Alberto “Korda” Diaz, a former fashion photographer with a sharper eye for glamour than was useful for most of his employers, was assigned in March 1960 by the Cuban newspaper Revolucion to take pictures at a mass funeral in Havana. Eighty Cubans had been killed after the French freighter Le Coubre exploded in Havana harbour. The funeral was newsworthy, for the Cuban president Fidel Castro was going to give an oration blaming the CIA. Castro was not the only point of interest; also there were Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, adding their weighty, if cerebral, solidarity to the protest.

Korda snapped away, taking many pictures of Fidel, and a handful of the French intellectuals. In between, he turned his lens on a striking young man, whose expression he would later describe as encabronado and dolente, angry and pained, and fired off a couple of shots. The first of these was a remarkable image: the bearded, handsome man is framed by a man’s profile on the left, and by the fringes of a palm tree on the right. He is wearing a beret and a look of dark intensity as he gazes into the middle distance. In truth, you simply cannot take your eyes off Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Korda liked his picture, cropped out the profile and the palm tree, and propped up a print in his studio. The paper was less impressed, filed the photograph away and used it 12 months later to promote a conference featuring a speech by the minister of industry, a certain Dr Ernesto Guevara.

Six years passed. Then, in 1967, a number of things happened. A radical Italian intellectual, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, visited Korda’s studio and was given two gift prints of the picture. He decided to make a poster from the image. In July, Paris-Match used the picture - “Guerrillero heroico”, as it was now called - across a full page to illustrate an article on guerrilla warfare in South America. Weeks later, Che was assassinated in Bolivia. And suddenly, it seemed, young people all over the western world became simultaneously interested in revolution and in the art of the poster.

And that, in brief, is the story behind the birth of the most enduring icon of the late 20th century. An exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, intelligently celebrates the life of Che’s portrait, tracing its romantic beginnings, right through to its co-option by the forces of corporate capitalism. Poor Korda had only one meaningful blast at these, when he successfully sued the advertising agency Lowe Lintas for $50,000 in 2001, for using the picture to promote Smirnoff Vodka. (He donated the sum to the Cuban medical system.) It symbolised a debate that continues today: does an image have a fixed meaning, which should be protected in some way? Or is it doomed, in our visually promiscuous society, to mean anything to anyone?

Che the image has had an infinitely more varied support base than Che the revolutionary ever had. The man who said he was the “opposite of Christ” bizarrely found himself spearheading a campaign, in 1999, to lure more people to church when the Church Advertising Network devised a Christ/Che poster, explaining that it was time to dispel the notion that Jesus was a “wimp in a nightie”. In the same year, Che was found to be advertising sunglasses, swathed in banners proclaiming “Siempre Color y Libertad” on the one hand, and “Jean Paul Gaultier lunettes” on the other. In recent years, we have had Osama bin Laden, Princess Diana, Madonna and Ricky Gervais as versions of Che. Not all of those figures believed in armed insurrection.

The kitschification of Che does not unduly bother Hannah Charlton, whose catalogue essay celebrates “the possibility of endless visual mutation, of stylistic regeneration, without ever losing the essence of what the face expresses…the very simple qualities of the hair, beret, dark eyes and mouth come through as an archetype that cannot now be totally distorted”. According to this reading, Che has indeed become a fixed symbol, beautiful and contrarian, of opposition and subversion, even if used ironically with a Nike swoosh on his beret, or stamped on the bikini top of a Brazilian model. As Christopher Hitchens has observed, he has more in common with the Romantic poets than with hardcore revolutionaries such as the decidedly unsensual Lenin.

This is surely a correct reading. The image of Che stands for revolution, pure and simple. But of course in today’s multi-layered universe, there are many types of bouleversement. In 1998, the news agency Reuters reported disquiet among the Cuban exile community in Miami, who protested that a talking chihuahua advertising Taco Bell Gorditas in front of a screaming crowd in a public square effectively constituted a glorification of Guevara. The company’s vice-president stood firm. Tests on Hispanic audiences had proved overwhelmingly positive, and he was anxious to allay the Cubans’ fears, denying any connection with Che. “The advertising is about our revolutionary taco,” he said.

I guess we get the revolutions we deserve.

“Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon”, Victoria and Albert Museum, until August 28.

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