If art is supposed to get people thinking and feeling, then we are extremely fortunate to have J. Seward Johnson’s giant sculpture based on Alfred Eisenstadt’s famous photograph of nurse Edith Shain (or Greta Friedman or Barbara Sokol) being kissed on VJ day. It’s a great match for Sarasota, because unlike some of Seward Johnson’s works this piece speaks directly to the many veterans and citizens here that remember the end of that war. Personally, I’m very grateful that the allies prevailed over the axis powers, and not simply because it enabled the man who was to become my father to return alive to the states.
It is interesting to compare the memorable iconic image of the Second World War with the Vietnam War. They were, for the most part, posed, if not outright staged: the Betty Grable’s pinup shot, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at Malta; MacArthur wading ashore at Leyte, and raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
The two most memorable images from Vietnam were snapshots: Nine year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked down a road and South Vietnam’s national police chief executing a Viet Cong in the middle of a street. We’re not likely to see any giant sculptures of that sort.
So we are blessed that the photo was taken of the kiss, yet saddened to realize that there is probably no comparable statuesque moment marking the end Vietnam conflict (perhaps cutting down the tamarind tree at the Saigon embassy so helicopters could evacuate?) nor, as President Bush observed when commemorating the 60th anniversary of VJ day: There will be no “VJ day” in the war on Terror.
Although I was not born when the photo was taken, it has intersected with my life in two ways.
First, VJ Day (August 14th in the US) was my father’s birthday. So every year we were celebrating both my father’s birthday and VJ day.
Secondly, when I would vacation with my parents as young teen on Martha's Vineyard, an old man with a heavy accent would show slides of his photographs some evenings. I wasn't too interested until I learned he had taken photos of Sophia Loren. I recognized the Life magazine covers he had shot of her. It turned out he was one of the world's best photographers, a man known at the Menemsha Inn only as "Eisie”. It was Alfred Eisenstadt -- the guy who took the photograph of the sailor impulsively (opportunistically?) kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ day. The photo the oversized bayfront sculpture is based on. And while Eisenstadt’s shot four exposures of “VJ Day” it was not posed or staged.
I’m happy to let others decide whether it should be a temporary or permanent addition to the Sarasota, but I have three observations to share about the piece.
First, while I like the vista of it coming down 41, I wish it was set apart more with less background clutter.
Second, while I like the giant scale, the shift in point of view is very unfortunate. If you look at the original photo or Seward’s life-sized recreation (shown in Times Square), we are focused on the kiss itself – the heads of the participants. With the giant version, the closer we get, the less the kiss is visible and we’re basically left looking up the nurse’s skirt. That’s not the point of the piece. If it is, we should opt for Marilyn Monroe on the subway grating instead. Ideally I think we would look across at if from some height to reestablish the original point of view, although it is hard to think of a place in Sarasota where that might work.
Finally, while I love the photo and like the sculpture, I hate the title. For those whose don’t get the connection to Emperor Hirohito’s Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War, the sculpture must seem to be about the nurse’s unconditional surrender. No doubt Johnson intended the play on words. But it seems to me that misses the point – her “surrender” to a kiss from a stranger was completely conditional – it would not have happened on August 13 or August 15. The kiss was conditioned by the euphoria of the end of the war. For me, Seward’s title coverts exuberance into submission.