Last night as I was flipping through channels I caught a one hour show in Portuguese on Roberto Burle Marx. It was fascinating and while I could understand about 5% of it, visually it was magnificent, even without an HD TV or a flat screen!
I first met Mr. Marx standing in the middle of Parque Ibirapuera upon my first visit to Brazil a few years ago. I stood by the lake and looked out and wondered who had been responsible for creating such a brilliant expanse of space so fluently contiguous to Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture. Truly, Mr. Marx and I met in theory on a park map as I searched for design information since he has been dead since 1994. I was embarrassed to discover I didn’t know anything about the most well known landscape architect in South America. His name rang a bell but the bell didn’t seem to connect back to landscape history class and even farther when a colleague in that class gave a 30 minute presentation on his work. As I began to ask my landscape-minded friends they reminded me not only of that presentation but that I should be embarrassed, I studied Landscape Architecture for 3 years! He basically defined landscape architecture in Brazil and is sometimes mentioned right alongside his famous counterpart, Frederick Law Olmsted. They didn’t come from the same generation, in fact two entirely different centuries; Marx began only 6 years after Olmsted departed; but they shared a passion and a career path that had yet to be truly classified as a discipline when they commenced. It was art infused with science based on the foundation of stewardship that even throughout months of theory class in this century we still couldn’t solidly define.
Up north Olmstead practiced with a tactical hand influenced by European and Asian gardens thanks to an early career in journalism that afforded him travel and time to process all the many unique stimulations. Down south Marx also received his first dose of landscape in Europe as an artist, studying painting in Germany. When I look at both men and their subsequent and infamous landscapes having both started with European influences its hard not to notice that Olmstead designed like a writer and Marx like a painter. Penmanship is precise and deliberate; thoughts are well documented and later refined, augmented and re-perfected. Painting is more organic, gliding and flowing sometimes irrepressibly from the original intent and perfected or imperfected along the way. In the end both create works of diverse layers of meaning and beauty. Both artists have molded and shaped places that millions of people love and usually have no idea how they could even begin to express why.
I know Olmsted's work well, he was brilliant and he sure set the bar high. He was a renaissance man imagining swampland into Central park, preserving National parks and democratizing space for everyone to enjoy. We spent many a class on his legacy but never in contrast to anyone else’s.
As I begin to explore more of Marx’s work here in Brazil, I am impressed by how one painter (with many brushes) has achieved such authentic timelessness. He's composed and established a visual identity for Brazil, a Van Gogh upon the land. Resiliently translating what is most beautiful and sensual about his culture, his people and his potpourri of terrain into a manuscript of mosaics, curvy colored pathways and an incredible array of memorable planting designs. Even if the scalloped walkway along Copacabana beach were to be replaced with concrete I have this certainty that his inheritance is safe within the people of Brazil.
Bethesda Terrace in Central Park