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Brazilian Whistle-Blower: Conservationist Roberto Burle Marx at the New York Botanical Garden

Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx turned out to be more timely than the New York Botanical Garden could have known when it began to organize what it billed as its “largest botanical exhibition ever.” But the show, which closes Sunday, muffed its opportunity to make a strong stand in defense of these plants on their home turf in the wild—the Amazon rain forest.

Barely alluded to in the NYBG’s show is what the NY Times has recently described as the “ecological disaster in the Amazon” that has “escalated into a global political crisis”—raging fires (some of which are believed to have been deliberately set) that are laying waste not only to the rain forest but also to our global climate.

Since a photo can’t begin to capture the striking incongruity of the lush tropical profusion, improbably transplanted to my native Bronx, below is my brief, panoramic video clip. It begins at the (now discolored) sculptural wall with waterfall, created by the NYBG for its exhibition and inspired by Burle Marx’s installation for the Banco Safra headquarters in São Paulo:

Video by Lee Rosenbaum

The sign below, with a small photo of the forest fire near Porto Velho, capital of the Brazilian state of Rondônia, is only acknowledgement of the current crisis in Brazil that I came across amidst the show’s greenery:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Blandly citing the facts, without editorializing, the sign’s text fails to finger the likely culprits behind the current frightening developments—miners, loggers and farmers who have “strip[ped] and burn[ed] protected areas with a sense of impunity,” because of the Brazilian government’s laxness in addressing the problem, according to the NY Times’ recent report.

The above sign from the exhibition does tell us this:

Recent reports indicate the number of fires blazing in the Amazon in late August 2019 [exhibition opened on June 8, so this is a timely addition] is the highest on record, representing an 83 percent increase over the number of fires at the same time last year [emphasis added]. The loss of forest to these fires will displace people and animals, negatively affect air quality in the region, change rain patterns on a continental scale, and reduce the forest’s capacity to clean air for the planet.

Roberto Burle Marx was a passionate advocate for forests, speaking out in the 1960s and ’70s against deforestation, especially the practice of clearing the land by fire. Today protection of the Amazon is more critical than ever, especially in the wake of scientific reports documenting changes in climate and biodiversity losses worldwide. NYBG scientists work with colleagues and communities in Brazil to promote sustainable forest resource management.

One of the show’s many sponsors was the Consulate General of Brazil, New York. Since Brazilian cooperation was likely helpful in organizing the show, biting the hand that provided assistance may not have been a palatable option.

Burle Marx (1909–94) was the subject of another recent exhibition in New York—Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist at the Jewish Museum in 2016. Although that show consisted of some 150 works, it couldn’t bring to life its subject’s most celebrated achievements—his “boldly creative yet precise landscape designs” (in the words of NYBG’s press release), informed by an artist’s eye for a “plant palette” and a feel for the dynamic interplay of his carefully composed subjects: strikingly shaped, vibrantly colored tropical beauties, like these:

“Traveler’s Tree,” center, which produces “possibly the only blue seeds in nature”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Lending horticultural authenticity to the proceedings was the work of contemporary landscape architect Raymond Jungles, a protégé of Burle Marx, in designing the current show’s gardens.

Here’s the patterned path of his “Modernist Garden”:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The show also includes rain forest assemblages and cactus-strewn desert displays, inside the NYBG’s Haupt Conservatory…

…and a gallery of Burle Marx’s modernist paintings, drawings, and textiles in its Library building:

Untitled, 1970, private collection

This, the final week of the show, coincides with Climate Week NYC, occasioning a number of special programs at NYBG. A conversation tomorrow (Friday) morning from 11 a.m. to noon with NYBG scientist Fabián Michelangeli on Brazilian Biodiversity: Assessing Threats to Plants & Ecosystems includes an update from NYBG scientist Douglas Daly in Rondônia, the center of the current Amazon firestorm.

We can only hope that the plants that are now still found in the wild will not one day be reduced to aestheticized botanical garden specimens—poignant reminders of what our planet lost.

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