The psychedelic surrealism of Mati Klarwein

Mati Klarwein - Flight to Egypt (Benares)

I was doing some reading about the inimitable Jon Hassell the other day (an appreciation of his mysterious and powerful music should be another post here one of these days) and came across mention of Mati Klarwein, an artist whose work has been used on a number of epoch-defining rock and jazz records of the 70s and beyond.

Klarwein is one of those artists you’re already familiar with if you have an interest in music — you may just not be aware that you are. One of his best-known covers was for what’s commonly thought of as Santana’s best album, Abraxas (1970). The picture is called ‘Annunciation,’ and by his own description, it was his first after his “New York awakening” in 1961. (He described the one just prior — ‘Flight to Egypt (Benares),’ shown above — as “romantic nostalgia.”)

Mati Klarwein - Annunciation

Another important cover art painting was for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. This psychedelic, ‘fantastic realist’ masterpiece is particularly striking because of how modern it looks — almost like it’s been digitally rendered. Many of Klarwein’s paintings have this quality. It comes out in the sheen of the skin of his subjects, in the carefully rendered, almost Baroque nudes that grace many of his fantasies. (The common story is that the Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs, whose student Klarwein was, taught him “how to paint like the old masters.”)

Mati Klarwein - Bitches Brew

After the successes with Bitches Brew and Abraxas, Klarwein worked on a cover paining for a new Jimi Hendrix record with Gil Evans. Unfortunately, this project was never completed, but the painting exists and is striking in the same style as the ones above (the equestrian marauders are both bizarre and amusing — and what exactly is it that’s attacking Jimi’s face like that? Has his afro gone rogue?):

Mati Klarwein - Jimi Hendrix

The cover art for Miles Davis’ Live-Evil double album (‘Live’ was the front and ‘Evil’ the back cover) followed in 1972, striking in its contrast of Afrocentric fertility imagery with “J. Edgar Hoover as a toad in drag” (Klarwein’s description of Evil). The toad in drag, strangely, also looks a lot like a newly invented Hindu god, with its carefully coiffed hair and muscular limbs.

Mati Klarwein - Live

Mati Klarwein - Evil

I think Mati Klarwein’s art was a key influence for certain directions in contemporary design. His schooling with some of the leading surrealists of the 50s coupled with his interest in graphic design, popular culture and Eastern spirituality resulted in work whose influence can be seen in today’s manga and 3D-rendered gaming images.

I imagine opinions vary widely across the spectrum of gender politics when it comes to Klarwein’s depiction of women’s bodies. I choose to think that his subjects are powerful, empowered women, comfortable with their bodies and frequently depicted in regal or dominant positions (angels, queens, matriarchs, warriors etc.).

Klarwein - Artist and Model

Men, in fact, tend not to do very well in Klarwein’s paintings — in images where both men and women are shown, the women are always the focal point, and the men fade into the margins or are shown as clowns (the portraits — many presumably being commissions — show this quite clearly). Klarwein clearly admired women’s bodies and sought to depict them in the most flattering way.

Mati Klarwein died in 2002 of cancer. There are sadly very few books available collecting his work (those published in the 70s are out of print but available provided one can afford them). Fortunately, many of his works are collected online at The Life and Art of Mati Klarwein. As for prints — those seem to be even rarer than books. eBay may be your best bet.

Thanks to the extremely reasonable legitimate image usage policy of the Mati Klarwein site, I am able to reproduce some of his art in this post. All images are links back to the site as requested, and of course are © Copyright Klarwein Family.

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