It is said that Robeto Burle Marx (1909-94) was able to extend the architecture of a building into a garden. One of the most influential landscape architects of 20th century from Brazil, who is accredited to have designed thousands of stunning gardens - including the famous curving walkway at Copacabana beach in Rio - Marx had once said, “I did salad, but I didn’t do a garden.”
Like materials are chosen to give form to a building, Marx chose plants, especially tropical Brazilian natives, to conceive his landscapes. He had this impeccable skill to identify plants as structural components where his designs often resulted in abstract biomorphic forms and colourful layouts.
Marx’s roots in landscaping came from his frequent visits to the Botanical Garden in Berlin while he was studying painting in Germany. Of course, he was an artist too. His wide-ranging work other than an intrinsic foray into landscape design involved graphics, tapestry, folk art, fabrics, jewellery and stage sets. He was also one of the few people who lead the call for conservation of Brazil’s rainforests; his abiding affection for the plant world reflects in the fact that more than 50 species bear his name. He channelled his artistic expressions to produce an extraordinary repertoire, of which the most discussed remain water gardens and public urban spaces.
To celebrate the life of this nature artist, New York Botanical Garden presents Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx, its first ever largest botanical exhibition, which includes a ‘horticulture tribute’ to the modernist icon’s prodigious designs, featuring lush gardens by Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles, and a gallery of vibrant paintings, drawings and textiles curated by art history professor, Edward J. Sullivan of the New York University. A series of outdoor installations highlight tropical plants, a sculptural water feature, sinuous walkways and a living wall are among other elements that resonate with Marx’s designs.
A protégé of the Brazilian modernist, Jungles has put together an immersive landscape, called the ‘Modernist Garden’ at the Conservatory Lawn, which has largely been inspired from his mentor’s Mineral Roof Garden project at the Banco Safra headquarters in São Paolo. Here, strikingly patterned paths meander through curvilinear planting beds that lead to an open plaza with a large pool. The plant palette includes bromeliads, elephant’s-ears, colourful annuals, and mature palms native to the Brazil and the Caribbean.
Other than the Modernist Garden, two other outdoor installations created at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory showcase Marx’s outstanding oeuvre and plant explorations. The first is the ‘Explorer’s Garden’ at the Seasonal Exhibition Gallery of the conservatory that celebrates the diversity of tropical vegetation, including plant species that were Marx’s favourite. Philodendrons, for example, of which he is said to have amassed above 500 variants at home, are also on display.
The ‘Water Garden’ in the conservatory’s Hardy Courtyard, on the other hand, brings to notice Marx’s plantsmanship, celebrating his creative use of green over grey in landscape design. It is interesting to see how palms create scale, bromeliads provide texture, and a wall of staghorn ferns lends a sense of botanical whimsy.
While the installations illustrate Marx’s favoured aesthetics and the materials that manifested them, the artist’s explorations within the studio and his way of life is depicted at the garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library. The Britton Rotunda of the library brings to life the Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, the estate the artist purchased in 1949 and where he lived and worked for decades. The site houses a nursery, multiple gardens, greenhouses, a studio, as well as Marx’s home where he entertained friends and colleagues including the likes of architects Lucio Costa, Rino Levi, Oscar Niemeyer as well as landscape architects Conrad Hamerman, Haruyoshi Ono and Jungles himself. At the library, large-scale wall graphics recreate mosaic tile walls of Sitio’s loggia studio, whereas interpretive panels introduce the significance of this space to the visitors.
The art gallery at the library features an exhibition of the modernist icon’s paintings, lithographs, drawings, and textiles inspired by the culture and nature of Brazil, from the final 30 years of his career and life. Curated by Edward J. Sullivan, the collection portrays the interconnected threads of Marx’s vivid career, artistic practice and commitment to environmental conservation.
The exhibition Brazilian Modern is also interspersed with cultural performances showcasing sights and sounds of Brazil, and evoking Rio de Janeiro, the Cidade Maravilhosa (Wonderful City) that the Brazilian visionary called home and which inspired his life and work.
Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx is on view at the New York Botanical Garden till September 29, 2019.