Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon

Photo: Courtesy Oxford University Press

Martin Kemp is best known as a Leonardo da Vinci scholar involved in the sometimes controversial authentication of two Leonardo “discoveries” in recent years—including the one known as La Bella Principessa. So what is he doing writing about the Coca-Cola bottle? This book sets out to explain, as the subtitle puts it, how image becomes icon, and does so by dissecting 11 iconic images (although the 11th is actually the mathematical formula E=mc2).

No prizes for guessing that the Mona Lisa is one of the images under his microscope. Given that another is the double-helix structure of DNA, I expected to find a reference to the amazing double-helix staircase at the Château de Chambord in France, which has been attributed to Leonardo by some people—the staircase is notably absent from the book, however, so I guess Professor Kemp is not one of them.

He begins with the image of Jesus Christ himself, describing the gradual evolution of a facial type by way of supernatural likenesses, such as the veil of Saint Veronica and the Turin Shroud. This story is bound to fascinate anyone who has seen the work entitled Casting Jesus by Christian Jankowski, recently acquired and put on display by the National Gallery. And, when it comes to shedding light on exactly why one classic Pulitzer-Prize-winning photograph is so affecting and effective—namely, Nick Ut's famous 1972 image of the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, who now lives in Canada, fleeing a napalm attack—the perspective of an art history professor really helps; the explanation is all there in the 1432 book, On Painting by Leon Battista Alberti.

One question to be asked about iconic images is how far they become motivational, either by accident or by design (worship this! vote for him! buy that!). There is surely a great deal of truth in the author's observation that “all major causes are in a sense waiting for a major image to define them” (many wait in vain, he might have added)—even if the attempt in the final chapter to identify the common characteristics of all these iconic images comes across as a tad laborious.

The text is enlivened, however, by many personal touches, such as boyhood memories of the MGM lion snarling in the cinema, and memorable asides—impossible now to see an image of Che Guevara without recalling that Mrs. Che preferred him not to button up his battle fatigues too tightly, on account of his asthma. And, as for that Coca-Cola bottle, who knew that its famously ribbed and curvaceous lines imitate the shape of neither the coca leaf nor the kola nut, but instead those of the cocoa bean, owing to over-hasty research in the local public library by the bottle's designer, back in 1915.

Share this article: 

About the Author