07.19.20: Kiss by the water

Unconditional Surrender, a sculpture by Seward Johnson, stands in Tuna Harbor Park beside San Diego Bay in San Diego. The sculpture resembles a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of V–J day in Times Square, but said by Johnson to be based on a similar, less well known photograph by Victor Jorgensen.

Unconditional Surrender (or Embracing Peace), a sculpture by Seward Johnson, stands in Tuna Harbor Park beside San Diego Bay in San Diego. 

Sculpture hated by art critics, loved by public

When it comes to art, particularly public art, there’s one fact that’s a given: You can’t please everyone. And that means controversy.

This sculpture by artist Seward Johnson, which stands beside the bay in San Diego, is a perfect example. The sculpture, one of several identical ones created by Johnson, stands in Tuna Harbor Park adjacent to the USS Midway Museum and has become a magnet for tourists. Many times each day visitors can see couples being photographed mimicking the kiss.

But it’s also a magnet for controversy.

First, there’s the origin. The 25-foot-tall sculpture of a sailor kissing a nurse appears, at first glance, to be based on the famed — and copyrighted — photograph by Albert Eisenstaedt taken in New York City’s Times Square on V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945, during a celebration of the end of World War II. 

But Johnson says the Eisenstaedt photograph isn’t the inspiration for his sculpture. If it was, there’d be copyright issues, lawsuits and all sorts of messiness.

Instead, Johnson says his inspiration was another lesser-known photograph of the same scene captured at nearly the exact same moment from a few feet away from Eisenstaedt by a Navy photographer named Lt. Victor Jorgensen. That photo isn’t copyrighted, so no legal messiness.

Then there’s the sculpture itself. Art critics hate it, calling it “not artistically or aesthetically pleasing,” kitsch or looking like it came from a theme park. One critic said: "The figures look like something from a cheap souvenir factory, blown up beyond any reason."

But the opinions of the general public and the opinions of art critics often don’t align. And that has led to the success of this sculpture.

Johnson first created a 25-foot styrofoam version of the scene in 2005 for a temporary exhibition in Sarasota, Fla. It was then moved to San Diego in 2007, where it stood until 2012 over objections from the city’s arts community. 

The city decided to remove the styrofoam version because it was looking worn.

But plans were made to replace the temporary version with a permanent bronze sculpture, again over objections from the arts community.

The city gave the USS Midway Museum three months to raise $1 million to fund the replacement. The museum’s public fund-raising drive reached that goal in eight weeks.

The bronze sculpture in the photo was installed in 2013. The name was changed from Unconditional Surrender, Johnson’s original title for the sculpture, to Embracing Peace. But locals not among the arts community refer to it simply as The Kiss.

Other copies of Johnson’s sculpture have been seen in cities around the world.

I’m not an art critic so I’m in the camp with those who like the sculpture. My reason: Public art should fit with its surroundings and attract people to view it and interact with it. Unconditional Surrender … or Embracing Peace … or The Kiss definitely accomplishes that. 

Tech specs

  • Date/time: Oct. 5, 2018, 11:19 a.m.
  • Location: 32°42'46.163" N 117°10'30.516" W (Show in Google Maps)
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II 
  • Lens: Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 (135mm)
  • Aperture: f/8
  • Shutter: 1/640th second
  • ISO: 200

Art critics hate it. One critic said: "The figures look like something from a cheap souvenir factory, blown up beyond any reason." But the opinions of the general public and the opinions of art critics often don’t align. And that has led to the success of this sculpture.