Gentle Modernist
The revolutionary gardens of Roberto Burle Marx

Under the sway of the expressionists, Roberto Burle Marx returned to Rio de Janeiro from Europe in the 1920s. With his abstract, ecological garden architectures, he revolutionized Brazilian modernism. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on a universal genius.
When Roberto Burle Marx went to Berlin in 1928, the German capital was a laboratory for modernism. The Threepenny Opera, cabaret, and music theater wrote the myth of the metropolis in the sky on luminous neon signs. It was the city of Christopher Isherwood, who immortalized the incipient global economic crisis, the rise of National Socialism, and a hedonistic craving for pleasure in his novel “Goodbye to Berlin.” But it is also a place of yearning for the educated middle-class who flocked to the city from all over the world to admire young conductors such as Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwängler in the concert houses, or the art collections in the Nationalgalerie.

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist visualizes the full range of creativity of the Brazilian universal artist for the first time. Encompassing more than 100 works, the exhibition not only documents Burle Marx’s famous gardens and landscape architectures and his paintings, sculptures, theater design, textiles, and jewelry. Works by contemporary artists who were inspired by Burle Marx are also on view. The exhibition was organized by the Jewish Museum in New York where the show also had its premiere. After Berlin, it will travel to the Museu de Arte do Rio in Rio de Janeiro.

So the Marx family also went to Berlin from Rio de Janeiro. They were extremely fond of German culture and loved one thing above all: music. Roberto’s father, Wilhelm Marx, went to Brazil from Trier as a German-Jewish immigrant at the end of the nineteenth century, where the successful leather merchant took piano lessons from Cecília Burle, the daughter of a wealthy Catholic family. Roberto, who was born in 1909 as the fourth of six children, grew up in a cosmopolitan milieu. Arthur Rubinstein stayed with the family during concert trips, and the Marx family had a party honoring Stefan Zweig. Brazilian cultural titans such as the conductor Heitor Villa-Lobos came and went.

Burle Marx’s love of art and culture was also influenced by his parents. Inspired by his mother, he started doing gardening work. In 1994, he recalled in an interview: “When I started to bring in plants I liked from the wild, she never said, ‘Oh Roberto, these are weeds!’ She would say: ‘Roberto, I have never seen such a beautiful thing, it is a kind of divine manifestation’.” When Robert decided to study painting at a private school in Berlin, the whole family travelled with him. They went to the theater and attended three or four concerts a week, were enamored of Wagner and Strauss operas. Roberto even took lessons from a singer from the State Opera.

And it was in Berlin that he resolved to become both an artist and a landscape architect. His visits to the modern art collection at the Kronprinzenpalais on Unter den Linden contributed to this decision. Ludwig Justi, the director of the Nationalgalerie, adhered to a groundbreaking concept with “Gallery of the Living.” While Impressionists were on view on the ground floor, Expressionist and Fauve works formed the core of the collection on the second floor. The young Burle Marx wandered through rooms with paintings by the Die Brücke artists Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Max Pechstein. But alongside Paul Gauguin, it was Vincent van Gogh’s work that electrified him: “It filled me with enthusiasm; those paintings—that violent expression—invaded my whole being! I realized that painting would have to be my medium.” But he made another discovery in Berlin that he would take with him when he returned to his home country. In the greenhouses of the Botanical Gardens in Dahlem, he recognized the beauty of Brazilian flora, the philodendrons, bromeliads, water lilies, and snakewood plant that were ignored in Brazilian gardens but lovingly cultivated here. “When I am asked where did I perceive the aesthetic qualities of the autochthonous elements of Brazilian flora, from where did I obtain the will to build an entirely new order of plastic composition with the native plants of this land, I can only answer that it happened when I was studying painting in the greenhouse of Brazilian tropical plants in Berlin Botanical Garden,” he said later. “It was there that I realized the strength of the pristine nature of the tropics, that I had there, in my hands, as raw matter ready to serve to my own artistic project.”

This story has been described as the artist’s awakening time and time again. However, it is more likely that in Berlin Burle Marx found the missing confirmation he needed to take his own extraordinary path. It was here that he came into contact with the ideas of the European avant-garde that in the course of the next decades would make him Brazil’s most important landscape architect. Yet, like many of the operas that Roberto loved so much, his artistic thought was also informed by the ideals of German Romanticism and the Enlightenment. The idea of reconciling civilization and nature, people and the soil, the rejection of “artificiality,” the return to traditional and national roots were just as enshrined in Romanticism as the striving for a union of art and life. Hence for Burle Marx painting was not only an additional means of expression on an equal footing, but was also influenced by his architectural work. In his work, a painting can become landscape architecture, and a sketch of a garden a piece of jewelry or a sculpture. “I hate the idea that a landscape architect should only know about plants,” he said decades later. “He also has to know what a Piero della Francesca is, what constitutes a Miró, a Michelangelo, a Picasso, a Braque, a Léger.”

