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The Artist Who Painted With Land

Roberto Burle Marx's abstract gardens are legendary. But the landscape architect considered himself first and foremost a painter.

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One of landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx's most celebrated works is the patterned Copacabana sidewalk that runs along the Avenida Atlântica in Rio de Janeiro. From the ground, waves of black and white stone, paved in a traditional Portuguese style, stretch out for miles ahead, morphing from zig zags to blocky modernist patterns to plump '70s swirls. Seen from the air, the two-and-a-half-mile thoroughfare looks two dimensional, like a massive abstract painting dividing the city from the shoreline.

In Rio and across Brazil, Burle Marx's large-scale public works and his brilliant tropical gardens are an indelible part of the landscape. But his work rarely reached beyond his country's borders, and elsewhere in the world Burle Marx is still lesser know. A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York aims to change that, bringing to light his background in painting, the political underpinnings to much of his work, as well as his lasting influence on the world of botany.

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist showcases Burle Marx's enormous creative output, from tapestries, murals and decorative wall coverings, to his first art form, painting. "Painting was really the starting point," says Jens Hoffmann, the Jewish Museum's deputy director of exhibitions and programs and one of the curators of the show. In 1928, at the age of 19, Burle Marx spent a year in Berlin soaking up German Expressionism at the height of the Weimar Republic. When he returned to Rio, he enrolled at the National School of Fine Arts hoping to study painting. But he was also interested in horticulture, and his teacher, the modernist architect and urban planner Lúcio Costa, got him his first job designing a garden for a private home. Two years later, he was the director of parks and gardens in the Northeastern city of Recife.

Pignatari Residence

For one of his first park designs in Recife, a former Portuguese military base, Burle Marx incorporated sugar cane into the design of the garden—a symbol of resistance for slaves in Brazil against Portuguese colonialism. Ultimately, the design got him dismissed from the job, but politics continued to surface in his artwork throughout his career. "He was really interested in plants, but he was a very political guy," says Hoffmann. "He realized that all the gardens in Brazil were based on French design and all the plants were imported because people thought the native plants were too vulgar, they weren’t sophisticated enough for gardens. He really wanted to go against it."

In an effort to use mainly native plants in his work, Burle Marx also started collecting them. To date, at his home in an old plantation outside of Rio, the estate contains 25,000 different types of plants that he collected over his lifetime. He also identified 50 species of plants, 40 of which were named after him.

Remarkably, even with all his recognition as a landscape architect, Burle Marx always considered himself first and foremost a painter. "The paintings are so connected to the landscapes," says Hoffmann. "Landscaping became his painting and the landscape and the plants became his brushes. Its very one to one like that."

"Painting is a two dimensional medium and what Burle Marx did was he added two more dimensions to painting," says Hoffmann. "The dimension of depth and space, but also the dimension of time. These gardens are not there for one particular moment, they are there for several years and Burle Marx had to figure out: how do these things look in the summer, spring, fall and winter? How do they change in one year, two years? This is was occupied him, and that’s completely different from what you think about when you think about an traditional artwork."

All Photos: courtesy The Jewish Museum

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