Tropical Modernism
Roberto Burle Marx at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

He designed the world-famous mosaic pavement on the Copacabana and more than 2,000 gardens all over the world. But Roberto Burle Marx was also a painter and sculptor, created ceramics, set designs, and jewelry, was an environmental activist. For the first time a large exhibition illustrates the entire spectrum of his work and the Brazilian’s influence on the current art scene. Achim Drucks on the perfect summer show.
Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in the center of Berlin is not especially inviting: lawns and a few trees, adjacent to streets and parking spaces. The famous wheel sculpture in front of the Volksbühne theater, the only highlight in the area, was recently demonstratively dismantled after the controversial end of the Castorf era. The Roberto Burle Marx exhibition on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle shows that this place could look quite different. The Brazilian artist’s design for the square included a colorfully tiled fountain, sculptures with brightly colored pennants rising like flags in the air, a playground, and a rest area lined with walls covered with ceramic plates: modernist Brazilian joie de vivre for Berlin-Mitte. Burle Marx executed the unrealized design celebrating German reunification shortly before his death in 1994, as a gift to the city that gave decisive impetus to his artistic development. At the time, the municipal authorities decided against it.

Appropriately, the Burle Marx retrospective, curated by Jens Hoffmann, the director of New York’s Jewish Museum, begins with his works connected with Berlin, the city where his almost sixty-year career began in the times of the Weimar Republic. When he arrived in the German capital with his family in the late 1920s to study art, the young Brazilian had no idea that he would make two discoveries there that would leave their mark on his life’s work: In museum’s and galleries he encountered paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, and the German  Expressionists. And during his visits to the Botanical Garden he became aware of the beauty of South American flora. What the gardeners in his home country ignored (they oriented themselves to classical European models) was lovingly cultivated in Berlin greenhouses. Back in Brazil, Burle Marx developed a life-affirming body of work that moves effortlessly between art, landscape architecture, and design, while also addressing issues such as ecology and environmental protection.

His gardens and parks embody this new art form. It is fascinating to see how their formal vocabulary developed from European abstract modernism. This, coupled with the influence of Brazilian nature and folk art, enabled Burle Marx to develop something all his own, a tremendously vital, colorful, tropical modernism that characterizes his entire oeuvre: paintings and sculptures, as well as carpets, ceramics, jewelry, and theater costumes.

The eclectic, border-crossing approach of his work and Burle Marx’s openness to myriad influences make him so interesting, particularly to current artists. For this reason, his works on exhibit at the KunstHalle are repeatedly juxtaposed with contemporary positions. For instance Beatriz Milhazes. The painter combines references to Brazilian Baroque, carnival, pop culture, and folklore with art movements such as Constructivism and Tropicália. Burle Marx’s paintings and gardens have had a strong impact on the brightly colored abstract works of the Rio-born artist. Nick Mauss‘s faience earthenware plaques with their delicate paintings alternating between figuration and abstraction correspond with the tiles and mosaic stones with which Burle Marx transported forms and colors of his paintings out into nature. And the exhibition extends outdoors. A sound landscape by the New York avant-garde musician Arto Lindsay can be heard on Unter den Linden. The rhythms and structures of the Brazilian’s gardens inspired him to compose the piece.

The spiritual side of Burle Marx becomes clear in the last part of the exhibition, which is devoted to his works for Jewish sites. Particularly remarkable are the glass window designs for the Beit Yaakov synagogue in Guarujá, a resort on the Atlantic. The dynamic interplay between straight and curved lines in the designs picks up on the building’s rigid geometry. At the same time, the bright blue and red hues of the windows radiate his joie de vivre. Shapes recalling plants or river courses strive upwards, toward the light and the Star of David. In Burle Marx’s cosmos, everything is constantly growing and changing. There seems to be nothing that is not noteworthy enough to carry divine beauty within it.

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist

07/07/2017 – 10/03/ 2017
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin 
Find out more about Roberto Burle Marx in our features A Different Kind of Modernism: The Humanistic Vision of Roberto Burle Marx and Gentle Modernist: The revolutionary gardens of Roberto Burle Marx