Christ; the Cross; the Heart; the Lion; Mona Lisa; Che (Guevara); Nick Ut's 1960s photograph of the napalmed girl in Vietnam; the Stars and Stripes flag of the United States; the Coke bottle; the DNA helix, and E=MC2.
Christ to Coke: How Images Become Icon
05/03/2012 by Stacey Bartlett
Martin Kemp on how images became icon – and why the Swastika is a fantastic piece of graphic design
How are these connected? Well, they aren’t really – simply, they are some of the most powerful images which define society today, and have done throughout history. They are instantly universally identifiable and have reached iconic status, according to Emeritus Professor in the history of art at Trinity College Oxford-slash-author Martin Kemp, who compiled these eleven images, which he presented to the audience at Bath Lit Fest from his book Christ to Coke: How Images Became Icon. He said that proper icons are not popstars or footballers - they are things that transcend themselves.
He split his chosen icons into types – faces (Che, Christ, Mona Lisa); abstract logos (cross, heart); animals (“the lion is semi-ubiquitous. Countries where the lion has never been seen have the lion as a figure of power”); brands (US flag, Coke bottle); photographs (“usually of disasters in black and white – it does the job that colour doesn’t do”) and science (E=MC2 and the double helix – "most people don’t even know what E=MC2 actually means, but it is synonymous with Eistein and everything he represented").
Kemp said what separates enduring images from transitory ones is a list of key things: a simplicity of message; visual presence that implies something beyond its material existence; a measure of symmetry or a carefully asymmetrical balance; and colour and tone. He pointed out that nobody owned any of the eleven images, aside from Coca Cola, and that the icon can be an image or a word – what resonates is neither verbal or visual: “It’s an entity that creates both.”
“The Swastika is a fantastic piece of graphic design,” he told the audience, “which is a very uncomfortable thing to say…it’s all in the thickness of the arms, and the space between them.” But it didn’t make Kemp’s top 11; he said if he had to leave one image out to make a top ten, it would be the photograph of Kim Phuc running from the napalm attack during the Vietnam War in 1972, photographed by Nick Ut who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for the picture – because that was the image that “didn’t achieve universal recognition” when Kemp toured the world gaging people’s reactions to the images he presented.
So the images are unrelated, except for that they are all icons. More philosophy than art, it's a tricky concept to get one's head around - especially when E=MC2 is not an image - but an intriguing concept nonetheless for academics and brand managers/advertisers alike to ponder.