The Modernism of Roberto Burle Marx
Or the Importance of Memory for Imagining the FutureFriday, June 21, 2019
Roberto Burle Marx imagined a modern Brazilian future by bridging nineteenth- and twentieth-century art histories as well as local and global strategies of art making. Influenced by scientific illustrations of Brazilian floral specimens, the geometric postulates of modernist architecture, picturesque painting techniques, and imperial Brazilian landscape design, his gardens challenged outdated interpretations of his medium—nature—as an essential and ahistorical mark of Brazil’s “modified” modernism. Instead, by fusing nature and culture, history and modernity, European and Brazilian art, landscape, and architecture, Burle Marx’s work reminds us of the importance of memory to construct the future of Brazil and the world.
Burle Marx discovered his interest in landscape design during his two years (1928-30) as a student in Weimar Germany. Some scholars surmise that he was inspired by visits to the Dahlem Botanical Garden and Museum in Berlin, where he wandered during breaks from his studies. At the Dahlem, Burle Marx saw carefully cultivated plants that grew wild in Brazil.
He likely immersed himself in scientific treatises on tropical flora in the museum’s archives. But just as important as his botanical excursions were Burle Marx’s encounters with European modernism and the history of European art and architecture displayed in the German capital. Burle Marx would later elaborate on these experiences in his landscape design, which infused elements of European art with local history, aesthetic and political concerns to develop a Brazilian modern cultural identity.
When Burle Marx returned to Brazil in 1930, he enrolled in the Escola nacional de belas artes (ENBA), or National School of Fine Arts, in Rio de Janeiro, founded in 1826 as the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts (AIBA). Modeled on the neoclassical principles of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Imperial Academy differed in one crucial way from other contemporary art academies. In addition to instructing live drawing and painting techniques, for example, its curriculum included a course focused on “Landscapes, Flowers, and Animals,” emphasizing the significance of native fauna and flora in codifying Brazilian cultural identity.
First registered as an architecture student, Burle Marx switched to the fine arts track at the suggestion of architect and urban planner Lúcio Costa, then director of the school, who would become Burle-Marx’s close collaborator over the next several decades. Together Costa and Burle Marx helped shape the synthesis of the arts of Brazilian modernism. In development since nineteenth-century discussions on Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, modernist theories on the synthesis of the arts called for the integration of architecture with the fine arts within a single project.
As a fine arts student, Burle Marx encountered works of European nineteenth-century landscape painters, such as Alessandro Ciccarelli, who played an important role in the history of Brazilian art. His portraits and landscapes achieved great success with the Imperial family and earned him great influence in the AIBA. Ciccarelli’s View of Rio de Janeiro , c.1840, adjusts the height and shape of Rio’s iconic Corcovado and Sugar Loaf mountains and omits the commercial buildings that stood along the seashore.
Taming the exuberance of the local natural landscape and hiding signs of industry, Ciccarelli adopted representational tropes of picturesque landscape painting to appeal to local and foreign audiences. Like Ciccarelli, Burle Marx created regularizing principles to display and articulate Brazil’s native flora. Yet, by rendering explicit the artificiality of his man-made landscape architecture, Burle Marx eschewed the concealed regularity of picturesque representations of the landscape.
Burle Marx’s 1932 design for the rooftop garden of the Alfredo Schwartz residence exemplifies his merging of nature and artifice.
The geometric regularity of the plan—a series of perfect circles—echoed the architecture of the house, evoking the geometric abstraction of European modernism while appealing to the interest of the Brazilian avant-garde in Cubism, constructivism, Bauhaus and Corbusian architecture. The mixed vegetation planted in the circular terraces flaunted the irregularity of scale and form of the local flora in contrast with the tactic of isolating specimen plants on the pages of scientific volumes. Burle Marx’s landscape plan for the Schwartz house simultaneously engaged and transformed strategies of the European avant-garde, the history of scientific expeditions to Brazil, and the artificial naturalism of picturesque landscapes to create an original and Brazilian brand of modernism characterized by the synthesis of the arts.
Burle Marx also took inspiration from the history of landscape design in Brazil, connecting the country’s imperial past to its imagined modern future. In 1938, Burle Marx designed the iconic elevated garden of the new Ministry of Education and Public Health building, working with a team of Brazilian architects led by Costa and Le Corbusier as a consultant.
