Roberto Burle Marx painting a tablecloth in the loggia of his home, 1980s; the azulejo tile walls and chandelier composed of fruit and flowers on a metal armature are his work. Photo © Tyba.
Designing a garden isn’t the obvious way to make a political statement. But the swirling, biomorphic gardens of the late Brazilian artist and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, who is the subject of a new exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, make a powerful argument for not only the protection of the natural world, but also the celebration of our biodiverse, and culturally diverse, planet.
Burle Marx is best known for creating the curvy paving stone design that snakes along the sidewalk of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. But he also designed thousands of public and private gardens in his lifetime, many located in Brasília at a time when the artist was collaborating regularly with the architect Oscar Niemeyer. (The multitalented Burle Marx was also a painter, sculptor, jeweler, and creator of tapestries, wall mosaics, and stained-glass windows.) His gardens, the living, organic counterpart to the abstract, curvilinear paintings he also produced (and the foil to Niemeyer’s Brutalist hard edges), express the modernist principles he and other 20th-century Latin American artists imported from Europe and made their own by fusing them with native content and influences—what is sometimes known as “Tropical Modernism.”
The artist’s gardens operate not only on an aesthetic level, expressing the arced contours, bends, and cellular forms that recur in post-war, mid-20th-century utopian design movements. They also serve as a rebuttal to the influence of manicured French garden designs in Brazil—the result of European colonizers importing not only their visual culture, but also their own native plants. The gardens Burle Marx encountered as a child in São Paulo and Rio were populated with roses and gladioli. Cactuses, mangroves, and pineapple plants—species native to tropical climates and so considered to be too wild and “uncivilized,” according to the exhibition’s curators, Jens Hoffmann and Claudia J. Nahson—were markedly absent.
So it was these indigenous plants, many of which he first laid eyes on during trips into the Amazon (he officially discovered some 50 species of plant, several of which now bear his name), became the raw material for his unabashedly sensuous gardens. “His gardens were in many ways the continuation of his work as a painter, using the landscape as a canvas and the plants and flowers as the brush and the color,” says Hoffmann. “But he was very aware of what he was doing, adding two dimensions to his paintings—the dimension of depth and, fundamentally, the dimension of time. In my opinion this is why his work is so relevant today; the idea of time. The idea that you create something but then you think about how will this look in 10 years.”
In his designs, many of which are still thriving gardens today, Burle Marx offered an example of what harmony between nature and culture could look like. He paid careful attention to the conditions in which his plants could thrive, considering the impact of their location, light sources, and the effects of time—as well as considerations to the way humans would engage with his intended pathways through the plants. “He really believed in the idea that by creating a garden, creating a park, he was in fact recreating the Garden of Eden, enabling people to go back to paradise,” says Hoffmann. “That was really his mission and that was a lot of the driving force behind what he was doing.”
The “back and forth between something extremely controlled and something extremely wild,” as Hoffmann describes it, and the utopian idealism of Burle Marx’s project, may seem a pipe dream today. But his work serves as a poignant reminder that humans can coexist in symbiosis with their environment. Burle Marx campaigned passionately for the protection of our rainforests, and in the beautiful, playful imprint he left on Earth, he continues to argue for our attention to this pressing issue.