The art of Mati Klarwein manifests, above all, a movement towards transcendence. Each of his images presents, not only a sensuously alluring figure or landform, but also arranges them in such a way as to intimate a hidden and higher aspect. That is why a beautiful black woman becomes the virgin of 'The Annunciation' or his perspective onto a landscape assumes ever greater aerial heights.
'Visual games' abound, such as perceptual echoes, mirror images, vibratory colors and the free exchange of figure with abstraction. Many of these perceptual distortions seem to evoke the world of hallucinogens, but the most psychedelic aspect of his work, it should be noted, is its hyper-realist execution, lending an astounding 'presence' to all the objects he renders.
When the artist died in March of 2002, he left behind a rich variety of works, often accompanied by witty and insightful remarks. Unfortunately, no clear account of his life has been written, and so we are left with a number of tantalizing references. At the risk of misrepresention, I have nevertheless gathered together many of these disparate fragments and attempted topresent them as a brief biographical sketch - in an effort of remembrance. Memorial texts by Robert Venosa and Alex Grey round out the presentation. But most important of all is allowing the artist himself to speak, as much as possible, in his own words.
"I became an artist because I couldn't become anything else." - Mati Klarwein
Mati Klarwein was born in Hamburg Germany on April 9, 1932. He was named Matthias (hence Mati) after the painter Matthias Grunewald. Later, he added the Arab name Abdul as a gesture towards improving Arab-Israeli relations (signing many of his canvases Abdul Mati Klarwein). "I grew up in three different cultures," he said, "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... That is also why I took the name Abdul."
When Klarwein was two years old, his family left Germany for Israel (then Palestine). In this way his Jewish father was able to escape Nazi persecution (his mother was non-Jewish). One of Klarwein's earliest memories was his arrival at the Port of Haifa with his mother, while his father waved at them from the pier. His parents later divorced and Klarwein lived with his mother in the village of Nahariya near the Lebanese border. It was here that he spent the better part of World War II.
"In class, I was non-existent, transparent, empty, non-responsive and practically never there," Klarwein later remembered. His father, an architect by profession, arranged for his son's early admittance into the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem. In 1948, the 16-year old witnessed the withdrawal of British soldiers and the transformation of Palestine into Israel. His mother decided to escape the ensuing Israeli-Palestinean conflicts and emigrate to France.
Once in Paris, Klarwein studied painting at various schools - l'Ecole des Beaux Arts, Académie Julian and, from 1949 to 1951, with Fernand Léger. But, it was through his friendship with Ernst Fuchs that Mati Klarwein eventually learned the Mischtechnik, which he then used in all subsequent works. "Fuchs is the most psychedelic painter of all," he later proclaimed, "except Dali and Bosch, of course."
Klarwein settled quickly into Parisian life, spending many evenings in the jazz clubs of St. Germain de Près and passing his summers on the beaches of San Tropez. He rubbed shoulders with jazz musicians, artists and Existentialists like Boris Vian, Tristan Tzara and Jean-Paul Sartre.
In the summer of 1956 he began a long affair with a rich woman named Kitty Lillaz, whom he called Lila. They travelled across Europe, visiting major museums in the Netherlands and Spain, and even got as far as Southern India. Not only Netherlandish and Italian Renaissance art is continually evoked in his works, but also the more esoteric styles of Tantric art.
As a result of this voyage, Klarwein started Flight to Egypt in 1959 (which, despite its title, depicts Hindus bathing in Benares). When he finished this complex and detailed work in 1961 (with help from Fuchs), Kitty Lillaz threw a large party for the painting's unveiling. It was then that he met Dali for the first time. Three years later, Klarwein's wife Sofia became friends with Dali, and this initiated his own long friendship with the Surrealist. Particularly during his years in New York, Klarwein and Dali met often.
In the summer of '61 Klarwein was in Deya Mallorca, painting his well-known diptych, Landscape Perceived, Landscape Described. In fact, he first painted the Landscape Perceived. Then, after a hallucinogenic trip, he 'saw' the same landscape in a spiral of Hebrew letters, and so painted Landscape Described. Through this and other works, the artist became increasingly known as a 'psychedelic painter' because of the many hallucinogenic effects in his works. But, "I painted psychedelically before I took psychedelics," he later claimed.
The same summer that he painted this psychedelic diptych, Klarwein was also building a home on Deya - actually on the plot of land just above the upper left corner of Landscape Perceived. The beach of Deya is also visible in his epic work The Annunciation (with a smiling Mati before 'the three kings'). That same year, Mati Klarwein met his first wife, Sofia. Their often chaotic relationship lasted four years and resulted in the birth of one daughter, Eleonore.
