Gardens of earthly delight: how Eden was recreated by Roberto Burle Marx

The Brazilian designer created landscapes that resemble abstract paintings

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“Why don’t we do a show about gardens, because we have Central Park right in front?” Jens Hoffmann, the Jewish Museum’s deputy director of exhibitions and public programmes, recalls thinking when he arrived at the Fifth Avenue institution in 2012. Four years later, the museum is presenting an exhibition dedicated to the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909-94).

The São Paulo-born artist and designer broke out of the rigidly symmetrical French gardening style that was typical in Brazil in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although he is most famous for his gardens and graphic pavement designs, such as the famous black-and-white Copacabana boardwalk in Rio de Janeiro, Burle Marx also made textiles, jewellery, ceramics and paintings, examples of which are included in the show.

Burle Marx designed more than 2,000 public and private gardens around the world during his 62-year career. Early commissions included the rooftop garden (1938) at Brazil’s ministry of education and health, in Rio de Janeiro, where his curvy planting beds resembled an abstract Modernist painting from above. “His whole objective was to recreate the Garden of Eden—to bring humanity back to that place,” Hoffmann says.

The curator’s personal favourite of Burle Marx’s gardens is the one he created for the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Edmundo Cavanellas house (1954), near Petrópolis in Brazil. “The rainforest starts right at the edge of one of [the] beds of grass,” he says. Burle Marx, who always used local flora in his gardens, was also a keen ecologist who discovered around 50 plant species and called for the preservation of Brazil’s rainforests.

The exhibition is due to travel to Berlin and Rio de Janeiro after its run in New York.

• Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist, Jewish Museum, New York, 6 May-18 September

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