Roberto Burle Marx (1909–1994) was one of the most influential landscape architects of the twentieth century, yet he is not a familiar figure outside of his native Brazil. He is best known for his iconic seaside pavements on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach, and for his abstract, geometric garden designs. But his work encompasses an enormous range of artistic forms and styles: Burle Marx was a painter and sculptor; a designer of textiles, jewelry, theater sets, and costumes; a ceramicist and stained-glass artist. He was an avid art collector, a talented baritone, a consummate cook, and a visionary self-taught botanist and ecologist. For him, all these endeavors were equally important, facets of one another.
Marx was born in São Paulo, the fourth son of Cecilia Burle, an upper class Brazilian Catholic woman whose family came from Pernambuco and France, and Wilhelm Marx, a German Jew, born in Stuttgart and raised in Trier. The family moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1913.
The artist embraced modernism in the early 1930s, as the movement was taking hold in Brazil. He revolutionized garden design by using abstraction and grand colorful sweeps of local vegetation, abolishing symmetry and rejecting imported flora and European models. He viewed the role of the landscape architect in ideal terms: to mitigate the loss of the primeval garden and repair the rift between humanity and nature.
Burle Marx’s art inhabits a rare space between the rational and the lyrical. Nature’s variability was for him a liberating force: in a sixty-year career he designed more than two thousand gardens worldwide, discovered close to fifty plant species, advocated passionately for the environment, and made paintings and objects of exuberant, rare beauty. The artist who called himself “the poet of his own life,” left the world a poetic legacy.
Burle Marx’s gardens are works of modern art, not only because they make use of flat planes, abstract shapes, and bold color, but because of the way they behave: they prompt awareness of oneself in relation to the built environment. Burle Marx was an early practitioner of a contemporary way of working: crossing genres fluidly, integrating art with political concerns such as ecology, and disregarding the traditional separation of fields of practice. It is therefore no surprise that artists of today find him a fruitful source of inspiration. In this Jewish Museum exhibition, seven artists with ties to Latin America, all born after 1950: Juan Araujo, Paloma Bosquê, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Luisa Lambri, Arto Lindsay, Nick Mauss, and Beatriz Milhazes — provide a sampling of his influence.
The exhibition Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist, will be at the Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, May 6 – September 18, 2016.
Source: the Jewish Museum website