By Lily Silverton
Interview with Balthazar Klarwein by Lily Silverton
Today’s POP is Lily. To the Most Famous Unknown Artist:
For those of you who think you’re unfamiliar with the artist Mati Klarwein, think again. For although you may not recognise his name, chances are you know his work. Klarwein’s surrealist, psychedelic artwork features on sleeves of some of the most prolific musicians of the 1960’s 70’s including Earth, Wind Fire, Miles Davis, Malcolm X, The Last Poets; and Santana, to name but a few.
Klarwein’s life was speckled with both terrible hardship and absolute good fortune. He grew up as Jewish in Nazi German, but with the help of a friend, his family escaped to Palestine in 1934. He lived there until he was 18 whence his parents separated before moving to Paris with his mother (his father, an architect, remained in Israel and went on to design and build the Knesset – Israel’s equivalent of the Houses of Parliament and one of the country’s most famous buildings). After a number of years in Paris, Mati travelled the world before finally settling in New York in the late 1950s. Good friends with Salvador Dali, Ernst Fuchs Jimi Hendrix, he quickly became a fixture on the New York scene. In the early 1980s, after a long and fruitful period in the States, Mati moved to Deja, Majorca, where he remained until his untimely death in March 2002.
A decade after his death, Mati Klarwein’s original paintings for LP CD covers have been collated into a limited edition book, Mati The Music. It is a wonderful amalgam of Mati’s work: iconic images exist harmoniously alongside lesser known works and previously unpublished material. The beautiful volume also contains two never before released vinyl LPs of a Miles Davis show, recorded live in Copenhagen in 1969. I popped down to the book launch and had the privilege of talking at length with Mati’s eldest son, Balthazar (himself a visual artist), about his father’s life and work.
Your father had quite a difficult, somewhat disrupted childhood. Do you think this influenced his work?
Yes, I think this was probably the main influence… It is clear to me that his canvases, filled with multicultural celebration and religious unification, are his response to a childhood scarred by the atrocities of segregation and discrimination – experienced both in Germany and the new Israel. My dad had a hard time growing up in Israel – he had a blonde, German mother and wasn’t circumcised, and this left him feeling very different from the other Jewish kids (he was teased mercilessly by the boys for the latter). He hung out more with Palestinians but wasn’t fully accepted by them either. He always said he felt he was “a minority of one”. These feelings of dichotomy and segregation remained with him. In the late 1950s, in order to express his sentiments about the hostility between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, Mati added "Abdul" (which means "servant" in Arabic) to his name. He maintained that “if all Jews adopted an Arab name and vice-versa, maybe it would help everything a little bit”.
Although not religious, religion clearly informed your father’s work immensely. Particularly, the ‘Aleph Sanctuary’…
Yes so the Aleph Sanctuary was a piece my father created while he was living in New York. It was a cubic temple of all religions, featuring 68 paintings, representing some Biblical passages such as “Anunciation” (1961) [later used by Santana for the cover of his best selling album, [Abraxas], “Crucifixion” (1963-1965) represented by a highly sexual tree of life which caused quite a turmoil within the puritan white establishment as well as with the black panthers, “Nativity”(1962), “Grain of Sand” (1963-1965), and many other of his best known paintings. It was in his studio in Union Square and it was a haven – a place for musicians, artists and other creatives to come and just hang out. In fact that’s how he got a large number of his commissions. People would come and hang out there and then love it so much they’d ask him to do something for them.
Who would hang out there on any given day?
Warhol, Hendrix, Dali, Davis – normal suspects.
And where is the Aleph Sanctuary now?
Mati actually dismantled the original and the paintings were all individually sold off. It was rebuilt, however, in 1992 using aluminum structures to hold Plexiglas reproductions lit by rows of fluorescent tubes. It’s now in storage in our hometown in Spain. It was last on show at the Tate Liverpool in 2006. We’re hoping to bring it out again soon.
Your father’s work is unquestionably psychedelic; did he take a lot of drugs?
Yes, I suppose he did. He certainly took a lot of acid. He always had mushrooms growing in the house, and stashes of weed in the freezer. But he didn’t have an addictive personality and so it truly was never a problem for him, as it was for many of his contemporaries. He certainly wasn’t high all the time (or at least wasn’t by the time I came along). He would always say “a little bit of everything is good for you, a lot will kill you”.
It’s a good moto.
Yes. He saw a lot of people’s lives destroyed by drugs and was more than aware of the potential for damage. He was forever leaving newspaper articles of horror drug stories around the house for my brother and I to read!
The reigning assumption is that your father’s work was inspired primarily by surrealism and the so-called psychedelic movement of the time and though this may be partially true, it seems increasingly clear that his extensive traveling and wide interest in non-Western deities and symbolism inspired his art far more than his use of psychedelic drugs. So… could you shed some light on this point of contention ; did he ever paint under the influence of anything
No way! He never painted on drugs, only coffee – his self-proclaimed painting drug. In fact, he painted the Santana piece before he’d even taken acid. His friend Timothy Leary once stated, that judging by the character of his paintings, “Mati didn’t need psychedelics!”.
Although best known for his art of the 1960s and 1970s, your father also worked more conventionally across a variety of genres including still life, landscape, and commissioned portraits (name drop alert: John F. Kennedy, Brigitte Bardot, Leonard Bernstein, Jimi Hendrix, Richard Gere and many more…). Which of your father’s works is your personal favourite?
Probably his “improved paintings”; a collection that he began in the 1970’s. He would purchase unwanted paintings in thrift stores and flea markets and bring them back to life by “improving” or recycling them, adding his own brush strokes to the originals, giving them a new meaning, often humorous, and if placed, always sharing both artists signatures.
What was your father like?
The Mati I knew was just like his paintings; vibrant, grand and mysterious with a funky, good sense of humor. Filled with love and a humble wisdom with the desire to always keep on learning. As a father he was liberal when he had to be and tough when necessary. A perfect balance which made my brother and I know what our limits were. He rarely got angry, but the few times he did were enough for us not to want to piss him off again.
What do you think your father was thinking when he created his work?
In his younger days probably sex, drugs and rock and roll. And in his later age, probably light, rocks and plants. He once wrote "There was a time when I dreamt of sex, and then I dreamt of drugs. Soon I will be dreaming light…" In his mid-life he started replacing the women in his paintings for beams of light in landscapes. He said that it was thanks to light that we were alive, and I guess he felt the same about women.
What did you think of your father's work when you were young?
I loved his work as a child and still do now, all his fantastical imaginary characters and magical landscapes hypnotized me. And so did the highly sexual images! My hometown friends and I would gather around his books at my mothers place and trip out over the painting of 'Crucifixion'. That was our introduction to sex. A pretty crazy one…
What does the future hold for Mati’s work?
We’ve just completed a recent collaboration with Western Edition, producing a limited edition set of decal’s featuring my father’s art cover to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. My father referred to himself (in jest, but quite aptly) as 'the most famous unknown artist'. I want to give a name to his work and show the world that he wasn't just an sleeve artist but an incredibly skilled painter of galactic imagination who left behind a huge oeuvre of relatively undiscovered work. We’d really like to organise a retrospective, which I think he so deserves.
So do we! Thanks Balthazar.
Mati The Music is available for purchase at galerie213.com.