- Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon
- Oxford University Press, 368 pp.
It is still shocking to see the photo of Kim Phuc, a nine-year old Vietnamese girl screaming in pain, her naked body seared by napalm in 1972. I am old enough to remember seeing the Associated Press photo when it first hit the front pages of newspapers. The Vietnam War had been shredding bodies and hopes for so long that it hardly seemed possible that a single image of human conflict could pierce through the war’s futility and touch our hearts.
And then photographer Nick Ut captured “The Girl in the Picture” on film. He aimed his Leica M-2 camera and with one quick “click,” Phan Thi Kim Phuc, became a symbol of the horror of the Vietnam War and by extension all wars.
“The Girl in the Picture” is one of eleven images which have achieved the status of icons. These instantly recognizable images are the subjects of Martin Kemp’s new book, Christ to Coke. Kemp, a leading authority on the work of Leonardo da Vinci, analyses the process by which certain statues, paintings, photos, commercial “brands” and scientific formulas grab onto our imaginations and won’t let go.
Kemp is one of the contemporary world’s most original – and unconventional – art historians. The Oxford History of Western Art, which he edited and co-authored in 2000, included material often ignored or dismissed by other scholars. Manufactured products from the 19th century shared space with Impressionism, colonial art from Latin America with Renaissance masters.
So it comes as no surprise that Kemp’s subjects are an off-beat mix. True icons, devotional images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Christian saints, rub shoulders with the hand-tinted playing cards from the 1400’s that introduced the now familiar heart symbol. The Cross is examined in its various manifestations, including the swastika. And special attention is given to the bottle that dispensed “Ice-cold Sunshine” during the 1930’s and the “Real Thing” in 1969.
Images become icons, Kemp writes, when they achieve “wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognizability and … carry a rich series of varied associations for very large numbers of people across time and cultures.”
Achieving icon status is a complex process. There is a “back story” to each image, a rich compost of facts and legends that help nurture its growth to icon status. Quite often, sheer luck determines why a certain image achieves world-wide celebrity. The “creative moment” is determined by a fortunate artist being on the spot at exactly the right time – to paint the picture or snap the photo. But the “right time” is also determined by the degree to which human beings are ready and waiting to applaud and cherish the image.
In the case of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the society of Renaissance Italy was primed for the appearance of a striking portrait of a beautiful young woman. A century or more of increasingly sophisticated portrait painting had taken place in Europe by 1503, when Leonardo commenced working on Mona Lisa. The development of oil paints, as opposed to the quick drying fresco technique, made possible both the subtle character effects Leonardo achieved, as well as the inordinately long period he spent painting the portrait, well over a decade. Furthermore, the Renaissance gave rise to a growing awareness of the relation of human beings to the world around them, without any overt acknowledgement of religious themes.
By 1500, people were ready to salute Leonardo’s depiction of the smiling Lisa del Giacondo. Earlier generations, during the Middle Ages, would have been perplexed that such creative effort had been lavished on anyone who was not a saint or a person of notable piety. Even portraits of kings or great noblemen were seldom painted unless they were shown presenting the model of a cathedral or monastery to a majestic Christ or his Virgin Mother.
It is important to note that this receptive climate of opinion applies to religious art as well as secular. The early Christians lived in the daily expectation of the “end time.” They did not begin to paint or sculpt images of Jesus until centuries after his crucifixion. And when they did, they portrayed him as a youthful “Good Shepherd.” The familiar bearded face of Christ came later still, from copies of images believed to be miraculous survivals from his lifetime. The Mandylion, for instance, was said to be the impression of Christ’s face on a towel sent to heal King Abgar of Edessa. These images of a mature, monarch-like Jesus were greatly in demand during the Middle Ages, when the prospect of the imminent return of Christ was beginning to fade.
The bearded face of a redemptive figure also appeared in the guise of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, one of the twentieth century’s most familiar “icons.” A poster child for “radical chic,” Che Guevara spent much of his early life in Latin American cultures where Christian iconography still held sway. When Fidel Castro, with Guevara’s support, toppled the Cuba dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959, Marxist ideology became the order of the day in Cuba. But thanks to Guevara’s death in Bolivia in 1967, where he attempted to foment another proletarian revolt, Castro had a Messiah-figure to help bolster his Marxist regime. And thanks to photographer Alberto Korda, Castro had the perfect image of Che Guevara close to hand.
Korda’s famous photograph of Che Guevara, Guerrillero Heroico, was anything but a “made-for-order” icon. Kemp carefully studies Korda’s contact sheet, showing the 28 frames that he shot on March 5, 1960. There was a big rally that day, partly in honor of visiting French philosophers, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone Beauvoir, eager to lend a fashion-conscious hand to a working-class revolution. Almost all of the frames show a declaiming Castro or an appreciative Sartre and Beauvoir. Only two frames, toward the end of the contact sheet, show Guevara in a usable form.
Korda’s photo of Che Guevara was not included among those published in Castro’s La Revolucion newspaper the next day. It achieved its celebrity by a complex process which Kemp treats with brilliant scrutiny. Korda’s photo brought him little fame or reward. It entered the public domain where the Italian Communist publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, seized upon it. An Irish artist, Jim Fitzpatrick, designed a poster version in 1968, which became the “canonical” version so familiar from its use on T-shirts and other mass-produced paraphernalia.
Interestingly, none of the principals – Korda, Feltrinelli or Fitzpatrick – gained fame or fortune from their role in the creation of the Che icon. All came from Catholic countries where Christian icons had played an important cultural role, with little assistance from celebrated artists. The image of Che, like that of Christ, achieved its icon status seemingly by the miraculous process which scholars during the Middle Ages termed non manufactum, “not made by any hand.”
