Music lovers have probably never heard of Mati Klarwein, though they most likely have seen his visionary art. He did the album art for Carlos Santana’s Abraxis, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Live-Evil, and several of Jon Hassell’s evocative albums produced by Brian Eno, Dream Theory in Malaya and Earthquake Island. Klarwein’s art is original, pan-cultural, erotic and distinctive, and his paintings now fetch large sums of money.
So who was Mati Klarwein? He was born in Germany in 1932, and with the rise of Hitler, he moved with his Jewish parents to Palestine. He called himself “Abdul” in solidarity with Palestinians there. After the birth of Israel in 1948, he moved to Paris. He studied with Fernand Léger and attended l’École des Beaux Arts. During the 1950s, Klarwein travelled widely, spending time in Greece, Turkey, Kenya, Senegal, Haiti, Indonesia, and other places. Familiarity with these diverse cultures helped frame his artistic concepts and styles. In some ways, what he painted was “world art”.
His paintings displayed virtuosic technical ability. His 1961 painting Annunciation became the album cover art for Santana’s 1970 best-selling album Abraxas. Miles Davis used his art that same year for the seminal Bitches Brew.
In the Abraxas cover art, you see Santana, male members of the West African Wodaabe tribe who make up and pose as beautiful women in a beauty contest to attract female mates. There is an eroticized female Gabriel riding a conga drum. An African queen is there with a white pigeon between her thighs. It is what the world might look like if Hieronymous Bosch met Salvador Dali and took acid together. Klarwein’s painting is their fusion of the book of Genesis and the Garden of Earthly Delights.
Klarwein died in 2002 at the age of 70. There is a book, Mati Klarwein: Collected Works 1959-75. It is out of print, and costs over $400 for a used copy. I say, better to just buy the vinyl of Abraxas and Bitches Brew and frame them.