The largest botanical exhibition ever put on by the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) has recently opened. Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Burle Marx 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.
Burle Marx’s instantly recognizable landscapes, paintings, textiles, and jewelry have now been the subject of two major museum retrospectives in New York in the past 30 years, but, until recently, Burle Marx’s 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 that 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.
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, FASLA, a Miami-based landscape architect and 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.
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 Burle Marx’s 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.”
This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Ecopolitan.