Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon

Alex Danchev is ambivalent about a selection of images with status beyond their initial intent

November 24, 2011

Instead of an epigraph, Christ to Coke carries a disclaimer: "This book has not been approved by or endorsed by The Coca-Cola Company or any other company, and any views expressed in it are those of the author and not The Coca-Cola Company or any other company. Coca-Cola, Coke, and the Coca-Cola bottle are trademarks of The Coca-Cola Company."

Given the subject of the book, it is tempting to read that deadpan declaration as an ironic commentary on image-making and branding - the iconic only a consonant away from the ironic - and a coca-corroboration of the author's selection. Martin Kemp has interesting things to say about trademarks, which come in many guises, including people, or rather portraits: the shock-haired Einstein is himself a trademark. In the matter of Coca-Cola, it transpires that the soft drink's logo gained trademark status as early as 1887. "It has been reused, adapted, and parodied in diverse contexts around the world," Kemp relates, "exhibiting extraordinary geographical penetration and historical stamina." One of the most apt illustrations in this copiously illustrated book is of Ai Weiwei's Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994).

Kemp has selected 11 "supreme and mega-famous examples", in the deathless prose of the dust jacket, "to see both how they arose and how they continue to exercise their enduring appeal". They are widely gathered: Christ ("The true icon"); the Cross; the Heart; the Lion; the Mona Lisa; Che Guevara; Nick Ut's photograph of the little girl running screaming down the road in Vietnam ("Napalmed and naked"); the Stars and Stripes; the Coke bottle; the DNA double helix; and the equation E = mc2. This is a highly personal selection. Christ to Coke is an effortfully personal book.

Eleven is a deliberately odd number. Kemp is coy about criteria, insisting reasonably enough that there is no formula for what we might call iconicity. The passage from image to icon is an unpredictable one. Chance and luck play their part; although it may be that there is more to be said about the role of the merchant of ideas (or images) in this realm - a passing comment on "that great 'iconizer' of icons, Andy Warhol", serves to remind us of his serial repetitions, appropriations and subversions. Warhol was a godsend for the icon, just as the icon was a godsend for Warhol.

However reluctantly, Kemp leaves us with a checklist of requirements or permissive factors: "a famous subject; a link to powerful factions; a broad, rich, and flexible set of associations; a broadly representative function; personal and even emotional engagement; human significance; the focus of a cult; a sense of presence that goes beyond its material existence; a measure of symmetry; simplicity of the main subject; tonal and colouristic clarity; robustness in the face of degraded reproduction; making good repeats; recognizable in fragmentary form". Perhaps the fundamental requirement is the spiking of the contemporary with the historical, in the art historian Hal Foster's phrase. This is the trick of the iconic: "Somehow it stems from the present even as it evokes the past."

Kemp devotes a chapter to each icon: a kind of potted life story. The tone is jaunty; the professor is pally. He makes a virtue of his internet research; he shares the nuggets generously with his readers. On the ubiquity of the Sacred Heart: "We can, for instance, arrange for our 'yard' to be decorated by the company Peace of Concrete with a series of predominantly Christian garden sculptures and accessories. A hand-painted concrete sculpture of the Sacred Heart, 26 inches high, is available for $128.00." And so it goes.

Sometimes he excels himself: the treatment of Donatello is masterly. Sometimes he does not. Kemp is one of the world's leading authorities on Leonardo da Vinci, as he does not fail to remind us. His answer to the inevitable question about the fascination of the Mona Lisa is strong on the details of the neckline of her dress, but otherwise disappointingly baffled. He concludes: "At the end of the day, it is just a truly incredible creation."

Christ to Coke is lavishly produced but sloppily edited. The name of the photographer Robert Capa is misspelled throughout. The film of Che's Motorcycle Diaries was directed by Walter Salles, not Robert Redford. Apparently there is an attempt "to ferment a counter-legend" to that of the Guerrillero Heroico in Alberto Korda's photograph. Ferment or foment? Accident or portent?

Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon

By Martin Kemp

Oxford University Press

392pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199581115

Published 13 October 2011

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