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The Manic Landscape: Mati Klarwein

Por by Conny C Lindström and Peter Holmlund

Fuente: The Art Bin


The artistry of Mati Klarwein will always be connected with the music that he helped visualise: the mind-expanding explorations of the late sixties and early seventies. Perhaps the record covers of Santana's "Abraxas" and Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" are even more widely recognised than their musical content. At the very least anyone who has ever owned a copy of either of those albums can testify that the cover-paintings are as integral to the experience as the music itself.

Today Mati Klarwein resides on the island of Majorca in the Mediterranean, where he was gracious enough to receive us. 

In the late fifties the great jazz musician Yusef Lateef received a portrait of himself from a painter named Abdul Mati. Lateef was portrayed as almost buried in a pile of exotic flowers, apparently enjoying himself with whatever he was doing. The artist waited for some time for any kind of response - but none came. Finally he decided to call the big man himself and as it turned out Mr. Lateef had liked the painting very much and asked Abdul Mati to come down to the Village Vanguard, where he was performing at the time. And so Mati did.

- Across the top of the painting I'd written Original Portrait of the Great Yusef Lateef Hand Painted by Abdul Mati.  After the gig we were supposed to discuss the future use of the painting as a record cover. So when the concert was over I went over to his table. I addressed him, he looked at me, but continued his discussion with the others at the table. So I addressed him again and introduced myself as the artist who'd sent him the portrait. Once again I was ignored and this time he didn't even bother to look up...

- Yusef Lateef doesn't like white people and obviously he thought that a man called Abdul would be anything but white, Mati says and shrugs his shoulders a little dejectedly.

Mati Klarwein was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1932. Two years later, following Hitler's coming into power, he fled with his parents to Palestine, now Israel.

- I grew up in three different cultures, the Jewish, Islamic and the Christian. These circumstances and my family's stern resistance against being part of any kind of orthodoxy has made me the outsider I am today and always has been, Mati says and pours himself another cup of tea.

- That is also why I took the name Abdul. If everybody in the Middle-East would call themselves Abdul, it would ensure a reconciliation that would end the antagonism and the wars in that part of the world. At least that's what I thought at the time.

Anyone who spends a few days with Mati will soon discover that this is a typical statement. His gentle ways and general open-mindedness stems from his multi-cultural background and his experiences during the psychedelic era. And the figurative language that he has made his own largely consists of sensual images powered with the magical and mystical symbolism that is closely connected to the ideals of that time.

In the fifties Mati Klarwein moved to Paris, a city then seething with existentialist ideas and jazz music. 

- My ambition was to go to Hollywood and become a movie director, but instead I went to Paris and studied painting for Fernand Léger. I realise Fernand's greatness, but he was never any direct source of inspiration to me. His main contribution to my artistic development was introducing me to the art of Salvador Dalí. The movie Un Chien Andalou virtually took my breath away. 

- I was also profoundly influenced by both the Italian renaissance painters and the Flemish masters. Not to mention Indian tantric art!

After a few years in the French capital he took residence on the Riviera, in the town of S:t Tropez. There he became aquainted to numerous socialites, such as Brigitte Bardot, and also met two people that would change the course of both his private and professional lives. One was Ernst Fuchs, who advised him to refine his oil paintings by inducing part of casein tempera, something Mati has stuck to ever since. The other was a wealthy woman, some twenty years older than him who became his passion, mecenate, educator and travelling companion for the next seven years to come. Together they visited almost every part of the planet scurrying from Tibet, India and Bali in the east, over North Africa, Turkey and across Europe to Cuba and America in the west. Travels that supplied Mati with enough visual memories to fuel his artwork until this very day.

In New York in 1964 Mati - by then Abdul Mati - caused a commotion after having exhibited his blasphemic painting Crucifixion. The motif of the painting being a myriad of people caught in a garden of earthly delights, where no sexual, racial or gender barriers are bearing any significance. Something that threw parts of the society in such a rage that Mati at one point even was attacked by a man violently chopping away with a huge axe.

