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Installation view of Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist, May 6 – September 18, 2016 | © David Heald
Installation view of Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist, May 6 – September 18, 2016 | © David Heald
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Roberto Burle Marx: An Urban Modernist Legacy

Picture of Ryan Parkes
Updated: 23 June 2016
New York City is home of some of the most popular and engaging museums and exhibitions. This season, the Jewish Museum honors Brazilian-born Roberto Burle Marx – a frontrunner in the world of Modernist art and architecture. Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist is a cornucopia of Marx’s endeavors in landscape architecture, music, painting, jewelry, and theater design. Born of Jewish and Brazilian descent, Marx’s artwork reflects the symbolism and lifestyle of heritage, and his ventures into the art world have yielded some of the most thoughtful and dazzling pieces in the museum’s exhibitions.

The definition of an artistic polymath, Roberto Burle Marx had an intrinsic taste for art in nature – specifically Brazilian plant life. His 1929 work, Garden Study, reflects his foray into botany and his campaign for rainforest conservation in Brazil – a movement in its nascent stages at the time. Many of Marx’s canvas work is a conflation of pencil sketching and impressionistic-style art. His botany heavily involves philodendrons – a plant also featured within his landscape paintings that is prevalent throughout the rainforest of Brazil.

Roberto Burle Marx painting a tablecloth in the loggia of his home, 1980s; the azulejo tile walls and chandelier composed of fruit and flowers on a metal armature are his work. | © Tyba
Roberto Burle Marx painting a tablecloth in the loggia of his home, 1980s; the azulejo tile walls and chandelier composed of fruit and flowers on a metal armature are his work. | © Tyba

Marx’s unexecuted ‘Design for eight stained-glass windows for the Beit Yaakov Synagogue, Guarujá‘ (1985) explicates his penchant for jagged simplicity, coupled with geometric patterns and inverted color schemes. While the piece works within the constructs of normative stained-glass windows, the cubist textures give it modern sensibilities. Embellished with the six point Star of David, it serves not only as a signifying religious piece, but it is also an earmark of his own Jewish background.

Roberto Burle Marx (Brazilian, 1909–1994), design for eight stained-glass windows for the Beit Yaakov Synagogue, Guarujá, 1985 (unexecuted), with Haruyoshi Ono, acrylic on paper, 68 ⅛ x 10 ¼ in. (1.73 x 26 cm) each. Vicky & Joseph Safra Foundation, São Paulo. Reproduced with permission by Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro, image provided by Banco Safra, São Paulo, Brazil.
Roberto Burle Marx (Brazilian, 1909–1994), design for eight stained-glass windows for the Beit Yaakov Synagogue, Guarujá, 1985 (unexecuted), with Haruyoshi Ono, acrylic on paper, 68 ⅛ x 10 ¼ in. (1.73 x 26 cm) each. Vicky & Joseph Safra Foundation, São Paulo. Reproduced with permission by Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro, image provided by Banco Safra, São Paulo, Brazil.

Marx designed his pieces by pouching one medium to grant meaning to another. His impressionistic oil canvas painting called Woman in a Pink Slip plays on his predilection for textures, color ways, and patterns. The subject’s sexuality is made subtle, yet almost flippant within the sumptuous depiction of languishing fabric against a warm and playful backdrop.

Roberto Burle Marx, Woman in a Pink Slip, 1933, oil on canvas, 39 ¾ x 28 in. (101 x 71.1 cm). Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro. Image provided by Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro.
Roberto Burle Marx, Woman in a Pink Slip, 1933, oil on canvas, 39 ¾ x 28 in. (101 x 71.1 cm). Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro. Image provided by Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro.

The exhibit encasing Marx’s jewelry and sculptures transfer the same sumptuousness into the broad and soft pieces of sculpted glass and metal. Specifically, the gold and garnet necklace from the 1960s references Marx’s trope of geometric patterns, while imbuing the piece with a regal and coquettish visage. In many of his sculptures, there is a trajectory of feminine and perspectival subterfuge.

Landscape architecture is arguably where some of Marx’s most seminal and reputed works lie. His Victoria Amazonica Water Lilies, Garden of the Fazenda Vargem Grande, Clemente Gomes residence, Areias (1979) is not only exemplary of the overall themes in his work, but it is also an all-encompassing medium. The shapes mingle with geometry and abstraction to give the garden its modernist, cubist appearance. In this way, Marx can be viewed as a modern futurist.

Victoria amazonica water lilies, garden of the Fazenda Vargem Grande, Clemente Gomes residence, Areias, designed by Roberto Burle Marx, 1979 | © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.
Victoria amazonica water lilies, garden of the Fazenda Vargem Grande, Clemente Gomes residence, Areias, designed by Roberto Burle Marx, 1979 | © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

Robert Burle Marx is an artist and a figure couched within two distinct cultures, which lent to his accessibility within many mediums as it seems that the gift and burden of multiple identities leads to an inscrutable and creative rejection of labels. Walking into the Marx exhibit to the sound of his syncopated guitar chops playing over the speaker sets an atmosphere for exploration and the subversion of identity. Though nothing is outright rejected, it is the unification of cultures, ideas, mediums, and expression that deny any single description. His combination of acrylic textures with avante-garde ideation even skew distinctions between rules of high art and campiness, a trend running through much of modern art.

Roberto Burle Marx, mineral roof garden, Banco Safra headquarters, São Paulo, 1983 | © Leonardo Finotti
Roberto Burle Marx, mineral roof garden, Banco Safra headquarters, São Paulo, 1983 | © Leonardo Finotti