“When I see something like [Victoria amazonica water lilies] I start to believe that life has meaning. I believe that my life was not wasted, I prevented the destruction of many plants… And when I look at these plants…I can say: I am a rich man.” - Roberto Burle Marx - pioneering landscape architect in modern landscape design
The Rio Olympics may have ended, but we have another month to experience Brazil through the work of landscape pioneer Roberto Burle Marx. “Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist” runs through September 18 at The Jewish Museum in New York City. The exhibit gives us a deeper appreciation of Burle Marx as a creative person, not just as a landscape architect. Through a selection of his paintings, sculpture, textiles, and jewelry designs we get to see him as a multi-faceted artist. By seeing his work all together we get a sense of how he used various media to try out ideas, to inform and inspire his work. His creations remain timeless, unique, and exciting.
I first learned about Burle Marx when I stumbled upon some of his work – his famous sidewalk along Rio’s beaches, a few modernist gardens in Sao Paulo, a mural at the Naples Botanical Garden. Born in 1909, Burle Marx discovered the power of Brazilian plants while studying in Germany in the 1920’s. As a horticulturalist he worked throughout his life to save native plants - 13 species are named after him. His home, Sitio Burle Marx, contains one of the largest tropical and semitropical plant collections in the world. His 60-year career included over 2,000 landscape projects across 20 countries. (So many to visit!) In 1991 he became the first landscape architect to get a dedicated show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The Jewish Museum exhibit running now makes clear that, in the 1930’s, he became part of a movement that sought a new way of embracing and expressing Brazilian culture. From a landscape perspective, Latin American settlers of European descent brought with them a desire to recreate gardens in the likeness of their ancestral homes. Formal designs used imported plant material like roses and gladioli. An example of this is the Jardim Botanico in Rio de Janeiro with its formal axes, central fountain, a rose garden, and allee of trees.
Burle Marx broke with these rules by advocating for landscapes that used native plants in bold asymmetrical designs. His signature was to focus texture and to use abstract shapes. He captured an optimistic, future-oriented spirit that is uniquely Latin American.
In the Jewish Museum’s exhibit, design drawings and 3-D models shown above take us on a tour of some of his landscapes. What stayed with me most after I left the show was the experience of Burle Marx as a whole creative being; it is exciting to see how he worked this ideas across multiple media.
I hope that you are able to catch this exhibit before it closes; let me know what you think! The Jewish Museum is at 1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street, in New York City.
Click here to join me on a visit to Ray Jungles' Roberto Burle Marx inspired landscape at the Naples Botanical Garden.
Some examples from the exhibit of how Roberto Burle Marx aesthetic comes through across media including a tapestry he designed for the Santo Andre Civic Center (1969) and his design with Haruyoshi Ono for 8 stained glass windows for the Beit Yaakov Synagogue to complement his garden there (1985).