Fri
Mar 12 2010 4:08pm
Shifting Iconography

José Gregorio Hernández, a pious Venezuelan physician, often provided the poor with medical treatment free of charge. After his death, miracles were attributed to him and 60 or so years after his death the Vatican conferred the title of Venerable upon him. He may someday be declared a saint. While not well known outside Venezuela, he’s widely honored there, a saint in all but title.

A Venezuelan icon artist created idealized statuettes of Dr. Hernández, in an all-white suit (though based on a photo of the doctor in a dark suit). Mark Pahlow, owner of Archie McPhee and long-time aficionado of odd objects, often finds unusual items overstocked outside the United States and sells them repackaged here. He bought a ton of these statues. According to Pahlow, “Since he was mostly unknown to people outside Venezuela, we reinvented him as a mysterious looming figure with a conspiratorial past and a glow in the dark suit” (Who Would Buy This? P. 38). And so Señor Misterioso was born. 

Putting aside the ethical questions of whether or not a candidate for sainthood should be rebranded as a glowing international enigma, I find the story fascinating. The same figure can bring about religious reverence or a feeling of kooky espionage. In either case, he’s intriguing. Looking at the dark suited photo, there’s nothing much mysterious about him. He seems a pleasant man in a nice outfit. Reverse the color and reduce the details of his features but add a slight smile and viola, he’s just otherworldly enough to feel quasi-human. And of course, make him glow and you’ve got a man who has been to strange places.

When we speak of an image being iconic, we mean it with a sense of absolute value, of symbolic permanence. But is there any such thing? Pahlow’s change of the doctor’s back-story was completely deliberate, but how often has this sort of transformation occurred gradually and unintentionally? How often have iconic figures dramatically changed meaning?

Another example. Once upon a time there was a goofy, fat and eccentric Chinese monk of Chan Buddhism. His image became a popular sign of good fortune. He is not Shakyamuni Buddha (AKA Siddhartha Gautama). He’s about 1500 years later. And yet, plenty of people immediately think of a fat, smiling statue when they hear the word “Buddha.” I, as both a somewhat chubby person and a Buddhist, have endured a lifetime of jackasses making wisecracks about rubbing my belly. (Perhaps this is why Shaolin monks got into martial arts.) 

When I think of the Buddha, I usually picture a hybrid of Mahatma Gandhi (not a Buddhist) the Gandhara Era statues, which are themselves a hybrid of Greek and Indian styles. So my own image can hardly be all that authentic. Siddhartha Gautama, beyond the manifold ways he’s portrayed within Buddhism, inspired, outside of Buddhism, both Herman Hesse’s character and the Catholic Saint Josaphat. If Doctor Hernández is declared a saint, what will become of Señor Misterioso? Perhaps the person of José Gregorio Hernández will have created two entirely separate icons, the saint and the strange glowing figure.

What is the process of change in iconography? How does something become sacred or profane, and something else go from sacred to comical?

This makes me think of Batman. He has been portrayed as everything from mentally ill vigilante to campy enemy of Liberace and all points between. Somehow, American culture has a need to embody these disparate elements in one figure. I think of the absurd nipple-suit version of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, compared to Alex Ross’s black and white portrait of a lacerated veteran. A hundred years from now, which image of Batman will be the most iconic?

The recent revisions and retellings of Batman, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and so forth show a conscious desire to modify the iconic. The Cold War ended and we still wanted James Bond, but it couldn’t be the same James Bond as before. We wanted a harder, bloodier and less pretty Bond, and it worked well.

Icons can change gradually, as well, reflecting how a culture sees itself. Cowboys, in the 1940s and 50s radio and film, were the clean-cut and daring knights of the prairie and fit the way Americans saw their global presence, especially in World War Two. In the beginning of the 1960s, not long after the Vietnam War began, the shift away from the clean-cut cowboy hero came with The Magnificent Seven. Samurai became ronin, you could say. The end of the 1960s, with a long-standing and controversial war on every American’s mind, gave us The Wild Bunch. Hopalong Cassidy had given way to Butch Cassidy. The days of singing cowboys in white were long gone.

What next? What is the significance of a show like LOST, which has a ton of characters but deliberately muddles archetypes? In urban fantasy, wizards have merged with detectives. The most popular vampires right now sparkle in daylight. Have vampires lost their menace entirely? What icons are changing now?


When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.

3 comments
Jose Lorenzo Pacheco
1. joselorenzopacheco
i live in Venezuela and saw the Señor Misterioso figure in a pop-culture-item store (to give it a name). i wanted to buy the figure very badly, but didn't in the end.

these shifts and transformations are constantly redefining everything from beauty standards to fashion to car design to the popularity of certain people.

Che Guevara's visage worn and abused and manipulated, for coolness' sake or for political proselytism. The image of The Sacred Heart of Jesus holding one hand to his open chest and bearing the legend: ME SO HOLY, I LOVE YOU BIG TIME. even the image of a kitten today is used in a radically different way from what was common 10 years ago.

so many images mean nothing anymore. countless forgettable things today will become the icons of the decades and centuries to come.

i, for one, lament the catastrophic state of the world's attention span these days. which might mean that icons are being born and redefined (and forgotten) at a faster pace than in previous times.

i just hope it's fast enough for all those teenage girls to forget that vampires are cute and popular and give us back our iconic images of dracula, vlad the impaler, and nosferatu (i'll even settle for a Lestat, who was my favorite version of vampire in the 90's).

We're all children of our times, and i guess we might as well enjoy the life and death of icons in real time, while we're here to see the show. and who knows, perhaps even have our hand at creating some.
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
"i, for one, lament the catastrophic state of the world's attention span these days."

I'm with you on that. What would you attribute this shortening attention span to?
Jose Lorenzo Pacheco
3. joselorenzopacheco
i guess part of this has to do with each generation's perception of time, and therefore how we use it, what we get out of each hour or minute. and ultimately, how we live.

Our grandparents might seem slow and parsimonious to us. Kids and teens today seem too fast and hurried to me (and with short attention spans). i remember an ad for an insurance company (or some "serious company" of the kind) trying to convey solid traditional values, thus permanence, thus trust. a picture of a serene elderly couple with the copy: "we remember when 'fast and easy' was a bad thing".

today, fast and easy might not even be enough. it's got to be faster, easier, more immediate, and many other things too, and it's got to be all of it right away!

i really don't want to think it's because people are getting dumber, though that might also be happening. dumbness is not the same as lack of intelligence; intelligence is potential, while dumbness is doing nothing with your brain... it could be laziness, perhaps? it's baffling.

i do think that technology is not to blame, though it can't be a coincidence that all these technological tools/comforts/pleasures are happening at the same time as this "attention span" phenomenon.

Perhaps changes since this last decade have been coming too fast for us to digest something fully before the next thing arrives? like a long continuous meal with just too many courses, too much to taste. we end up barely sampling a few, skimming through the most appealing and immediate options. if life were to limit our options suddenly and radically, would we really learn/relearn to "stop and smell the roses"? (as much as i hate that saying).

again, i'm not against technological options, or options of any kind (cultural, social), but as a species we have more options (seemingly unlimited) today, than in all of human history all bundled up together... but we still have the same one brain and same limited set of senses.

with so many options, is humanity becoming spoiled?

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