Che Guevara, Jim Fitzpatrick and the making of an icon

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2008), Volume 16

Andy Warhol’s Che, based on the Jim Fitzpatrick poster.

Andy Warhol’s Che, based on the Jim Fitzpatrick poster.

Jim Fitzpatrick’s motivation for producing a poster of revolutionary Che Guevara was both personal—he met the man himself as a 16-year-old—and political: he was a left-wing activist himself by the time he produced his first Che image five years later.
His family background would not have suggested such an outcome. He describes his mother as ‘an Empire loyalist, not the bigoted type’. This was counter-balanced by the influence of his mother’s nieces, who shared the family home and whom he describes as ‘rabid republicans of the “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” variety’. They were not unsympathetic to Nazi Germany during the ‘emergency’, but he adds that this was before the full horror of the Holocaust and extermination camps were public knowledge. He describes his own education in Gormanston College as ‘right-wing fundamentalist Catholic’. Yet he was impressed by his Franciscan teachers’ missionary activity, especially in South America, and their espousal of Liberation Theology. Hence was the seed of his radicalism sown. By the mid-1960s he describes himself as ‘a fervent left-wing Marxist’ but still a Catholic (he still is). He was never a member of any political party or organisation but was sympathetic to the ‘official’ Republican movement, although he also did work for People’s Democracy in its early days.
Because of an interest in German graphics, Jim Fitzpatrick was a regular reader of Stern magazine, and it was there in summer 1967 that he first came across the photograph (also published in Paris Match) that he was later to immortalise in poster form. The photograph, titled Guerrillero Heroico, was taken by Alberto Korda on 5 March 1960 at a rally in Havana to commemorate the victims of an explosion on the munitions ship La Coubre, which may or may not have been the result of CIA-backed sabotage. Originally a fashion photographer, Korda became a lifelong communist and, in effect, official photographer of the Cuban revolution. He never accepted any royalties for the image, although he was sensitive about its inappropriate commercialisation. In 2000 he won an out-of-court settlement from the advertising agency of Smirnoff vodka, which he donated to a children’s hospital in Cuba. Korda died in 2001.
Others were not so magnanimous. Korda’s photo remained in obscurity until summer 1967, when Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli—who scored notable successes with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and di Lampedusa’s The Leopard—acquired the rights to publish Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries (published the following year), along with the photo. Korda would not accept a fee because he regarded Feltrinelli as ‘a friend of the revolution’. Fearing (correctly) Guevara’s imminent capture in the months preceding his death in October 1967, it was Feltrinelli who distributed and sold posters of the photo to, he claimed, raise awareness of Che’s precarious situation. He litigiously asserted his ‘ownership’ of the image, however, and never paid Korda royalties. Jim Fitzpatrick says that someone claiming to be Feltrinelli later made him a threatening phone call—not an idle threat (if genuine) since Feltrinelli, a communist partisan during World War II, was a founder of Partisan Action Group (GAP), a terrorist group similar to the Red Brigades. He was killed by his own explosives while sabotaging an electricity pylon near Milan on 14 March 1972.
In 1967 Jim Fitzpatrick was doing a radical satirical series for Scene magazine called ‘A voice in our times’, relating to the Vietnam War. For example, one had British Prime Minister Harold Wilson as US President Johnson’s ‘poodle’: the dog had Wilson’s head on it. Then, to be a bit more radical, he did a black-and-white Che Guevara image in an art nouveau-ish psychedelic style:

‘I thought my original psychedelic work was very artistic, very beautiful, but it didn’t communicate the way the [later] red and black poster did. It hit you in the face.’

The ‘psychedelic’ version was produced before Che’s death and was inspired by his trip to Bolivia:

‘I thought he was one of the greatest men who ever lived, and I still do in many ways. And when he was murdered, I decided I wanted to do something about it, so I created the poster. I felt this image had to come out, or he would not be commemorated otherwise. He would go where heroes go, which is usually into anonymity.’

HIs black and red screen-printed poster version (front cover) was produced after Guevara’s death in October 1967. It was based on a high-quality photo of Korda’s photo obtained from Amsterdam’s anarchist Provo magazine, which in turn got it from a print presented by Korda himself to Jean-Paul Sartre. While Jim Fitzpatrick regards his poster as a stand-alone graphic for which he holds the copyright, he has never claimed royalties for its use (or abuse). He is currently in discussion with the Cuban authorities with a view to handing over copyright and royalties to the same Cuban children’s hospital that benefited from Korda’s Smirnoff settlement.
The poster was a two-colour screen print, with the yellow star on the beret coloured in by hand with a magic marker. The original Korda print was altered in subtle ways and the eyes given a slightly more upward gaze, thus creating a somewhat ‘saintly’ appearance. Fitzpatrick admits that this may have been a subconscious reflection of his Catholic upbringing but it wasn’t done consciously at the time. He also gave the image more hair since long hair was then a symbol of rebellion.
Initially he produced and distributed the poster (with some initial difficulty) on a commercial basis to shops all over England, and in Carnaby Street in London in particular. He soon abandoned that approach in favour of free distribution to various left-wing groups in Ireland, England, France, Holland and Spain (where a consignment was seized by Franco’s authorities). ‘I literally wanted it to breed like rabbits. I wanted it to spread.’
Jim Fitzpatrick has read much of his hero’s political writings but admits that he finds them heavy going. Nor does he think that he is without blemish. He quotes a statement by the archbishop of La Paz: ‘He’d prefer if people worshipped Che as a hero but please don’t make him a saint’. Surveying contemporary South America—with Chavez in government in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia and Lula in Brazil—Fitzpatrick considers that Che Guevara represents a project that is still relevant and ongoing. He is pleased at the proliferation of the image, even in its latest ‘BIFFO’ reinterpretation. If Taoiseach Brian Cowen is influenced in any way by Che Guevara’s ideals and strives for a more equal society, Jim Fitzpatrick will have no complaints.

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