It’s possible to love the work of Roberto Burle Marx without ever having seen one of his gardens. The reason is that Burle Marx’s landscape plans are powerful artworks in their own right. Painted in gouache, with a utilitarian purpose but an abstract expressionist (and occasionally surrealist) sensibility, the brightly colored plans are the centerpieces of the exhibition “Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist” at The Jewish Museum, where they are winning a new generation of converts to Burle Marx’s work — at least as it appears in two dimensions.
How well his plans translate into actual gardens, the crucial question about any landscape architect, is not addressed. Photos of the gardens are provided, but only as visual footnotes to the much larger gouaches, which are shown alongside drawings, sculptures, ceramics, tapestries, and jewelry. The curators made a deliberate choice to position Burle Marx (1909-1994) as a renaissance man for whom landscape was one of a range of artistic pursuits. Indeed, to show his relevance to contemporary practice, the show includes recent work by seven artists indebted to Burle Marx. Tellingly, none of the seven is a landscape architect.
But isn’t positioning the great landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx as a painter/sculptor/ceramicist like positioning him as a chef, because his recipes became a book, A Mesa Com Burle Marx? No doubt he was a polymath, with extraordinary facility in a variety of media. But wasn’t everything beyond his landscape architecture, relatively speaking, just a hobby? To put it another way, does landscape architecture have to share one of its few true superstars?
Burle Marx, the son of a Catholic mother and a German Jewish father, grew up in Rio de Janeiro expecting to become a painter. At 19, he enrolled in art college in Berlin; it was while visiting that city’s botanical gardens that he discovered the exotic flora of his native country. When he returned to Brazil, he continued painting, mainly portraits and still-lifes. But in his early landscape commissions—the first, in 1932, was a roof garden for a house by his teacher Lucio Costa—he began creating planting plans that looked like the work of Jean Arp and Joan Miró, with bits of Calder, Picasso, and Noguchi thrown in. As a superb essay by the garden historian William Howard Adams points out, there were precedents for Burle Marx’s paisley plans in Jean-Charles Alphand’s design for Paris’s Parc de Buttes-Chamont (1869) and Auguste François Marie Glaziou’s for Rio’s Campo de Sant’Ana (1885). (Adams’s essay was published in conjunction with the landscape-focused 1991 Museum of Modern Art retrospective aptly tiled “Roberto Burle Marx: The Unnatural Art of the Garden.”) But most Brazilian gardens before Burle Marx were imitations of their European counterparts, symmetrical in plan and filled with plants imported from the Continent.
Yet despite his use of amoeboid shapes and his prescient environmentalism — he railed against the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest long before there was an environmental movement — the gardens Burle Marx is known for aren’t naturalistic. True, the curves suggest a certain free-wheeling sensibility, but in fact they required the plants they contained to stay within sharply drawn lines. This wasn’t a return to the primeval—not even close.
And as hard as he may have tried, his gardens never looked quite like his brightly colored gouaches. The saturated reds and yellows of his plan for the garden of the Ministry of the Army in Brasilia (1970) became dull orange and beige in real life — though perhaps that was for the best. In cases where he did capture bright colors within a strict geometry (as in the Odetto Monteiro estate, Rio de Janeiro, 1948), the work can become almost kitsch, recalling the use of flowers as pixels in a Tournament of Roses Parade float.
Indeed, the realized projects for which Burle Marx is most famous involve nothing but paving materials — the miles-long promenade along Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, in a pattern that interprets the ocean’s waves in black and white. And there are other gardens that seem to use plants almost reluctantly. The few potted succulents dotting the roof garden at the Banco Safra headquarters (Sao Paulo, 1984) are distractions—like smudges on otherwise careful calligraphy.
That doesn’t mean Burle Marx wasn’t a genius in the use of flora. Much has been made of his many trips into the Brazilian rain forest, where he discovered hundreds of species, some later named for him. Less has been said about what he did after he discovered them—the years of painstaking experimentation, to find out which plants would work in what conditions.
In fact, Raymond Jungles, a Burle Marx protégé based in Miami, says that the master’s best gardens are the ones that aren’t eye-catching when depicted in two-dimensions, but are thrilling when they unfold in three dimensions, as Burle Marx’s color fields interact with the natural color fields of Brazilian scenery, a play of foreground and background that can’t even be hinted at in a flat landscape plan. And there was the dimension of time. As Claudia Nahan (who curated the current show, along with Jens Hoffman) points out, landscape is the rare art form “that continues to grow, that continues to shape itself.” Burle Marx is said to have known what his gardens would look like in 10, 20, or 50 years.
The show makes much of his work for Jewish organizations in his final decades (the plan for an unrealized garden at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University is a standout); had he lived longer, he might have also worked for LGBTQ organizations.
Burle Marx he had the perspective of a person with a minority religion and a minority sexual orientation. Perhaps that perspective helped him innovate, which he did in one field above all others. He was a good jeweler, a good ceramicist, a good portrait painter, maybe a good cook — but a great landscape architect and urbanist who, with his vast public projects, helped shape the modern city. For all his varied talents, he still belongs to landscape architecture, and landscape architecture still belongs to him.