Whatever lay behind the transformation of a failed revolutionary into Guerrillero Heroico, there can be little doubt that an amazing interplay of artistic and intellectual forces was at work that suddenly took hold of the conscience and emotions of a generation. Kemp writes:
All creative acts involve processes that are apparently instantaneous. At a certain subjective moment Shakespeare must have conceived of writing a play on Hamlet the Prince of Denmark. A moment before, the play was not an idea. A moment later, it begins to develop into a plan… The great ‘snapshot’ is not essentially different from many other creative acts. It is preceded by many decisions – but the act of realization takes place in particular circumstances in which the instantaneous nature of the vision is visibly embedded in the final product, and is understood as such by the viewer.
If an image from the visual arts becomes an icon through an “act of realization” achieved by a painter, sculptor or photographer, can the same be said for a commercial product like the Coke bottle or the model for the human genetic code, DNA? Kemp shows how designs for the Coke bottle evolved, the product of many hands, rather than as the result of an “instantaneous” act of realization.
And the same was true for the creative insights among the scientific community during the 1940’s and early 1950’s that led to the creation of the model for the “double helix” structure of DNA. Kemp’s investigation of the train of events leading to the 1953 “discovery” of DNA by Frances Crick and James Watson makes for fascinating reading. Kemp’s DNA chapter addresses the increasingly important topic of intellectual ownership. If researchers can gain fame as the “discoverers” of new insights in genetic science, might they also stake a claim to economic fortune with copyrights for “engineered” or “programmed” genes?
As it turns out, Watson and Frick were only two of the “players” in the DNA drama. A brilliant woman scientist, Rosalind Franklin, made vital contributions to the study of the genetic code by taking X-ray diffraction photos that provided key evidence of the structure of DNA. But “office politics” marginalized her contribution. “Rosy had to go or be put in her place,” Watson later wrote.
Watson and Crick were given the green light to publish an article in the prestigious publication, Nature, on the double-helix structure of DNA by Cambridge University in England. This was done largely to beat competition from the United States. The noted American scientist, Linus Pauling, was known to be at work on DNA, but his research was being stymied by the anti-Communist witch-hunt that was raging in the U.S. According to Kemp, Pauling was denied a passport by U.S. authorities because he opposed the political pressure being applied to scientists and academics, many of whom had liberal political views. As a result, Pauling was not able to attend presentations in Britain of key evidence about the structure of DNA, especially Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray photos. And so, what was really a perfect illustration of the collaborative, team-spirited nature of scientific enlightenment became another case of giving credit to a solitary genius or in this case a matched pair.
This “great moment of science” school of thought might have little negative impact, beyond giving Nobel prizes to the wrong people. However, innovations in “pure” science often lead to the creation of deadly weapons. The napalm that scarred the body of Kim Phuc was created by Harvard University researchers during World War II. Kemp studies scientific accountability in some detail in a chapter devoted to Einstein and his iconic formulation, E = mc2. Kemp, of necessity, focuses on Einstein the “iconic” scientist rather than on the role of science in the creation of the military-industrial complex. However, his choice of Einstein and his famous theorem as one of the book’s “icons” is itself open to question. His earlier chapter on DNA explores the inter-connected role of scientific innovation and the “image of science” so well that the commentary on Einstein adds little to the impact of his book.
A better choice – and a true modern icon – would have been the photo of “Tank Man,” the courageous pedestrian who stopped a column of Chinese T-59 tanks intent on crushing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. Jeff Widener’s AP photo of this memorable event evokes the nature of the individual versus the state with such visual intensity that it is unfortunate that Kemp did include it as the subject of one of the chapters of his book.
The chapter on Kim Phuc, “Napalmed and Naked,” speaks to the issue of the imagery of war. Kemp surveys several of the notable photographers of the Vietnam War along with Nick Ut. While awareness of the elements of pictorial composition and technical mastery of camera settings and lenses are crucial to any photographer, Kemp affirms that there is no guaranteed way to create an icon.
These great photographers, Kemp writes, each “has his own eye – an eye that functions with a personal character and instinctive speed that transcends the apparently accidental nature of the event and the opening of the shutter.”
The creation of an iconic photo, or any other iconic image, is more of a mystery than a science or even an art. It is an act that “needs to strike that most elusive thing – a human chord that stretches across all.”
The essential element of all true icons, then, is their appeal to humanity. It is for this very reason that political zealots pay particular attention to destroying icons or substituting carefully contrived replacements, the swastika in place of the Cross, Che Guevara’s image as a stand-in for Christ. And worst of all is the way that vivid or meaningful images are prevented from gaining public exposure by sleight of hand in the media.
During the Iraq War of 2003, there were numerous photos of war victims, many as horrific as that of Kim Phuc in 1972. Yet few appeared in newspapers or television reports which devoted obsessive coverage to the toppling of statues of Saddam Hussein. It says a lot for Kim Phuc, now a middle-aged lady living in Canada, that she secured medical care for one of these war-scarred children, Ali Ismail Abbas, who lost both of his arms and suffered horrific burns during a U.S. “shock and awe” rocket attack. His parents and other family members died in the attack.
If media manipulation is able to prevent images from gaining wide exposure does that bode ill for the creation of new icons? In the short term perhaps, but Kemp’s identification of the “human chord” as the key factor in the creation of iconic images presents a more hopeful conclusion. It was the “human chord that stretches across us all” that caused Nick Ut to take a heart-rending photo of Kim Phuc, writhing in agony. This in turn led her, “The Girl in the Picture,” to reach out to Ali Ismail Abbas.
Perhaps, there is a little of the miraculous in icons after all.