Like most people, you probably recognise the portrait above of Cuban Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara made by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick in 1968 based on a photograph by Alberto Korda shot in 1960.
Guevara’s determined and powerful facial expression, his eyes fixed on the horizon and the star decorated beret, has made it into one of the most iconic and recognisable portraits in history.
The first recorded appearance of this iconic two-tone artwork in a protest movement outside of Cuba was in the West Bank and Gaza protests in 1968 which turned it into an icon, not only for Marxist revolutionaries but almost any protest movement. Commercial designers now started to include it in their designs not because of its political connotation but for its visual appearance and commercial companies, direct or indirect, began using it on products and in their marketing without considering its original connotation as an icon for radical Marxism.
The fact that Fitzpatrick’s portrait of Guevara has come to be adopted by protest movements not necessary with a Marxist agenda and that designers in fashion and graphic design include it in their work only for its visual appearance, has diluted the once strong socialist- and Marxist connotation. This connotational dilution is not one Fitzpatrick neither wanted or anticipated when he created it as a celebration of the communist revolution, but the moment the portrait was published it was no longer he who controlled its meaning.
What graphic designers can learn from this is that the meaning of design work never can be ruled by the artist who creates it. The minute a creative piece of work gets published and seen by others, it is the viewer who states its meaning, not the creator.