Back in Rio de Janeiro, he began studying art and architecture, to garden and paint. In Brazil, too, artists and intellectuals were assimilating the ideas of modernism. For example, in 1928 the poet Oswald de Andrade published his Manifesto Antropófago, in which he called upon young artists to “cannibalize” European culture, to take what they needed to hybridize it with indigenous culture, but also to defy European culture with its colonial history. What this meant for Burle Marx becomes apparent if we have a look at one of his early and most prominent projects —the roof garden of the Ministry of Education and Health he designed in the then national capital Rio de Janeiro. He had created private gardens since 1933, among others for buildings by the architect Lúcio Costa, who became his mentor. While Burle Marx’s painting remained figurative, the visual language of his gardens was already completely abstract. When Costa began work on the ministry in 1936 with Oscar Niemeyer and advised by Le Corbusier, he engaged Marx, who was 27 at the time, as well.

The high-rise is a bold project, arguably South America’s first modern building. Corbusier’s influence is unmistakable. This is evidenced by the supporting pillars, which make the building seem to float, and the roof garden. But it is a unique modernist edifice for another reason. It mingles European purism with strong Brazilian influences. Thus, for example, inside there are gigantic murals by Cândido Portinari, the country’s most famous painter, who also designed the exterior floor tiles. Burle Marx assisted him in this work. Finally, in 1938, Marx was commissioned by Costa to design the garden on the ministry’s giant canopy. The design he executed as a watercolor recalls an abstract painting. It is a micro- and macrocosm at once. Meanders run through the camouflage picture like river courses; forms look like amoeba, cell structures, or islands.

In the garden design, he transferred the flatness of the image to three dimensions, and his procedure was revolutionary in several respects. While conventional Brazilian landscape architecture was still oriented to European Belle Époque garden design, and flowers and bushes were imported from overseas, Burle Marx worked exclusively with domestic flora. He was not interested in the blossoms, but primarily in the leaves. Rather than planting flowerbeds picturesquely, he opted very clearly for color, mass and surface, and for strong contrasts. As in his later gardens, in which his beds have curved forms or checkered, geometric fields, these “color fields” are not really monochrome, but are composed of countless shades. The ministry’s staff members look out on an abstract landscape, a mixture of art and nature, reminiscent of an aerial photograph of a tropical forest.

As for generations of discoverers before him, for modernists such as Le Corbusier the rainforest was awe-inspiring, indomitable, and unpredictable, at once a mystery and a threat. In 1929, when Burle Marx was discovering European modernism in Berlin, the icon of modernist architecture was flying over the Amazon. The lush forests reminded him of the “horrible mold” in his mother’s jam jars, but in this case covered the surface of the earth. The colonialist idea of subjugating the wild tropics that ultimately lies behind Le Corbusier’s statements, transforms into the opposite in Burle Marx’s landscape designs. In his gardens, it is a matter of cultivating a tropical civilization. In his case, this civilization is astonishingly modern, reduced, and geometric, yet also ecological and spiritual. “I aspire to a creation that is free in its formulation but it is yet deeply grounded in the roots of  my understanding and my overall vision of the world and nature,” he said in an interview. “And that vision is guided by two feelings, of which St. Francis of Assisi was a paradigm: the love that drives us and the humility that corrects us.”

In 1949, Burle Marx acquired Sítio Santo Antonio da Bica, a former 365,000 square meter coffee plantation on the outskirts of Rio that he transformed into a private paradise. In greenhouses, gardens, and swamps that ran through hilly landscape between ponds and waterfalls, he planted one of the world’s largest collections of tropical plants. He cultivated more than 3,500 rare species in his refuge. Burle Marx opposed the destruction of rainforests and may very well have been the world’s first artist to combine his work with ecological activism. At the same time, he collected folk art as well as pre-Columbian and sacred objects, which he mingled with his paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and glass works.

The Sítio looks like a reservoir for the urbanplanning revolution that he launched with the architects Niemeyer and Costa. In Brasília, the new capital, which sprung up in just four years according to Niemeyer’s and Costa’s plans and was inaugurated in 1960, he executed countless commissioned works—for example, the gardens of the seat of the president, the spectacular facilities for the foreign ministry and ministry of justice, and the giant square in front of the defense ministry. Burle Marx developed a kind of landscape design that forged a bold symbiosis with progressive concrete buildings. What all of these constructions have in common is that in their reduction they invariably have something lyrical, almost musical. Thus, in 1970 he designed the magnificent, four-kilometer-long Avenida Atlântica that lines Copacabana beach. Here Burle Marx picked up on the traditional, wave-shaped paving that is popular in Portugal and Brazil. On the promenade, he enlarged the wave shapes in order to create a formal transition between sea and city. For the floor mosaics on the median and on the walkway, he designed audacious abstract compositions, “wild” mosaic carpets repeatedly interrupted by segments of the black-andwhite wave pattern. The steady stream of passersby and vehicles, and the waves of the sea, add additional dynamism to the gigantic composition.

The avenue leads to Parque do Flamengo, a giant area also designed by Burle Marx that runs along the dramatic urban coastline. The park unites nature, culture, and sports: beaches, green areas, meadows, soccer fields, tennis courts, and museums, including the Museu de Arte Moderna, for which Burle Marx designed the rock garden. This symbiosis between civilization and urban nature illustrates how bold the dreams of the young art student must have when he spent time in the greenhouses of Berlin. He had his sights set on a modern Garden of Eden, no less.