Through flowers, foliage and works of art, a big botanical garden show distills the genius of influential Brazilian artist and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.
Curvy, graphic pathways draw visitors in, winding through eye-catching tapestries of bright, almost sculptural plant forms. Exotic water lilies resemble rimmed serving trays. Brazilian music plays in the background.
Oh, and it’s all in the Bronx.
In what the New York Botanical Garden says is its largest botanical exhibition ever, “Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx” celebrates the artist, landscape architect and conservationist in a dazzling display of his garden style. Accompanying programming showcases the sights and sounds of Brazil, with music and dance performances meant to evoke Rio de Janeiro, the inspiration of the artist’s life and work.
The show opened June 8 and runs through Sept. 29.
While many people have heard of mid-century modern furniture and homes, mid-century modern landscaping? Not so much.
This show is a tribute to a master of that form.
“Roberto Burle Marx was arguably the world’s most celebrated modernist landscape architect. He was born in 1909 and died in 1994. His career as a landscape architect began in the late 1930s, and he went on to design nearly 3,000 landscapes, on scales ranging from a small estate garden to roof gardens on institutional buildings to massive urban parks,” says Todd A. Forrest, vice president for horticulture and living collections at the garden.
“Most of his work was done in Brazil, but he was globally recognized for his influence.”
One of Burle Marx’s signature elements was the use of biomorphic paving patterns, with walkways functioning as part of the site’s aesthetics, not just a way through it, Forrest says. In addition, the artist often used architectural elements, such as walls, using diverse materials like concrete or corten steel.
Burle Marx advocated for the use and preservation of Brazilian wild plants, taking long collecting trips into the Amazon and other areas, often ahead of logging companies or road building concerns, Forrest says. He would identify and rescue plants that might otherwise have been lost, bringing them back and planting them in his own garden.
Besides Brazilian plants, Burle Marx “also used the plants of the world in his designs. His designs are well known for stunning tropical plant forms,” Forrest says.
“He had an exuberant personality. He was a great singer, and made all kinds of drawings and paintings and tapestries and mosaics. That modern abstract style of his can be seen in his landscapes,” says Forrest. “There’s a sense of scale and drama that links his landscapes to the broader landscape surrounding it. There’s a strength of design, a boldness to it. You see large blocks of color. And there are often water features.”
Aerial photos of his landscapes, on view in the exhibit, resemble his abstract paintings of the same era.
The exhibit begins with an expansive outdoor garden and then moves indoors with a display of many of the two dozen plants named after — and in many cases discovered by — Burle Marx. The next segment of the show is outdoors in the water garden, with a mix of Brazilian and other tropical water lilies amid dramatic plantings.
“We designed a planting of a stag horn ferns, from Africa, planted on a vertical wall. It’s exactly the way he would have planted it in his own garden,” Forrest said.
In 1964, when the military took over the Brazilian government, Burle Marx remained in the country while many of his colleagues fled. He advocated for the preservation of Brazil’s natural heritage. He was way ahead of his time, and courageous, Forrest says.
The show ends with a small but impactful exhibit of 14 of Burle Marx’s artworks, in the library’s gallery. The works, in an array of media and featuring vivid colors and shapes, span from the ’50s to the ’80s.
“He was turning to abstraction during that time, when there was an oppressive regime,” says Joanna Groarke, curator of library exhibitions at the garden.
Realistic drawings by Burle Marx depict plants in their natural biome, while later works veer sharply toward abstraction. Later in his career, he created gardens that were like pieces of installation art, Groarke says.
“The gardens were meant to be immersive, alive with senses and sounds and textures. It really resembled performance art,” she says. “And through these gardens, he was showcasing the beauty of plants, including many native Brazilian plants that Brazilian city-dwellers had never seen before.”
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.