The Many Faces of Che

BY Arts Desk  February 12, 2009 at 5:40 PM EDT

When Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara is asked “How does it feel to be a symbol?” in Steven Soderbergh’s new movie about him, Guevara replies, “A symbol of what?”

While Soderbergh leaves that question largely rhetorical for viewers, countless artists have drawn inspiration from Guevara’s image and come to their own conclusions. In the mainstream, Guevara — the communist thinker, doctor and guerilla — is a free-floating symbol of counterculture. He is the silhouetted face on countless products — T-shirts, posters, bikinis and underwear. His charisma even inspired the Taco Bell Chihuahua, clad in a beret, to give his own cry of freedom: ‘Viva Gorditas!’

But in the art world, a more nuanced and complex portrait has emerged. Che is attached to many movements; depicted as Jesus, an African-American, a Mexican, a waterfall, peace, a map, or as himself, wearing lipstick, kissing another man.

“A lot of the time he is adopted by other ideologies as an inspirational force by some concept, whether it’s freedom, equality or justice,” said Fabian Wagmister, an associate film professor at UCLA, who has researched artwork about Guevara.

Che[Click here to watch a slideshow of art inspired by Che]

The art, be it on clothing or a mural, “is a call to make a commitment to our cause, whatever the cause is,” Wagmister said. What makes Che such a transmutable image? Wagmister believes it is Guevara’s transformation from bourgeois youth to impassioned ideologue, an illustration of an individual’s capacity for self-realization and sacrifice.

“This idea of transformation, which is key for most of the art about Che, speaks a lot about Che as a sort of a model for being a better person,” Wagmister said. “He becomes kind of a mirror on which a lot of artists and people like to look in.”

Guevara took it upon himself to explore Latin America on motorcycle, while most of his peers preferred European vacations. An unlikely communist hero, he wasn’t a devoted Marxist until about a year before leaving for Cuba to wage war.

He became such an inspirational force in Cuba, that for many years school children were taught that “to be a good man is to be like Che,” Wagmister said. “The question is, which Che? To be like Che could be to be like Christ. To be like Che could be to be a poet, to be a warrior, it could be almost anything.”

Some filmmakers try to find answers relevant to the present, focusing on Guevara’s influence on current politics. Bolivia’s indigenous president, Evo Morales, who is a “kind of fulfillment of something Che began 40 years ago,” and other leftist leaders in Brazil and Venezuela, who also draw on Che’s power to capture the imaginations of their citizens, “are part of that legacy of the Latin American struggle for self-determination that Che and the Cuban revolution led,” said Jeffrey Skoller, associate professor of film studies at UC-Berkeley.

In tracing Guevara’s route through Bolivia in a film called “Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal,” Richard Dindo, a Swiss filmmaker, links “the Bolivian present with that past moment,” Skoller said. “By hearing the diaries and seeing the images of the present, we’re forced to think about what that means.”

Another film, “Utopia,” by American filmmaker James Benning, uses audio of Guevara’s Bolivian diary over images of the border region in Southern California to explore issues of immigration and economic injustice, Skoller said.

Other films and documentaries, such as “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Che!” “Che Guevara” and “Mi Hijo el Che” (My Son, Che), give other perspectives on Guevara.

Advertisements have put their own spin on Guevara as well. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, socialist art became fair game for advertising companies that appropriated the images as symbols for consumer freedom. The famous image of an intense-looking Guevara by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda was “de-contextualized, de-politicized” in advertising and used to sell knickknacks, Skoller said. Still, people and artists find ways to make it their own.

“I have a little bit of problem that there is this one Che” in the mainstream, Wagmister said. “Che has many sides to him; that’s what I like about the more creative representations.”

The other famous photograph of Che was taken after his capture and execution. Bolivian photographer Freddy Alborta’s picture of a dead Guevara with his eyes opened was circulated around the world, enraging his supporters and sparking curiosity in a figure that, to some, seemed to transcend death.

The picture of Che, half-dressed, barefoot, surrounded by soldiers, is reminiscent of two great works of art: Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp,’ and ‘Lamentation over the Dead Christ’ by Andrea Mantegna.

“While Korda’s photograph became a consumer product, Freddy Alborta’s photograph cannot possibly become that because it’s a reminder of death, so it becomes more of a work of art,” said Argentine filmmaker Leandro Katz, whose documentary, “El Dia Que Me Quieras” (The Day You’ll Love Me), is about the image.

Guevara’s chapter in Latin American history is a brief one, Katz said, “and yet it has taken cultural proportions that go beyond what one could have expected from a minor incident, so the question for us is: What does Guevara really represent?”