Roberto Burle Marx – Brazilian Modernist @The Jewish Museum, New York, May 6 – September 18, 2016.


Avenida Atlântica, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, pavement designed by Roberto Burle Marx, 1970. © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

Amongst the multitude of artefacts in the architect Sir John Soane’s house on London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a bust representing Soane has been positioned above those of both Raphael and Michelangelo. It is said that Soane chose this symbolic arrangement to suggest that the greatest of achievements in either painting or sculpture were lesser than those of architecture, albeit the type of architecture which was based on classical principles.

Nowadays, in the absence of such guiding principles, it would seem a redundant exercise to choose sides according to which art form one believed best expressed the same ideas or best achieved the same end. Better perhaps to accept what each art form does best. The practice of jumping between disciplines, if it is done well, and the resulting cross-pollination, is today considered a sign of sophistication in an artist.  It is arguably because of the divisions and differences between practices, rather than in spite of them, that it has become so attractive to be able to switch from one discipline to another with ease.

Yet the impulse towards a hierarchy of the arts persists. A ceramicist for example will only be brought into the context of a contemporary art gallery once the larger portion of functionality in the object has been relinquished. As a subject for painters, a garden, or a chosen vista onto a pastoral landscape, has long allowed artists to say at least as much about paint itself as about the landscape being painted. The notion of the primacy of paint (above a great many other mediums) is deep-rooted. Claude Monet might not be as celebrated as he is had he not come to his enthusiasm for cultivating gardens through the medium of paint with its immanent philosophical potential.

Roberto Burle Marx03.jpg

Installation view of the exhibition Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist, May 6 –
September 18, 2016. The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo by: David Heald.

Roberto Burle Marx started his artisic journey relatively unburdened by the expectation to observe the hierarchies between the arts. Before embarking on the career in garden design, for which he is known, Burle Marx was free to spend an exploratory period in Berlin at the end of the 1920s, where he was exposed not only to the myriad developments in Modernism but also to the tropical plants housed in the city’s botanical gardens. In 1930 he returned to Brazil  to begin studying painting at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio.

Burle Marx’s interest in painting started to cross over into garden design proper in the early 1930s, and in 1932 he was given a commission to create a garden layout for a house designed by Lúcio Costa, the man who would later create the urban plan for the new capital, Brasilia. By the time many young artists who were born after the turn of the century first encountered European Modernism in the late 20s and early 30s, Cubism was practically a classical discipline itself. There is much in Burle Marxs’ designs throughout his career which was developed from his study of the planar, fractured space of Cubism. After working through various styles however, it was the amorphous abstractions of Hans Arp which would inform Burle Marx’s aesthetics most visibly in future projects. The roof garden of the Banco Safra headquarters in São Paulo, created in 1983, is a well-resolved and iconic example of the signature style Burle Marx developed.


Roberto Burle Marx, mineral roof garden, Banco Safra headquarters, São Paulo, 1983
Photograph © Leonardo Finotti.

Prior to Burle Marx’s introduction of irregular shapes and asymmetrical arrangements, garden design in Brasil had traditionally involved the transposition of a grand 19th Century French formula of straight lines and European plant species. There was little or no allowance for the potential to exploit the staggering variety of native species which surrounded the urban centres. Having travelled to the other side of the world and been hugely affected in the Berlin Botanical Gardens by the sight of tropical plant species, Burle Marx would now begin to consolidate the various influences in painting, sculpture, drawing, and design to which he had been exposed. During the 1930s and 1940s, with the momentum of several prestigious design projects behind him, Marx developed his use of flowing organic forms, and layered vistas containing native Brazilian plant species such as the iconic Victoria Amazonica water lily.


Victoria amazonica water lilies, garden of the Fazenda Vargem Grande, Clemente Gomes residence, Areias, designed by Roberto Burle Marx, 1979. © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

There is no doubt that his experiences of European Modernism in painting informed Burle Marxs’ designs from the 1930s onwards. Rather than try to continue this legacy back in Brazil however, Burle Marx saw an opportunity to take the essence of Modernism and apply it to the development of urban spaces in his country, both public and private. It was an aesthetic which encouraged the search for inspiration from amongst ones’ own assets. Through the intuitive use of native plants and an openness to the true environment around him, Burle Marx helped foster a new creative self-confidence in Brazil.


Roberto Burle Marx holding Heliconia hirsuta burle marx ii, one of the plant species that bears his name. Photograph © Tyba.

Roberto Burle Marx at The Jewish Museum NY



Author: Robbie O'Halloran

Artist and writer working in Madrid

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