NEW YORK —
The Brazilian modernist Roberto Burle Marx liked to tell the story of his arrival in Berlin in the late 1920s as a young man, in the German capital to steep himself in European culture. When he checked out the city’s botanical garden, the scales dropped from his eyes.
The conservatories contained the living treasures of Amazonia, plants he had never seen in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. The gardens of the Brazilian bourgeoisie were full of roses, geraniums, clipped hedges and other floral markers of Western “civilization.”
Thus began Burle Marx’s lifelong passion for garden design with Brazilian plants, for discovering and conserving new native species, and for the prescient cause of fighting the agricultural destruction of the tropical habitats of his homeland and the lungs of the world.
Such callings would seem more than enough for any one person, but for Burle Marx, these disciplines were just slices of a colorful and fruitful pie that only continued to bubble over with uncontained creativity until his death in 1994 at 84.
Burle Marx was also a leading contemporary artist, and many critics have viewed him as an artist who created gardens rather than a landscape architect who painted. Since he designed some 3,000 landscapes (not all built), that may be an art-centric view of his oeuvre. But he was a renowned artist. His paintings evolved from figurative to curvilinear abstract forms, and his work is often compared to that of Joan Miro and Jean Arp. He worked in oil, acrylic and textiles; he made prints, tiles, sculptures and jewelry.
In a century when specialization took hold, Burle Marx seemed to spring from an earlier age, bound only by the limits of his imagination.
He designed costumes and sets for opera and ballet productions. He had a classically trained voice that brought music into his celebrated atelier, the Sitio, outside Rio. In his “depositions” on the fate of the Amazon (and other Brazilian biomes) he proved himself a formidable writer and environmentalist. Those who knew him say he was also a fabulous cook and bon vivant.
It’s hard to think of another polymath of such achievement and scope — Le Corbusier, perhaps, or Albert Schweitzer, or Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet Burle Marx is “not a household name to people who are not particularly knowledgeable about Brazilian art or garden architecture,” says Edward J. Sullivan, an art history professor at New York University. “If he had only done painting, he would be within the top tier of Brazilian modernists.”
Burle Marx’s father was a Jewish emigre from Germany; his mother was Brazilian of French ancestry. As his hair and mustache grew whiter and longer over the years, he came to resemble Albert Einstein, but with glasses. Friends remember him as playful and big-hearted, not given to irritation unless people treated his employees poorly, or wanted to destroy the Amazon.
It may be his multidisciplinary genius has worked against him in a genre-fixated world (not to mention the cultural veil that seems drawn between North and South America). When the Museum of Modern Art exhibited Burle Marx in 1991, the focus was on the artistic aspects of his garden plans, not his art, per se.
Now, a generation after his death, cultural historians are taking another look, but with a rounder perspective and the hope that this inspiring creator will finally get the broader recognition he deserves.
Three years ago, the Jewish Museum in New York presented a comprehensive Burle Marx exhibition. Now, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx is staging the largest botanical exhibition in its history devoted to the idea of its subject as a total artist, “Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx.” Sullivan is its guest curator.
The exhibition consists of displays of tropical and aquatic flora that Burle Marx used in his landscape designs, as well as some of his paintings, tapestries and other works in the rotunda and galleries of the Library Building. The largest component is an outdoor tropical garden designed as an homage to him. The Modernist Garden synthesizes his plant palette, especially big palm trees, and the architectural elements that defined his gardens, including a relief mural, an ornamental pool and extravagantly patterned pavement. The last feature recalls Burle Marx’s most visible achievement — nearly three miles of mosaic paving along Rio’s Copacabana Beach that echoes the polychromatic arabesques of his paintings. This led to a later commission — a similar, if more modest, graphic treatment of part of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami.
When the botanical garden came to select a guest designer to create the show’s central feature, there was one obvious choice, and not just for his name. Raymond Jungles, based in Coconut Grove, Fla., is a veteran landscape architect who works in South Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and other subtropical regions. He also looks the part, arriving for the exhibition preview in a white linen suit, dark glasses and a Panama hat.
