of famous figures. (Sebe claimed to have solved the Mona Lisa mystery: She was 93 percent happy and 7 percent disgusted.)
p. 126 A prominent figure in Paris at this time was Jean-Paul Sartre. He regularly turned up at the occupied Odeon Theater to inspire students; around this time he also made his now-famous pronouncement that Che was “the most complete man of our age.” Years later those words would appear engraved on the back of pirated copies of Swatch’s Revolućion line of Che watches.
p. 188 …Evo Morales, a socialist president [of Bolivia] who hangs a Korda Che made from coca leaves in his office. (I was really disappointed not to have this image included in the color signatures bound into the book with examples of Che imagery from around the world.)
p. 231 …if Obama can give Brand USA the lift it desperately needs, Che may lose some of his appeal. (Casey is a journalist, not an art historian, so I suppose he can be forgiven for failing to notice the obvious allusion [even more obvious in this blog post] to the Korda Che in Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster. I'm not going to do that forgiving, mind you, but it's possible.)
p. 251 …mainstream filmmakers have struggled to bring to the screen the most polemical part of Che’s life… Even in 1969, for the filming of Che! – in which Omar Sharif’s Guevara emerges as a violent psychopath who manipulates a buffoonlike Fidel Castro (Jack Palance) – …the director’s plans…lapsed into a widely panned farce.
p. 260 Filmmakers Adirana Marino and Douglas Duarte even caught neo-Nazis in Germany wearing Che T-shirts and explaining why they do so.

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