Mati Klarwein

a grain of sand

Mati Klarwein (1932 –  2002) was a painter best known for his works used on the covers of music albums. Klarwein was born in Hamburg, Germany. His family was of Jewish origin and fled to the British Mandate of Palestine when he was two years old, after the rise of Nazi Germany.

In 1948 when the territory became Israel, his family traveled to Paris. There Mati studied with French painter, Fernand Léger. Later, he traveled south to Saint-Tropez and met Austrian artist, Ernst Fuchs, who would have a profound influence on him. Leaving France in the 1950s, Klarwein traveled widely and lived in many different countries, including Tibet, India, Bali, North Africa, Turkey, Europe and the Americas. He settled in New York City in the early 1960s.

Much of Klarwein’s most famous work is inspired by surrealism and pop culture, but also reflects his interest in non-Western deities, symbolism, and landscapes. The alleged connection between Klarwein and the so-called psychedelic art of the period is not entirely unfounded, as he has discussed his experience with LSD; however, Klarwein also explains that drugs were never his prime inspirational source. His extensive travels and wide interests (notwithstanding the fact that his style had fully developed before the ‘psychedelic era’) are further support of his claims. Klarwein claims that his friend Timothy Leary once told him, based on the character of his paintings, that Klarwein ‘didn’t need psychedelics.’

In his painting ‘Grain of Sand’ (1963–1965), many disparate images are combined together in one massive, yet oddly coherent work. Klarwein’s own words illuminate the work: ‘I projected it as a sort of painted musical comedy movie with a Sanskrit swinging cast of thousands, starring Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Ray Charles, Pablo Picasso, Brigitte Bardot, Roland Kirk, Cannonball Adderley, Ahmed Abdul Malik, Wonderwoman, Delacroix’s Orphan Girl at the Cemetery, Litri and his bullshit fighters, Lawrence of Arabia, Socrates, Dalí, Rama, Vishnu, Ganesh, the Zork and a Milky Way of playmates.’

Klarwein added ‘Abdul’ (which means ‘servant’ in Arabic) to his name in the late 1950s to express his sentiments about the hostility between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East: he felt that to understand each other better, every Jew should adopt a Muslim first name, and vice-versa. He is not known to have converted to Islam. He removed the name when, in 1960, he approached jazz musician Yusef Lateef after a concert. Lateef, who had previously expressed interest in using Klarwein’s work for a future album cover, saw that Klarwein was white, and turned away without a word.

Despite this unfortunate encounter, during the 1960s Klarwein’s work would be appreciated and utilized on several records by some of the decade’s most progressive musicians. Klarwein’s painting ‘Annunciation’ (1961) was seen in reproduction by the musician Carlos Santana, who subsequently used it as the cover image of his band Santana’s second album ‘Abraxas’ (1970).

In the following years Klarwein produced comparably striking designs for the covers of two Miles Davis albums, ‘Bitches Brew’ (1969) and ‘Live-Evil’ (1971), as well as a portrait of Jimi Hendrix, which was supposed to have been used for the guitarist’s collaboration album with big band leader Gil Evans, which never came to fruition due to the guitarist’s death.

During the 1960s and 70s, Klarwein would occasionally search for cheap paintings at flea markets and “improve” them, painting over them or adding things at his whim. Klarwein made over a hundred of these ‘improved paintings’ throughout his career.

In the mid-1970s, he began a series of paintings which he referred to as ‘real-estate paintings’ or ‘inscapes.’ In the late 1970s he collaborated with trumpeter Jon Hassell for a couple albums on Brian Eno’s Ambient label; these albums used several of Klarwein’s ‘inscapes’ on their covers.

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