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Hey, it's Che Guevara (again)

May 18, 2009 | 11:29 am

Postcardsofpoliticalicons
The photographs in "Postcards of Political Icons," from Oxford's Bodleian Library, are masterful in their manipulation, Andrew Roberts explains in his introduction. "Look at Kemal Ataturk's eyebrows drawn to resemble the wings of an eagle in flight, or Eva Peron's braided blonde hair and lovely smile," he writes. "We should not fall for such obvious tricks of political image manipulation ever again. Yet we doubtless will."

Starting with Kaiser Wilhelm and ending with Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the book includes postcards of heroes and villains of the modern age. Everyone, it seemed — Hitler, Pope John Paul II, Emperor Haile Selassie — wound up on a postcard, usually in a photograph that showed off their leadership or charm.

In this book, anyway. The postcards here are from the collection of John Fraser, an Englishman whose collection began when his mother gave him a postcard of King George VI's coronation in 1944. For the most part, they are straightforward expressions of each leader's desired image. Margaret Thatcher looks vital, powerful, even pretty. Pope John Paul II leans beneficently on a rail rather than scooting by in the toy-like, bulletproof pope mobile. Ronald Reagan clasps arms with Mikhail Gorbachev.

But in America during Reagan's presidency, you were at least as likely to find a postcard of him with his chimpanzee co-star from the 1951 film "Bedtime for Bonzo" as one that portrayed him as a world leader.  Then there was the popular Elvis and Richard Nixon postcard, the fading glassy-eyed rock star meeting the overeager, squeaky-clean (but not really) president. Postcards — tiny and cheap — seemed well-suited to comment on power or even take cheap shots at it.

As the book "Che's Afterlife" discusses, the mass circulation of an image — even a politically powerful one — eventually devalues it. This little postcard book is not much interested in that conundrum, but it does a nice job of parsing the images it has included.

The sad thing is that while this is a postcard-sized book and postcard-shaped book, it isn't itself a postcard book. There are no perforated edges, no mailing-weight pages. You may be able to read about Gandhi on a postcard, but if you want to send one, you'll have to go out and find it for yourself. 

— Carolyn Kellogg

Image: "Postcards of Political Icons." Credit: Bodleian Library

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