The sinuous lines of his gouache rendering of an aerial view of the projectexpress ambivalence in their concomitant endlessness and cropping by the rectangular frame of the garden, similar to the garden design of the Quinta da Boa Vista, 1868–1876, one of the most important sites of Brazilian cultural history.
Donated to Dom Joao VI in 1808, the Quinta da Boa Vista was home to the Portuguese royal family until 1889. The grounds and manor of the estate, the Palacio de São Cristóvão, or Saint Christopher’s Palace, underwent countless renovations over the years. In 1868, Emperor Dom Pedro II commissioned Auguste François Marie Glaziou, a French botanist and hydraulic engineer, to redesign the Quinta’s gardens. Glaziou laid out a picturesque garden of curvilinear pathways punctuated by bodies of water, grottos, and large rocks. A rectilinear driveway cut through the garden and lead to the Palace. Flanked by the pink leaves and purple flowers of native Sapucaia trees, the entrance to the Quinta was a designed natural spectacle. Beyond the shared formal parallels between Burle Marx’s plan for the Ministry and Glaziou’s picturesque garden, their synthesis of rationalist trends of French architecture with nature also creates a historical arc between the two projects.
After the proclamation of the republic in 1889, the palace became home to the collection of the National Museum, and the gardens of the Quinta were opened to the public. The Palace housed invaluable research initiatives on lost languages, cultures, and peoples, which added to the museum’s collection of African, Egyptian, and Etruscan artifacts; fossils; specimens of plants, butterflies, and insects; a library of more than 200,000 volumes; and Lucy, the oldest human fossil in the Americas. In a critical state of disrepair due to the vertiginous decrease in its governmental funding, on September 2, 2018, the National Museum burnt to the ground. Its ruins, surrounded by Glaziou’s garden, stand as a memento mori to the “the destruction of memory, destruction of history,” as suggested by Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. Burle Marx’s gardens at the Ministry of Education building—currently under renovation—remain as a memorial to the lost synthesis of designed landscapes at the Quinta.
Burle Marx’s gardens are an important and timely reminder of the entanglement of culture and nature in Brazil, from the struggle of native peoples and natural environments to survive the country’s history of colonialist destruction to the utopian ideals of Brazilian modernism. The engagement of Burle Marx’s modernist practice with local and global cultural histories challenges the inscription of his medium as an essential and ahistorical motif of Brazilian modernism and reminds us of the importance of memory and place in imagining a future for the nature, culture, and people of Brazil and the world.
 Bruno Zevi, “Sala Especial Roberto Burle Marx,” in Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, Catálogo Geral da V Bienal do MAM/SP (São Paulo: Ediam, 1959), 391. Richard Neutra quoted in Pietro Maria Bardi, The Tropical Gardens of Burle Marx (New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1964), 12.
 Roberto Burle Marx: The Modernity of Landscape, Lauro Cavalcanti, Francis Rambert, and Farèsel-Dahdah, Eds. (Paris: Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine and Barcelona/New York: ACTAR, 2011), 142.
 Katherine Manthorne, “The Latin American Landscape in a Global Context,” in Traveler Artists: Landscapes of Latin America in the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection (New York: CPPC, 2015), 23.
 Ciccarelli’s depiction of Emperor Dom Pedro II’s marriage participated in the official História do Brasil, or History of Brazil, exhibition in 1881 and soon after traveled to Europe with the Emperor to showcase the development of Brazilian art. “Cicarelli,” in Enciclopédia Itaú Cultural de Arte e Cultura Brasileiras (São Paulo: Itaú Cultural, 2019). Accessed on May 15, 2019. http://enciclopedia.itaucultural.org.br/pessoa22805/cicarelli
 Danielle Stewart, “Alessandro Ciccarelli, View of Rio de Janeiro, c.1840” in Traveler Artists: Landscapes of Latin America in the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection (New York: CPPC, 2015), 108.
 Lúcio Costa and Gregory Warchavchik were the architects responsible for the modernist project of the Alfredo Schwartz house.
 Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 21.
 Ibid. 22
 Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: Gostaria que o Museu Nacional permanecesse como ruína, memória das coisas mortas,” interview conducted by Alexandra Prado Coelho. Público/Cultura Ípsilon, September 4, 2018. https://www.publico.pt/2018/09/04/culturaipsilon/entrevista/eduardo-vive... on May 20, 2019. Translation by author.