Roberto Burle Marx Takes over the New York Botanical Garden

Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Burle Marx, the largest botanical exhibition ever put on by the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), features the work of creative polymath Roberto Burle Marx, realized through extensive and lush gardens filled with Brazilian native plants and exhibitions of his paintings and drawings. The gardens were designed by Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles, FASLA.

New York Botanical Garden: The Living Art of Burle Marx / NYBG

Burle Marx’s instantly recognizable landscapes, paintings, textiles, and jewelry have been the subject of two major museum retrospectives in New York in the past 30 years, but his environmentalism in his native Brazil has been largely overlooked.

In Brazil and the U.S., recently-elected populist presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump have gutted decades of established environmental regulation. Their actions set the stage for the symposium Burle Marx: A Total Work of Art, which kicked off the NYBG exhibition by turning the focus to Burle Marx’s tenacious environmental advocacy.

Burle Marx promoted his environmentalism as cultural counselor to the Brazilian state, a position he held for seven years under a series of repressive military regimes. During this time he gave eighteen impassioned “depositions” in which he argued it was the duty of the state to protect the landscape not as a productive resource, but as a crucial aspect of Brazilian cultural heritage.

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx / Flickr
Google Earth view of Roberto Burle Marx’s Gardens of the Ministry of the Army in Brasilia / Adam Nathaniel Furman on Twitter

In describing what Burle Marx was up against, Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, author of Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes Under Dictatorship, traced the long history of incursions into the Brazilian hinterlands by cattle, rubber, and paper industries intent on exploiting resources and taming the wilderness.

The symposium also featured two speakers who knew Burle Marx personally: Raymond Jungles, a self-described member of Burle Marx’s “entourage,” and Isabel Ono, executive director of the Burle Marx Institute and daughter of Burle Marx’s closet collaborator, Haruyoshi Ono. Both recalled touching personal details about their time spent with him, painting a picture of his boundless whimsy and curiosity.

Roberto Burle Marx with his head between two elephant’s ears leaves / NYBG

Burle Marx, an avid horticulturist and plant conservationist, was known for his epic excursions into the Brazilian wilderness to search for rare plants to add to his gardens. Jungles recounted eagerly taking the front seat of the van while accompanying Burle Marx on these excursions so that he could listen to his stories as he drove.

When Jungles pulled out a book during some down time on one of these trips, Burle Marx gently chided him: “Raymond, put it away. Out here, we study nature.”

The Living Art of Burle Marx runs through September 29, 2019.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Ecopolitan.

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