Artist: Theresa Bernstein
Commentary by Jamin Rowan
Assistant Professor of English
When Theresa Bernstein painted Merry-Go-Round in 1913, urban reformers had been relying upon visual and literary representations of city streets and sidewalks as proof that congested neighborhoods such as New York City’s Lower East Side needed to be fixed. In the late nineteenth century, Jacob Riis travelled around the country showing photographs of children—or “Street Arabs,” as he called them—sleeping in gutters, stoops, and stairwells in an attempt to generate support for his efforts to create better housing and more parks for the urban poor. The city street, he and many others argued, was no place for kids to play.
Bernstein’s painting offers a very different understanding of the city street and sidewalk. Rather than depict these urban spaces as dangerous and degrading, Bernstein portrays them as vital and invigorating. While Riis depicted the street as a place where life didn’t belong by photographing motionless children, Bernstein achieves the opposite effect by using blurred and angled brushstrokes to paint her subjects. By capturing these children in motion, Bernstein suggests that the children don’t necessarily need parks to play, but that they can carry out their childhood activities perfectly well in the street. The blurred and angled lines, which physically connect the children and adults to one another, also imply that the street is a space where city dwellers create a vibrant community. The striking pink top of the merry-go-round that hovers over the activity below legitimates the formation of this street community with domestic authority.
Bernstein seems to have realized what many urban intellectuals did not understand for several decades: that a vibrant street life ought to be encouraged through policy, design, and culture because lively streets are a city’s greatest assets.