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 Mati Klarwein  (1932 - 2002)

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Lived/Active: New York / Germany      Known for: psychedelic album covers, landscape painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Mati Klarwein is a painter of detailed fantastic imagery, termed psychedelic in its day, that found a place on album covers of music by Miles Davis, Santana, the Chambers Brothers, Earth, Wind & Fire, and others.

Klarwein was born in Germany in 1932, fleeing Hitler, at age two, with his parents, and taking refuge in Jerusalem (his father, architect Joseph Klarwein, designed the Knesset building there). In 1948, during the war that resulted in the founding of Israel, Klarwein moved to Paris with his family, first attending the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and, in the winter of 1950, studying with Fernand Leger. Klarwein was the youngest student at the Atelier Leger, but refused to paint copies of the master, women riding bicycles with doves and potatoes, as the others did. He painted photo-realistic images of angels. Leger, encouraging his love of the fantastic, introduced him to the work of Dali.

He began by studying sculpture at the Beaux-Arts, but it was the paintings of Leger, Picasso and De Chirico that captured his imagination. Salvador Dali and Louis Bunuel's surrealist film "Un Chien Andalou," and book, "The Secret Life of Salvador Dali," moved Klarwein to Surrealism.

As a teenager, he acquired an eclectic group of friends in Saint-Tropez, including actress Brigitte Bardot and Ernst Fuchs, the Viennese fantastic realist painter who encouraged Klarwein to work in casein tempera, a medium he would stay with. Klarwein struggled as an artist until he met Fuchs, who was often a hungry guest at the Klarwein family dinner table, the result of his own life struggles. Klarwein put aside his Paris training in favor of Fuch's emphasis on the masters of the Flemish School. It was only then that Klarwein began to sell his paintings.

From France, Klarwein traveled to Tibet, India, Bali, North Africa, Turkey and across Europe. In 1964, he arrived in New York, where he exhibited a painting it had taken over two years to paint. "Crucifixion," 1963-65, created a scandal and a sensation. The crucified figure was an upside-down black woman whose breasts spouted milk. Surrounding her was an ornate tree of life populated by gods, holy men and women, and a tableaux of nymphs exploring "Kama Sutra" positions. The painting was the centerpiece of a huge work, a room comprising seventy-eight panels that Klarwein called "The Aleph Sanctuary."

When he had his studio in New York, circa 1970, it was frequented by the likes of Miles Davis, Jackie Kennedy, Jimi Hendrix, Timothy Leary and others. In the 70s, Klarwein was considered a premiere psychedelic artist, though he basically responded to Renaissance art, Surrealism and the Indian Tantric School. Klarwein's "psychedelic" style predated his knowledge of psychedelics. He didn't paint on drugs, although in order to be included in the influential Grove Press book, "Psychedelic Art," he told the authors that he got ideas for paintings while on drugs. He liked to quote his friend, Salvador Dali: "I don't take drugs. I am drugs."

Women, music and nature are said to have been greater catalysts for Klarwein's vision than the alkaloids he occasionally ingested. Today he is sometimes considered an "outsider" artist. Since he was Leger's prize student, Dali's friend and Warhol's "favorite painter," the tag is a little strange. But, the fact that his fame came through the popular medium of album art and not through official or "proper" art channels, seems to have doomed him to the art world's labels of derision: outsider and illustrator (though the art world now seems bent on making "outsider art" an official category in their domain).

Klarwein's paintings, despite their relatively small size, were so detailed that they took years to finish (his largest work was approximately seventy inches square). So, having to supplement his income, and while amusing himself, Klarwein made what he called "Improved Paintings" (with echoes of, and plaudits and condolences to Marcel Duchamp).

Klarwein bought flea-market canvases and embellished them in the style of the original artist. Such work also did not win the art world's heart, although it showed off his sense of humor and technical virtuosity.

Klarwein, a Jew, who at one time called himself Abdul Mati Klarwein, is quoted as saying, "If all Jews would add an Arab name to theirs and all Arabs added a Jewish name, then the hatred they have for each other could be attenuated considerably."
Mati Klarwein died in March 2002, a couple of months after Absolut vodka, in their long-running ad campaign involving contemporary artists, reproduced a detail of his cover painting for Miles Davis's album, "Bitches Brew," with the caption, "Absolut Miles." It is said Klarwein preferred Fernet-Branca to vodka.

John Hassel, one of Klarwein's closest friends, said, "I guess the popularity of his work militated against it being perceived as precious, but what does it say about the art world that it was immune to its clear and present beauty?"

A quote from Mati Klarwein, who lived the life of an honest artist in a time of artistic corruption, is even more hard-hitting and on target. "Good morning to all you art critics out thereI sympathize with the fragility of your position and reputation, your quasi-hysterical anxiety as you buttress the sand castle of art with the cement of your aesthetic theories in order to keep it from crumbling. After all, we are talking demand and supply, and megabucks turnoverModernism and its dogmas and anti-dogmas have tried extremely hard, but have failed to define the borders of art as commodity. All it has succeeded in doing is glamorize junk, commercial hype and life-negating virtual realities."

Source: Glenn O'Brien, Artforum, October 2002

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