Unconditional Surrender: A Kiss Reconsidered
by Ron Vazzano
The 15th of August represented the 70th anniversary of the news that Japan had surrendered, which in effect ended World War II. Called V-J Day— though technically that is September 2nd with the signing of formal documents— it was a day of euphoria in which people took to the streets across America in a collective spontaneous celebration.
One overly exuberant (and inebriated) sailor in Times Square, took liberties in kissing seemingly every woman in his path. Famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured one of those unsolicited kisses planted on a non-consenting nurse—full on-mouth with 45 degree body dip for added flare— in what has arguably become the most iconic of photographs ever taken. And it has only been within the last three years, that the participants, both of whom are still living, have been positively identified as George Mendonça and Greta Zimmer Friedman.
And as a particularly interesting footnote, Mendonça was with his date on that day of his serial kissing; a woman named Rita, whom he would come to marry. (She is standing in the background of the photo.). And according to a news story that ran not long ago, they were approaching their 69th wedding anniversary.
That moment in turn, has inspired a series of sculptures by artist Seward Johnson, which in an obvious play on words, he entitled Unconditional Surrender. The original was first installed in Sarasota in 2007, and it has since moved about as if on tour, to San Diego, Hamilton, New Jersey, Pearl Harbor, New York— in Times Square of course. And when it showed up last year in Normandy, France, a French feminist group petitioned to have it removed immediately, claiming that it depicts an act of sexual assault on a woman who did not give verbal consent to being kissed, and essentially being manhandled.
When I caught sight of it recently, it did now seem a bit icky. Especially given its mammoth 25-foot size, which only magnifies the transgression as evidenced once again, by the nurse’s posture and body language. It can hardly be called compliant.
But beyond what is debatable about the appropriateness of that kiss, is that it emerged from a state of mass and spontaneous—the operative word here— euphoria. When did that last happen? Where people took to the streets to celebrate as one? And under what circumstances can you imagine something like that ever happening again?
Yes, we celebrate each New Year in this very Times Square. As we do Mardi Gras in New Orleans. As we do in parades for one thing or another in the cities and towns across America every year. But all are planned and well-orchestrated. What now would make us suddenly, and joyously, take to the streets unscripted? If anything, more the likely we would “take to the Tweets.” But even in that contemporary forum of spontaneous expression, there would no doubt be dispute, with not everyone being on the same virtual page. Which brings one to consider war itself: what winning of what war today would be cause for celebration? How do we even define war any more, much less what constitutes the winning of one?
Ultimately what grabbed me looking at that statue, is how much more complex our life and times have become; how less black and white than that summer’s day in ‘45.
With that, we made our way over to Chez Josephine’s, a retro Paris bistro— circa: pre-war 1930’s— on 42nd Street and 9th Avenue, for a cool drink to beat the summer heat.