Orchids with a Brazilian flair

The New York Botanical Garden’s orchid show this year honors the father of modern landscape architecture, Roberto Burle Marx.

Photos by Carol Strickland
Breaking with tradition: As a tribute to Roberto Burle Marx pushed Brazil’s public gardens to abandon the European model and honor their tropical heritage, Raymond Jungles, one of his protégés, has woven Marx’s sculptures into this year’s orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden.
Photos by Carol Strickland
Three-dimensional art: Roberto Burle Marx was an early proselytizer for colorful, native flora and went on collecting expeditions in the Amazon rain forest. He saw garden design as a sculptural pursuit and used plants’ spatial qualities as much as color and texture to define a place. Two displays are currently at The New York Botanical Garden’s orchid show.

“Fusion” is a hot concept in cuisine and music. Now it’s migrated to horticulture. “The Orchid Show: Brazilian Modern” at The New York Botanical Garden through April 12 is a fusion of Victorian-era taste (with its mania for orchids displayed in a glass conservatory) and modernism, specifically the swooping, swinging art forms of contemporary Brazil.

Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles (with a name like that, could he be anything else?) designed the show as an homage to his mentor, Roberto Burle Marx, a painter by training, who died 15 years ago at age 84.

In Rio de Janeiro, Marx was renowned as an artist, garden designer, plant collector, defender of the rain forest, and all-round bon vivant. After Mr. Jungles graduated from the University of Florida in 1981, Marx took the younger man under his wing. Marx’s revolutionary aesthetic still nourishes his protégé like rich compost.

Marx received the American Institute of Architects’ fine-arts prize in 1965, labeling him “the real creator of the modern garden.” He earned this accolade by using tropical flora in free-form designs, collaborating with such modernist masters as Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. He linked abstract art with landscape, using the earth as his canvas.

Before Marx, Brazilian gardens mimicked European prototypes with formal parterres, razor-sharp boxwood hedges, and straight paths outlining beds of nonnative flowers like roses and dahlias.

After Marx, public gardens and parks in Brazil were bold, stylized but nonfussy compositions of tropical flora.

Jungles defines the modernist garden pioneered by Marx as “a break from tradition. There are no clipped hedges or bilateral symmetry. Instead, there’s an asymmetric balance, using cubist and sculptural elements versus the more conventional statues and urns.”

Marc Treib, a landscape historian at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that Marx’s paintings were a “major influence on what he did in landscape.”

His master plans for gardens began as gouache paintings, which “look wonderfully organic and related to the contours but they’re really not,” Mr. Treib says. “They’re abstractions that are superimposed upon the contours, and that tension makes them fantastic.”

Marx was not only a painter but a sculptor. One of his works is on display at the Orchid Show, a colorful 8-by-17-foot abstract mosaic of ceramic tiles. Jungles plants it amid feathery palms, “Dancing Lady” (Oncidium) orchids, and spiky bromeliads.

Marx was known for using living plants as sculpture, like the Orchid Show’s 30-year-old staghorn fern that erupts from a wall panel, its silvery fronds waving like Medusa’s tresses. A staggered stack of rectangular planters, reminiscent of the work of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, rises like a ziggurat, filled with bromeliads and spilling purple and white orchids.

In classical gardens based on ancient Roman models, figurative stone sculptures on pedestals were used as “accents or exclamation points,” according to Joseph Becherer, curator of sculpture at Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Over the past four decades, large-scale, abstract sculptures have taken on a more independent role, often becoming, Mr. Becherer says, “the star of the show.”

For Marx, plants were arresting sculptural forms. Outside the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, he created wavy, scalloped patterns using two kinds of grass. He placed a stand of palm trees in a grid to look like a columnar hall, “an interesting cross between sculpture and landscape,” Treib says.

Marx also created columns bristling with succulents and air plants, similar to Jungles’s painted, black bamboo poles dripping with attached orchids – a sort of frilly oil derrick.

A self-taught botanist who went on collecting expeditions in the Amazon rain forest, Marx became a passionate ecologist and proselytizer for colorful, native flora.

“I can’t think of anyone in the modern period who knew and used plants as well and as much as he did,” says Treib.

Some Marx-derived elements, which Jungles re-creates in the show, include “chandeliers” composed of baskets of green philodendron leaves, large as elephant ears, that drip streamers of lavender, fuschia, and lemon-yellow orchids.

Mark Hachadourian, curator of the botanical collections, describes horticulture as “the slowest of the performing arts,” since it requires patience to achieve its ripened form.

This orchid show underlines the theatrical element. An eight-foot “wall” of white moth (Phalaenopsis) orchids cascades down one side of a corridor like a Niagara of flowing flowers.

Garden design is one of the more complex art forms, Jungles says, “because of the fact that it uses living material, which adds both interest and challenge.”

Yet when people compared Marx’s gardens to painting with plants, Jungles says his mentor was “a bit taken aback. Designing a garden is a three-dimensional art form,” Jungles insists. “Marx’s distinctive use of plants for contrast, to take account of their textures, volume, color, and spatial qualities is more about sculpture than painting.”

For Jungles, garden design means creating a habitat for human beings and animals, “something that brings joy to people” and “comforts the psyche.”

eferring to his mentor as a poet who used nature as a means of self-expression, “Burle Marx had a unique ability,” Jungles says, “to take the best of nature and fuse it with the best of the creative spirit.”

Both fusion and profusion are in ample evidence at the Orchid Show.

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