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  • Christian Hain

Marx-ist Gardens for the People (and the Privileged) – Roberto Burle Marx at Deutsche Bank Kunsthall

(Berlin.) You know Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and probably even Karl, but you never heard of Roberto Burle Marx - unless you’re Brazilian, or a fervent admirer of landscape architecture. Roberto Burle Marx, who, on a side note, resembled Groucho Marx with Einstein hair, ranks among the profession’s greatest, he’s almost, almost, regarded a 20th Century Le Notre, and most famous for designing the Copacabana.

You count for nothing in Brazilian society, we’re told, if not at least one of your residences features a Marx garden. Deutsche Bank loves society even more than landscape architecture, and it’s no surprise to see Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle hosting a show of Roberto Burle Marx.

Visiting, you learn of a man struggling to accept his lack of talent as a figurative painter in 1920s Berlin (the father was German, the mother Brazilian, he himself born in São Paulo), then going to where the money is, in his case landscape architecture - not to be confused with land art. If you look closely, you realize, Burle Marx could have become a successful abstract painter. His designs prove a true talent for abstraction. In this he was influenced by a profound love for nature and her forms – a whole bed of flowers has been named after him – and South American art history. Every architect, indoor or outdoor, needs to know how to draw, but few possess artistic talent. Burle Marx was one of them. That’s Mayan/Aztek patterns all over his designs, only the alien astronauts are missing (not really)! Whether private gardens, public promenades or tapestry, the style hardly ever changes; there’s blossoms, circles, honeycomb patterns, Nazca lines and pyramids. A trademark style to provide immediate recognisability, this he shared with abstract painters too, albeit with more variety than those (you know the type, “continuing their research into the infinite creative possibilities of five ever identically measured black stripes before a white, rectangular, background”, or whatever). But “Painting” in the first place was figurative to him, not only in his youth when Roberto Burle Marx focused on portraits. No, even later, settled in a real job and still painting for pleasure, he could hardly leave the concrete world for good. He did abstracts then, but regularly included figurative elements, people, or bodiless heads at least (another nod to South American traditions?).

The exhibits at Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle include sketches for public places, private residences, and even a nice collage - a (supposed) carnival decoration “from 1967 or later”. Who would not like to possess such a lovely roof garden? Working at Deutsche Bank seems more promising in this respect than gardening, or even architecture. In your imagination and other's reality, these are walk-in drawings; you could call them two-dimensional installations and be justified. From bird’s view an abstract painting, from the inside an environment. Roberto Burle Marx painted, and built, his forms on the floor and on the street, almost you suspect he took inspiration from those child plays where girls keep jumping senselessly from one chalk square to another.

Strangely, the section with “Last Paintings” includes works from 1984, 1987 – and 1963. DB Kunsthalle might reconsider their exhibition design here. On the upside, you know, it’s semester break when every second artwork is attended by another young female eager to provide some background information. #RewardingInternship.

Shortly before his death in 1994, Roberto Burle Marx participated in a competition to remodel Rosa Luxemburg Square in Berlin, but the project never came to fruition. One drawing for this occasion resembles a pyramid, a South American one.

Other artists' works loosen up the show, floor tiles by Nick Mauss, black cotton curtains/sculptures of Paloma Bosqué, photos from Louisa Lanski. The link to Roberto Burrle Marx is not always evident, beside them being Brazilians too. It all culminates in a Dominique Gonzales Foerster film showing the Copacabana at night, and you wonder what are all those people doing on the beach, in the dark? There’s hardly room enough to sit down, it feels more like an ant hill than a beach, but I guess, after five Caipirinha it doesn't matter any more. The voiceover – Brashilian Portugueehsh with subtitles – commemorates RBM with people speaking who knew him personally. The architect/gardener regarded the beach strip his masterpiece, his greatest “drawing” of all. It might be true, if you get the chance to see it unpeopled (some short film sequences have this), there’s more of his patterns on the ground, geometric or not. But honest now – who really cares? Would there be one person less, or less enjoying the sun, the sea, the ambiance, if it was done by somebody less famous? Or not designed at all, and only a beach? It’s art for all, and art for no one; that does not mean, it’s bad art. There it is: I’ve called it art, not design, or architecture!

If you got some time to spare, preferably on a Monday when entry is free, go and visit Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle. But it might not be the most interesting exhibition in Berlin this summer.

And you’re no longer mad about that World Cup match, dear Brazilians, are you?

Roberto Burle Marx, 7 July-3 October 2017, Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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