Even though Crucifixion caused a lot of animosity at the time, it was also to become part of the Aleph Sanctuary, a temple-like building consisting of 78 paintings from Mati's production, that made him climb from obscurity into a long-awaited place in the sun. The Aleph Sanctuary, namely, was the place where Carlos Santana spent hours tripping out in profound meditation over the painting Annonciation, later to become the record cover of his million selling album Abraxas.

- At the time it must have been the second-most well-known painting in the world, besides Leonardo da Vinci's La Gioconda, Mati says with a bitter-sweet smile at the comparison with the renaissance giant.

Not only Santana would choose to utilise the vivid and intricate imagery of Mati's paintings as the visual embodiment of his musical expression. When Miles Davis in 1970 changed the shape of jazz to come by fusing jazz with rock, he too chose Mati paintings for the covers of the classic albums Bitches Brew and Live-Evil. 

- In the beginning of the seventies I made yet another painting, Zonked, for an album where his then wife Betty Davis were singing on several tracks. But when Miles found out that she was fucking Jimi Hendrix he cancelled the release. The painting, however, came to use twenty years later on a an album by the rap-originators Last Poets.

- Speaking of Jimi Hendrix, we used to share the same tailor, and we would spend afternoons dropping acid and trying out new sets of clothes together. I actually was working on a painting for a record cover to an album that was never finished, where Jimi and Gil Evans were collaborating. Unfortunately Jimi died during the recordings and it was never released. I finished the painting though and it has been touring around the world on that mobile Jimi Hendrix exhibition.

Mati's works came to express the spirit of a whole generation of musicians ranging from the late Jerry Garcia to the equally late, great Eric Dolphy. Wherever there would be soul-searching, astral-travelling and mind-expanding records churned out, there would also be cover paintings by Mati Klarwein. A fact that possibly shut him out from the conventional art establishment.

- My coming across as a painter in that fashion is probably the reason why I don't belong to the history of art today. Neither have I ever worked conventionally with galleries or any other forum within the well-defined boundaries of the world of art, Mati points out.

On the other hand are his views on the values of paintings far from conventional. Most of his famous paintings are scattered around the world, and Mati doesn't know, or care for that matter, where they are.

- I have no idea where the one I painted for Bitches Brew is today. But I do know that the original for Abraxas was sold to a royal Moroccan. I'm actually not interested in what so ceremoniously is called originals, to tell you the truth. If somebody wants me to, I'll just do them again. To me it's the image, not the texture that's important.

Another example of his unorthodox attitude towards art is what he calls "improved paintings".

- The idea is somewhat resemblant to what in music is called sampling. I buy existing paintings wherever I come across them and continue working on them according to my own desire, he confides and demonstrates a catalogue of his works.

The concept might seem partly analogous to Andy Warhol's screen prints. Warhol who once stated that Mati was his favourite painter, fraternised in the same circle of socialites as Mati did in New York. And most of the money Mati brought in was from painting portraits of rich and famous people and their houses. Among the people requiring his services were Jackie Kennedy, David Niven, Brigitte Bardot, Richard Gere, Leonard Bernstein and Michael Douglas to name but a few.

- I still paint portraits to make money, but I also do it in exchange for services or things that I want. For example I portrayed the house of my printer and in return he financed the entire edition of my forthcoming book with poetry and paintings.

Parked down at the entrance is another of his most recent trades: a white Mercedes, which he got in return for a portrait of his neighbour, the German photographer Bettina Rheims.

Since the early eighties, however, in the paintings that neither are "improved" nor portraits, there has hardly been any people at all. Instead he has been painting Majorcan landscapes, meticulously crafted and at times spiced with imaginary beings. Or archetypal figures that appear either like reminiscences from his geographical travels or from his excursions into his own mind. And this later line of paintings has renewed the interest among certain musicians, like Jon Hassel, for the dreamlike imagery of Mati Klarwein. Although the objects of his dreams have changed over the years, the dreams are still his most important source of inspiration.

- There was a time when I dreamed of sex, and then I dreamed of drugs. Soon I will be dreaming light, says Mati prophetically.

This article is © Copyright Conny C Lindström and Peter Holmlund.