As the Amazon burns, the work of Roberto Burle Marx offers a reminder of Brazil’s biodiversity

As the Amazon burns, the work of Roberto Burle Marx offers a reminder of Brazil’s biodiversity

“The process of systematic destruction of native forest is a crime against the country,” landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx remarked in 1975.” Our children will live in deserts unless measures that protect the environment from destruction become effective immediately.”

A revolutionary figure in garden design in Latin America, Burle Marx, who died in 1994, led a charge to bring an end to the destruction of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. His vocal advocacy, cited as among the first of its kind, invigorated the contentious debate surrounding deforestation — a topic that remains a point of dire environmental concern as fires in the Amazon continue to rage.

Burle Marx’s political activism continues to be felt through his prolific and influential garden creations. Eschewing the strict symmetry and imported flora of popular European ideals, the Brazilian designer imbued his landscapes with vibrant plants native to the region, creating asymmetrical compositions that featured undulating braids of color, texture and height. In addition to ushering in a new vision for landscape architecture, the artist also contributed to the understanding of tropical plants as an amateur botanist and has been credited with the discovery of 50 plant species.

Roberto Burle Marx during a botanical expedition in Ecuador, 1974. Photo by Luiz Knud Correia de Araújo. Courtesy: Archive of Luiz Knud Correia de Araújo.
Roberto Burle Marx during a botanical expedition in Ecuador, 1974. Photo by Luiz Knud Correia de Araújo. Courtesy: Archive of Luiz Knud Correia de Araújo.

Brazil Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx,” an ongoing exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, teases out these different components of Burle Marx’s life and artistic practice with a vast show and horticultural tribute. On view through Sept. 29, the sprawling affair —  which features a garden inspired by Burle Marx’s designs, a gallery of the artist’s visual art and an exhibit dedicated to his conservation efforts has been dubbed by the organization as the “largest botanical exhibition ever.” Together, the distinct sections of the show aim to reveal, according to the Botanical Garden, “deep connections between his artistic practice and his commitment to environmental conservation.”

An impressive and grandiose nod to its muse, the exhibition’s main garden is designed by contemporary landscape architect Raymond Jungles, a protégé of Burle Marx. The installation, titled “Modernist Garden,” is situated on the Conservatory Lawn and joins two other botanical exhibits based on Burle Marx’s use of plants: the “Explorer’s Garden” in a seasonal exhibition gallery and the “Water Garden,” housed in the Conservatory’s Hardy Courtyard.

Aerial view of the "Modernist Garden." Courtesy: The New York Botanical Garden.
Aerial view of the “Modernist Garden.” Courtesy: The New York Botanical Garden.

Calling to mind Burle Marx’s geometric, black-and-white Copacabana Beach walkways in Rio De Janeiro, the “Modernist Garden” contains a serpentine path that meanders alongside a sweep of plants that wind their way to an open plaza with a large reflecting pool. Adding a kick of drama, palm trees shoot out of the landscape in intervals, creating energetic eruptions of green. In pictures of the outdoor exhibition taken from above (an advantageous position for absorbing the surprising patterning of the installation), the slope of the uppermost palm leaves complement the arched glass roof of the Conservatory’s crystalline atrium.

In another significant portion of the exhibition, the “Water Garden” focuses on Burle Marx’s consummate relationship to tropical plants, making use of the space to provide examples that range from staghorn ferns to aquatic selections, including the ginormous Victoria amazonica — a surreal, circular plant that can grow up to nine feet in diameter.

Roberto Burle Marx painting at home in the 1980s. Photo: Ayrton Camargo / Tyba.
Roberto Burle Marx painting at home in the 1980s. Photo: Ayrton Camargo / Tyba.

The gallery component of the exhibition provides perhaps the most literal connection to Burle Marx and features works drawn from his archive of paintings, textiles and photographs. Gathered together, the pieces echo the forms and colors found in the garden installation, while other elements of the exhibit highlight the botany and conservation central to his career.

A utopian vision of Burle Marx’s work thousands of miles away from the country in which he cemented his legacy, the exhibition allows for guests to see and interact with the tropical rainforest plants the designer championed — and offers a sobering reminder of the biodiversity at stake within Brazil’s borders.

Top Image: Roberto Burle Marx painting in the loggia of his home in the 1980s. Courtesy of Claus Meyer / Tyba.