Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an Argentine revolutionary most famous for the role he played in the Cuban revolution in the 1950s. He spent his younger years traveling South America as a medical student visiting leper colonies and treating their patients. He spent his later years attempting to overthrow authoritarian rulers in Cuba, Congo, and Bolivia. It was in his last attempt that he was captured and killed by CIA-backed Bolivian forces.
His portrait, a reproduction of a photograph by Alberto Korda, painted by Jim Fitzpatrick, now hangs in the U building on the Dublin City University Glasnevin campus. The decision to display it is one I really struggle to understand.
Che Guevara was a murderous, totalitarian ideologue. He was a devout student of Marx and adopted his theories on the causes of inequality and oppression. In a letter to his parents, written in 1965 before he embarked to Bolivia, he wrote: ‘My Marxism has taken root and become purified. I believe in armed struggle as the only solution for those peoples who fight to free themselves, and I am consistent with my beliefs.’ Che pursued his dream of purging the corruption present in societal hierarchies and creating a socialist utopia with a dogma that blinded him to the brutality of the violence he perpetrated and totalitarianism he enforced.
Che was no friend of democracy. He was instrumental in the installation of an authoritarian, communist oligarchy in Cuba that rules to this day. Yet, confusingly, the notion of Che as an anti-establishment figure supersedes his legacy as the right-hand man of the autocrat, Fidel Castro.
What seems to have survived the ravages of time aren’t his ideological presuppositions that threatened to subvert the sovereignty of the individual, but a partisan interpretation of the positive elements of his personality. Che believed in nurturing a new kind of people who were morally aligned along axes of well-being rather than monetary gain. He felt deeply sorry for the dispossessed, the oppressed (unless they were homosexuals, who were legalistically demonised in 1960s Cuba), as well as the sick and dying. Che exists in an interesting space wherein his moral intent was virtuous yet the consequences of his totalitarian pursuits were monstrous. And for whatever reason, it seems almost rude to bring up the latter.
I believe Fitzpatrick’s painting is the epitome of this unwillingness to remember Che Guevara in the entirety of his being. The image of Che has ceased to be a portrait in the sense that it is no longer a painting of a person: it has transformed into a symbol. We seem to have forgotten about the reality of the man, while we have simultaneously fetishised the symbol – An Post being the most recent high-profile organisation to glorify his image through a commemorative stamp.
The depth lost in the translation from photograph to painting is indicative of the historical reality the symbol has left behind. In its place remains Che’s admirable but necessarily dishonest, and almost romantic reputation. It’s as if the duality of the reproduction of the photograph dulled Che’s cutting, violent, totalitarian edge and transformed him into something entirely more acceptable – acceptable enough to be hung in a university, for example.
Perhaps, today, the red that engulfs his image should be interpreted as rose-coloured glasses, instead of the colour of bloody revolution. It is by looking through the same nostalgic spectacles that the symbolic meaning associated with Fitzpatrick’s painting has become more real than reality.
I’ll say it again: I still don’t understand why Che’s visage adorns these halls – nostalgia and romantic symbolism aren’t good enough excuses. Claims of ‘art for art’s sake’, ‘but it was painted by an Irishman’, and ‘Che was a role model for student revolutionaries’ are as historically ignorant as they are reprehensible. Che died more than fifty years ago, and it’s about time we buried him.
Image credit: Alison Clair