The cosmic comedian, artist of sex, drugs and music
A visionary artist and philosopher
Anyone who has listened to Miles Davis's seminal Bitches Brew, or Santana's great Abraxas, will have noticed the amazing artwork on the covers of these two albums. And anyone who has dropped acid (I have to confess I haven't) will know the “manic landscapes” depicted in the artwork.
Both covers show paintings by the visionary artist and philosopher Matthias Klarwein, known by his many, many fans, simply as Mati.
In his career Mati designed, or his paintings were used, on the covers of some 40 albums ranging from Bach to Symphonic Slam, from Miles Davis to Buddy Miles, from Leonard Bernstein to The Mooney Suzuki (whoever they might be!).
What follows is a really too short introduction to the art of Mati Klarwein. It is an art not for the faint-hearted or politically correct!
Mati's life in brief
Mati was born to Jewish parents in Hamburg in 1932, not a propitious time or place to be born Jewish. After the rise and rise of the little corporal the family left for the then British territory of Palestine, hoping to find more congenial surroundings.
In 1948 the family moved again, this time to Paris, where the young Mati took lessons from famed French artist Fernand Leger and later, after he went to the South of France, Ernst Fuchs, the celebrated visionary artist. Fuchs had a deep and lasting influence on the young artist.
Thereafter Mati, in the company of an unnamed older, and richer, woman, travelled extensively through the far East, the Middle East and North Africa, absorbing and assimilating influences from all these cultures and artistic traditions.
In the early 1960s Mati settled in New York City where he came to the attention of people in the arts and entertainment worlds. Pop artist Andy Warhol even claimed that Mati was his favourite artist.
Mati finally settled in Mallorca, where he died in March 2002.
Along the way Mati discovered jazz and befriended a number of jazz musicians, in spite of a rather difficult encounter with Yusef Lateef. This happened in 1960 when Mati, then calling himself Abdul Mati, sent a portrait of Lateef to the great musician, who seemed interested in using it on an album cover. However, when Mati and Lateef met, the musician, suddenly realising that the artist was white, turned away without a word, and that was the end of that.
In 1961 Mati painted a work he called “Annunciation” which was seen in reproduction by guitarist Carlos Santana. Santana wanted the painting for his second album, Abraxas, which was released in 1970.
Mati wrote of this painting: “Annunciation is the first painting I painted after my initial New York awakening. I was 28 years old and at the peak of my molecular bio-energy. You can feel the sudden burst of the Big Apple's electric zap in the composition after all the early years of adolescent brooding over potatoes and eggs and the romantic nostalgia of the preceding 'Flight to Egypt.' In those days I had an obsessional passion for the female body that lasted deep into my thirties (to be replaced by rocks 'n' stones). Years later Carlos Santana saw a reproduction of the Annunciation in a magazine and wanted it for the cover of his all time best selling Abraxas album. It did me a world of good. I saw the album pinned to the wall in a shaman's mud hut in Niger and inside a Rastafarian's ganja hauling truck in Jamaica. I was in good global company, muchissimas gracias, Carlito!”
Bitches Brew and Live-Evil
In 1971 Miles Davis commissioned the painting that is so much a part of the Bitches Brew album. The whereabouts of the original painting are now unknown. The album reached a million sales in 2004 and the Klarwein family was given a gold disc in recognition of the part played by the album art in achieving that milestone.
Mati on this cover: "I hooked up with Miles the way I hooked up with everything else in life: through the women I've known, be they friends or lovers, they are all mothers with excellent taste. Without them I'd be a dead spermatozoid in a dry puddle, and Miles saw that in my paintings.”
Of the cover of Live-Evil Mati said: “The only time he (Miles) discussed subject matter was for Live-Evil. He asked me to paint a toad for the 'Evil' side. So I painted J Edgar Hoover as a toad in drag—which turned out to be another one of my prophetic insights."
Jimi Hendrix and Gil Evans
At the time of Jimi Hendrix's death in September 1970, he had been working with famed arranger and composer Gil Evans on a big band album using Hendrix compositions arranged by Evans. The portrait of Hendrix painted by Mati was to have been used on the album cover. The album was never completed and so the portrait never used.
Yusef Lateef portrait
Of the famous Yusef Lateef portrait mentioned above Mati wrote: “In the fifties, jazz was the exciting music of the moment - Charlie Parker, Miles, MJQ, Gerry Mulligan. But for me, that which I could identify with most was the influence of Arab and African music and culture in black American music - the move toward a separate cultural identity, away from the white trash rectangular music. It started with the substituting of Christian names by Muslim ones. There was Ahmed Abdul Malek on the Oud with his Jazz-Sahara music, and there was Yusef Lateef, experimenting with flutes, reeds, bottles, balloons, home made string instruments and the use of fake Arab words. I would spend hours in Paris and Harlem looking for his records. Here's another reverse example - instead of a record album using my painting, I use an album cover photo for my painting.
“When the painting was completed I sent Yusef a photo of it and signed it with Abdul Mati Klarwein. He replied promptly with a 'dear bro' letter, saying he would use it as soon as he could for an album cover. Six months later I found myself in N.Y. listening to him play at the Five Spot. During a break I went over to his table and introduced myself. He looked at me with disdain and hardly greeted me. When I told him I was the artist who did the painting he sneered and turned his back to me, resuming his conversation with a friend. I forgot that love between colors is not always mutual.”
Musician Jon Hassell has written of Mati's work: “In Klarwein's world, culture is a perpetual-motion machine where hierarchies are overturned and history collapses into itself, tunnels open up through the Earth allowing cultures, creeds and symbols to project themselves on each other's irises, male and female.”
For me the works are revelatory in the way remembered dreams are: they shock me into looking deeper into myself and questioning the assumptions that I habitually make about primal issues like good and evil, fun and pain. I find it almost impossible to look dispassionately at one of his works. Even the fairly conventional-looking portraits of society people or family members have a depth and questing spirit which is challenging and refreshing at the same time.
I find that looking at one of the works I will try to see it as a “picture of” something, only to be dragged into a whole different experience by some small detail that calls the whole presumption of what the painting is “about” into question.
In an interview with David Brummbaeron the website Mavericks of the Mind (http://web.archive.org/web/20070607095653/www.levity.com/mavericks/frames10.htm) Mati had this to say about the content of his works: “... if there are any elements in the paintings which look like messages, that could be misleading, because I paint a message like you paint an apple. Anybody can interpret their own message in the painting. That's the message. I give clues or material for interpretation.”
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010
More by this Author
According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Revised Edition 2006) jazz is "a type of music of Black American origin characterised by improvisation, syncopation, and a regular rhythm, and typically played on...
Jazz was born out of the pain of slavery and the clash between the cultures of West Africa and the Protestant ethos of the Southern states of the United States. This is a first article in a series looking at the history...