Modern Brazilian Landscape Design

Self-Portrait, Roberto Burle Marx, 1929 charcoal

Self-Portrait, Roberto Burle Marx, 1929 charcoal

If you watched the Summer Olympics, you may have caught a glimpse of the two-and-a-half-mile thoroughfare, Avenida Atlântica along the Copacabana shoreline in Rio.  This iconic pavement was designed in 1970 by  Roberto Burle Marx  whose career is the subject of a retrospective at the Jewish Museum.  Not widely known outside Brazil, over the course of a 60-year career he designed some 2,000 gardens worldwide, including Chile, Argentina, France, South Africa, and the United States.  He is perhaps best known here for his fluid design of Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard (completed after his death), with its swirling, vivid patterns.

Burle Marx (1909-1994) was the son of a German Jewish father and a Brazilian Catholic mother (the portraits he painted of his parents are in the exhibit).  He grew up in Rio, and studied painting in Germany for  a few years.  It was during visits to the Botanical Garden in Berlin that he learned about Brazil’s native flora, and saw it used for decorative purposes, in contrast to Brazil, where European-style gardens with imported vegetation were in vogue.

Design for the Garden of the Clemente Gomes Residence, Areias, 1979

Design for the Garden of the Clemente Gomes Residence, Areias, 1979

Back in Brazil in the early 1930‘s, he embraced modernism which was then taking hold there. Through his drawings for public works projects and private commissions, the exhibit demonstrates how Burle Marx revolutionized garden design.  Rejecting symmetry, formalism and imported European flora, his designs employed  abstraction and grand colorful sweeps of local vegetation, bringing to mind the paintings of Joan Miro, Jean Arp and Sonia Delauney.

His design sensibilities were informed by an awareness of how people walk through a garden, resulting in relaxing design patterns created with pavings and bed shapes. 

Throughout his career, Burle Marx collaborated with architects, including  Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Jose Tabacow and Haruyoshi Ono.

Design for the Minister's Rooftop Garden, Ministry of Education and Health, Rio de Janieiro, 1938

Design for the Minister’s Rooftop Garden, Ministry of Education and Health, Rio de Janieiro, 1938

On display are his plans for several public works projects, such as the roof garden for the Ministry of Health and Education in Rio, one of his most celebrated designs, and the Ministry of the Army in Brazilia, both of which made clever use of scale and water.

The exhibit also showcases designs for private commissions, as well as plans that were never realized, which all together make you see how his asymmetrical plans with their amoeba-like forms have influenced landscape artists around the world, as has his use of native vegetation, colorful pavements, and free-form bodies of water.

An amateur botanist, Burle Marx discovered over fifty plant species, advocated passionately for the environment, and spoke out against deforestation in Brazil. 

Detail, tapestry for the Santo André Civic Center, 1969

Detail, tapestry for the Santo André Civic Center, 1969

In addition to his landscape designs, throughout the show, you’ll find his paintings.  I especially liked his portraits, several of regular people, some of African ancestry, who are painted as the main subjects, not supporting afterthoughts.  A prolific artist, he also worked in jewelry and textile design.   One of my favorites is a 1969 tapestry for the Santo André Civic Center; about 12ft x 90ft, it takes up the rear wall of the exhibit. In addition to it’s colorful free-form shapes, it makes use of pulled and raised yarns to create texture and three dimensionality in selected spots.  In a small room you’ll find a tablecloth and a large-scale painting he made, as well as a small selection of the folk art he collected – the angels on the top shelf are especially lovely, as is the two-headed beast on the shelf below.

If you’re hungry, I’d recommend grabbing a bite at Russ & Daughters  in the Museum’s lower level;  I can personally recommend the Vegetable Barley Soup and the Honey cake with ice-cream – the Borscht and blintzes won raves from one of my friends.

Maquette for the Burton & Emily Hall Tremaine Beach House, Santa Barbara, CA 1948 (unbuilt)

Maquette for the Burton & Emily Hall Tremaine Beach House, Santa Barbara, CA 1948 (unbuilt)

The Museum is hosting several  events related to the show.  On September 8th, at 7:30 pm, Art & Music: The Genius of the Burle Marx Family, a lecture-in-concert explores the relationship between the landscape architecture and art  of Roberto Burle Marx and the musical compositions of his brother Walter.  Directed by Thiago Tiberio, President of the Burle Marx Music Society, and performed by the Fourth Estate Project musicians, the concert will include a lecture by Walter’s last surviving daughter, Leonora, punctuated by selections of her father’s chamber music.

On the afternoon of Friday, September 16, take in a talk focused on Roberto Burle Marx’s observational work from nature, and the relationship between representation and abstraction.

The exhibit continues through September 18th, at the Jewish Museum,  1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street.

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