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.”