Brazilian Modern: The Art of Roberto Burle Marx
by Mary Jasch
A visit to the exhibition: BRAZILIAN MODERN: THE LIVING ART OF ROBERTO BURLE MARX at New York Botanical Garden was long-awaited. Burle Marx (1909-1994) was an artist and world-renowned landscape architect who changed the approach to designing gardens and parks by using Brazilian rain forest plants and abstract styling. He was a courageous environmental activist to save the rain forests during a reign of dictatorship in Brazil.
NYBG has captured Burle Marx’s brilliance, love of plants, creativity and passion and his use of Brazilian tropicals, mosaic pavements, walls and waterfalls, and his love of Nature and Brazil’s Amazon. In the portrayal of this artist/landscape architect with over 3,000 commissioned mosaics and gardens, NYBG has come out a winner.
The exhibit is multi-faceted with gardens outside and in the Edith A. Haupt Conservatory, and Burle Marx’s paintings and drawings in the Gallery.
Enter The Modernist Garden featuring the iconic design for which Burle Marx was famous: organic form of pavement, a mix of beautiful tropical plants and sculptural elements. Majestic royal palms, lush cycads, Swiss cheese plant(Monstera deliciosa) at monster size, philodendrons (including one he discovered and named for him), bromeliads and color galore such as a mix of hot pink Mussaenda philippica and coppery bromeliads in a sea of Cassandra ‘Orange Marmalade’ have become a tropical paradise outside the conservatory. Royal palms, the tallest at 35 feet, 30-foot queen palms from Brazil, 25-foot American Oil Palms (Attalea cohune), Chinese fan palm, triangle palm, Paurotis palm form a canopy in the Modernist garden.
A flashy yellow and red coleus ‘El Brighto’ hedge is outstanding and flamboyant as is its human inspiration. “Burle Marx used it all the time in his designs and at his own home,” says Todd Forrest, Head of Horticulture at NYBG.
Forrest has overseen this entire project for three years now. That includes conception, installation, on-going maintenance, consulting with landscape architect/Burle Marx protégé Raymond Jungles, working with the horticultural staff who grew the plants, the signage and assorted situations that arise and, after September 29, making sure everything goes to where it should.
Soon black and white swirls of pavement, representative of Burle Marx’s curvilinear gardens and hardscapes, lead to a water garden fed by a fountain embedded in a wall. The wall was fashioned after Marx’s original at Banco Safro in Brazil. Both iconic structures represent his penchant for designing and creating hardscapes, such as his famous mosaic walk at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi), Paurotis palm (Aceolorraphe wrightii), traveler's palm (not actually a palm, Ravenala madagascarensis), and Cycad form the tree line behind the water feature. “Raymond thought that because of the line of tall conifers behind the fountain wall they provide a scale reference for the exhibition when placed between the wall and the conifers. Having tall palms in the long view provides that scale,” Forrest explains. “The wall depicts his abstract forms in art and landscape design. The neutral grey is a counterpoint for the colorful plants. The wall combines two features: sculptural and water elements.”
Raymond Jungles, FASLA, is the most accomplished tropical landscape architect, designing gardens in the Caribbean and Central and South America, Forrest says. “He came up with the basic design and we came up with the plant list.”
The Explorer’s Garden
In the conservatory the exhibit focuses on Marx’s plantsmanship featuring Interesting plants that he lused. A jungle-like water garden is filled with shades of green of all sizes, shapes and textures: papyrus, bromeliads, sedges, ferns, P. ‘Burle Marx,’ palms and duckweed in the water.
Bromeliads, palms and aroids abound. A brilliantly colored bromeliad with purple-red flower spikes, Portea ‘Jungles,’ is glorious under a commanding triangle palm and, nearby, P. ‘Burle Marx.’
“He loved aroids – philodendrons and calocasias – and bromeliads. Everything he used in designs, he used in one shape or form at his home,” says Forrest. “He loved outlandish, structural and architectural plants.”
Outside in the courtyard, Burle Marx’s love of water plants shows in the colorful water lilies and lotus that fill the pool. Nearby, a free-standing wall covered in staghorn ferns duplicates a wall at the Sitio, his home in Brazil, “that was inspired by exploring and bringing plants back and using them on every vertical structure. It’s our nod to Burle Marx where we share our love for outstanding unusual plants,” says Forrest.
“Roberto Burle Marx was warm and welcoming and generous in knowledge and a pleasure. He was a great conservationist. He learned about these plants and often rescued them from crews who were making roads or other constructs. Many plants he rescued were not known to science. It gave him a knowledge of the complexity of Nature,” says Forrest. “At that time Brazil was run by a military dictator and Burle Marx made powerful and articulate pleas to conserve the forests. He was courageous and was a man of many colors: a landscape architect, a painter, jewelry maker, singer, entertainer. He was a total work of art.”
Gardens are one aspect of this great artist. In the gallery in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, his oil paintings on fabric are original from private collections along with prints and drawings and photos of the Sitio.
What will become of such a large-scale exhibit – in fact, the largest in NYBG’s history? The fountain wall was designed to be disassembled and reassembled to be offered to venues such as Tucson Botanical Gardens. Plants that are our own will be taken back to the greenhouse and conservatory. Palms and other tropical plants supplied by Jungles will be returned to him in Florida. And some will be composted and mulched to be reused in future exhibits or in the gardens.
NYBG’s goal was to give people a sense of the power of Burle Marx’s creativity – the scale of the installations, the size and numbers of plants and the water feature is approximate to Burle Marx’s landscapes and mosaics.
Says Forrest: “The sheer joy of the exhibition and the man himself is our nod to Roberto Burle Marx who shared our love for outstanding and unusual plants. It’s a lot of fun to watch reactions of people from all over the world who are amazed to see the exhibit.”
It is no wonder that tropicals are my first love after Nature. I LOVE the work of Roberto Burle Marx. Do yourself a great big favor – See this exhibit before it ends September 29! Hurry!
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published September 15, 2019