In the early 60's, Klarwein painted most of his works in a Parisian studio with its storefront gallery on Place Dauphine (on the Ile de la Cité). All-too-often, his studio became home to all-night music jams with the likes of Ornette Coleman or Ravi Shankar.
After his first visit to New York in 1961, Klarwein painted The Annunciation. "You can feel the sudden burst of the Big Apple's electric zap in the composition..." he later remarked. Years later, in 1970, Carlos Santana would choose this image for his Abraxas album cover, making it one of Klarwein's most internationally recognizable works (his apprentice, Robert Venosa, designed the Santana logo for the album cover).
During the period of 1962 to 1965, Klarwein produced two large works, aside from many portrait commissions. One, his immense Crucifixion, is an erotic tree loaded with multi-racial lovers (which he refered to more casually as 'the fucking tree'). The other, Grain of Sand, is a large circular work with many pop images (including Dali and Picasso) that eventually formed the ceiling of the Aleph Sanctuary.
Meanwhile, summers were often spent in the company of other painters. Ernst Fuchs, Arik Brauer and Mati Klarwein spent the summer of 1962 together in Deya Mallorca. Meanwhile, the summer of 1966 was spent in Ein-Hod Israel at Arik Brauer's home.
In the late sixties, Klarwein moved to New York, living and working in a loft on 17th Street. In 1971, he conceived the idea of the Aleph Sanctuary, an enclosed space 3 meters by 3 meters by 3 meters with 78 of his paintings to form the interior. This 'portable chapel' was exhibited in places as diverse as Colorado, California and Paris, while also being on more or less 'permanent display' in his New York loft. Here, it accomodated the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, with whom Klarwein often associated at that time (leading to three of Miles Davis' album covers: Bitches Brew, Live Evil and Zonked.)
"There was a time when I dreamed of sex, and then I dreamed of drugs. Soon I will be dreaming light..." - Mati Klarwein
Also in 1971, the artist travelled to Hamburg (his birthplace) to work on a film version of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, creating some 16 paintings to serve as settings for the characters.
Of his apprenticeship with Klarwein, Venosa says, "What a time (Autumn, 1970) that turned out to be! Not only did I get started in proper technique, but at various times I had Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Jackie Kennedy and the good doctor Tim Leary himself peering over my shoulder to see what I was up to.
"That loft was the energy center in New York, and I reveled in it. And somehow, miraculously, in the midst of all the nonstop pandemonium taking place every day I learned to lay the paint down properly. Even though it was ever put to the test , discipline was one of the more important necessities that Mati emphasized and - through his own adherence - strongly impressed on me: I could only join in the festivities after my work was done and all brushes were washed. Mati taught well the techniques of painting and, even more relevant, of quality living. I'm honored to have been one of the fortunate few to have studied with him."
Many of Klarwein's paintings are psychedelic portraits of women he has known (such as 'the Angel series' in the Aleph Sanctuary) and often include landscapes from the numerous exotic places he has lived in or travelled to. Among others, these include Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Kenia, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, India and Indonesia.
During the 80's, Klarwein turned increasingly toward landscapes that were extremely unique in their abstract compositions and highly detailed executions with richly telluric and floric textures. "I like to play with perspectives," he explained. Throughout his life, he also painted many commissioned portraits, from royalty to celebrety, including Robert Graves, Noel Coward, Juliette Binoche, Richard Gere, Micheal Douglas and Brigitte Bardot. (Raymond Martin Verlag has announced a planned edition of Portraits.)
In remembering Mati Klarwein, Alex Grey wrote: "Klarwein was able to capture the multi-colored iridescent visions and patterns of the inner worlds demonstrating what an experienced psychonaut and fanatically disciplined painter he was."
"I was thrilled to finally meet Mati in 1994 and glad to know that he appreciated my work and felt a fellowship with so many of the younger visionary artists whom he inspired."Ê
"He was an inspiration to so many artists because he expressed the freedom to imagine and paint anything.Ê He visited and painted mystical dimensions of consciousness, and could coax us into spiritualized epiphanies one moment then plunge us into completely bizarre erotic frenzies."
"I like to paint paintings that I haven't seen." - Mati Klarwein
During his final years in Mallorca, Klarwein made and sold a number of 'improved paintings', which were cheap paintings bought in flea markets and then 'improved' by the artist. But, he also continued to produce the kind of work for which he is more justly famous. A large retrospective of the artist's output was held at the Royal Museum of Stockholm in 1996.
On March 7th, 2002, Abdul Mati Klarwein died after a lengthy illness. He left behind his daughter Eleanore from his first marriage and Serafina from his second marriage, as well as his sons Baltasar and Salvador from his third marriage. He will be remembered above all for his rich perception, bizarre humor, and extremely rich and creative manner of viewing the world - all of which remain manifest for us in his many stunning works.