But most of all, Jungles is in New York as a protege of Burle Marx, owing his career and its trajectory to the great man himself.
At the University of Florida in the late 1970s, Jungles was thinking of becoming an architect, but then he came across a textbook with photos of Burle Marx’s early works. They were dated, and in black and white, yet Jungles was captivated by the power of the boldly different forms. He wrote repeatedly to Burle Marx in English, without any response, but then had a chance to meet him for dinner when Burle Marx was passing through Miami.
This led to a series of sojourns to Brazil beginning in 1982, typically in early August when Burle Marx would stage an extravagant banquet at the Sitio to mark his birthday. The Sitio functioned as an art studio and laboratory, a garden, nursery and plant museum, and a compound for houseguests. It is now a publicly run cultural institution. As part of the party preparations, Burle Marx would render the enormous tablecloth as a painting and create sculptural chandeliers.
When Jungles first traveled with him, it became evident right away that Burle Marx was famous in his homeland. Burle Marx had asked his acolyte to carry watches and T-shirts (presents for his workers) and, at the duty-free shop, directed him to load up on bottles of whisky and cognac.
“I’m this nervous kid from Nebraska, I have contraband in my suitcases,” Jungles recalls. “As we got to customs, he was as famous as any TV celebrity or musician. They just waved him through, and they waved me through.”
As part of his entourage, Jungles would accompany Burle Marx on plant-collecting expeditions, which were often in Brazil’s other major biomes — the coastal forest (Mata Atlantica) and the Cerrado, an area of dry and rocky savanna and shrub lands.
Burle Marx discovered almost 50 species, including bromeliads, philodendrons, heliconias and calatheas.
The interesting aspect of Burle Marx’s landscape architecture is although his medium was indigenous flora, he used plants in groupings and bed patterns that recalled his paintings, not the jungle. He was drawn to strongly architectural plants, especially bromeliads, and presented them as sculpture.
In designing the New York show’s Modernist Garden, Jungles took the expansive lawn by the side of the garden’s signature Haupt Conservatory and turned it into an homage to Burle Marx.
In addition to the path’s allusion to Copacabana Beach, the faux-concrete relief mural recalls the corporate headquarters of Banco Safra in Sao Paulo, and the plant beds and plaza are reminiscent of various public and private gardens from Rio to Caracas, Venezuela, where Burle Marx once had an office.
The garden is given vertical structure through the extravagant installation of palm trees, some reaching more than 30 feet. They were installed in chilly May but have adapted to New York’s summer weather. The path layout and plantings work together to direct views and vistas.
The Modernist Garden captures the spirit of Burle Marx’s design style. He collaborated early on with big-name modern architects working in Brazil, including Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. It is revealing that in his first major public commission, for two gardens at the education and public health ministry in Rio in 1938, he turned to native Brazilian plants — a truly radical use of indigenous flora at the time.
In the catalogue accompanying the show (the next best thing to visiting it), Sullivan and others argue the organic framework of Burle Marx’s designs, as well as the colors and ornamentation, brought a singular Brazilian character to the sparse, geometric and universal character of the modern architecture of Rio and, later, Brasilia.
The show is a timely reminder of how a fiercely creative artist can continue to inspire others long after his death. That continuing power of inspiration, it might be argued, is the acid test of Burle Marx’s greatness.
Sullivan, viewing Burle Marx’s existing gardens with the detached perspective of the historian, made a pilgrimage to Sitio Roberto Burle Marx to soak up his subject. “The personality of Roberto Burle Marx is living there in the plants, in the air, in the buildings,” Sullivan said. “He was an extraordinary person; he was a total work of art.”
For Jungles, who has some of his mentor’s paintings in his home and office, it is more personal. “I was there the last years of Roberto’s life, and he was tough to keep up with,” he says. “He would say after a long day traveling or in his studio, ‘I have done much in my life.’ ”
Writing to a corporate forest-clearer in 1976, Burle Marx said that “the sacrifice of nature is irreversible.” But to him, a mere indifference to nature was unthinkable. He devoted his life to nature, not least his own.
Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx Through Sept. 29. nybg.org.