Mati Klarwein

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mati Klarwein, artist: born Hamburg, Germany 5 April 1932; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died Deyá, Majorca 7 March 2002.

Whilst crossing through the northern deserts of Niger in the early 1970s, the vehicle being driven by the painter Mati Klarwein broke down. When a solitary truck at last approached and pulled to a halt, the surly driver appeared more interested in robbery than rescue. Until Klarwein noticed that, pasted to an exterior panel, was the sleeve of Abraxas, the celebrated album by Santana, the Latin rock group. "That's my painting," said Klarwein. Immediately arms were flung around him, and his potential oppressor became his saviour.

The Abraxas sleeve, which became an archetypal image of the era, was a reproduction of Klarwein's 1963 painting The Annunciation, in which he modelled the nude black Virgin Mary on a girlfriend; the discreet image of Joseph was a self-portrait. In his own work Klarwein sometimes made small walk-on appearances, in which he appeared to be gazing at life with a bemused question mark hanging over his head.

African images were a recurring theme. He used imagery gathered on another visit to West Africa on a further celebrated album sleeve, Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, commissioned by Davis on a social visit to the New York loft in which the painter lived in the late 1960s; Jimi Hendrix was another frequent visitor. "His paintings expressed the entire Zeitgeist. The hippest cats would hang out with him," said Chris Murray, the owner of the Govinda gallery in Washington DC, who exhibited his work.

From the early 1960s until the mid-1970s Mati Klarwein produced richly coloured, kaleidoscopic canvases, magical, frequently highly sexual compositions; they were often hilariously funny, like his 1969 work Cosmic Pizza, a co-mingling of images of popular culture with his fascination with Eastern religions, constructed in the form of a sliced pizza. "Mati Klarwein is my favourite painter," declared Andy Warhol at that time; Klarwein himself, however, was never a fan of Pop Art. Although often described as a Surrealist, he disliked such pigeonholing. Oblivious to trends, he ploughed his own path: all the same, he admitted that his perception was transformed through his introduction to Surrealism when, studying painting in Paris, he watched a screening of Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou – later, he became good friends with Dali, even writing a graphic first-hand account of his bizarre sexual antics.

Klarwein's extraordinary technical virtuosity and sense of poetry allowed him to capture the soul of the Mediterranean landscapes that formed a large part of his subsequent work – "inscapes", as he called them, reflecting his interior monologue – through which each molecule seemed to dance out of the image. Although an advocate of mind-expanding drugs and a close friend of Timothy Leary, he denied that such visions were lysergically enhanced: "Everyone used to tell me these were psychedelic paintings, but I saw everything like this before I had ever heard of LSD."

Klarwein was born in Hamburg in 1932 to an architect father and a mother who was an opera singer and a lover of mysticism. His father was a Polish Jew; after his employer had suggested he adopt a more Aryan surname, the family moved the year after his birth to what was then Palestine, where his parents eventually divorced; later his father designed the Knesset, the Israeli parliament building. (Later still his son for a time re-named himself Abdul Mati Klarwein: "He wanted to have both a Muslim and a Jewish name: he was the healer," said a friend.)

After he had proved himself academically hopeless, his father sent the boy at the age of 15 to the Bezalal art school in Jerusalem. Klarwein credited his graphics teacher with infusing him with what would prove to be a central philosophy: "In art as in life, everyone is right." Rather than from any intellectual sources, moreover, he claimed that his major influence was Hollywood movies, both the robust, glamorous images of film actors and of landscapes as they appeared in Hollywood westerns.

In 1948, in the middle of the war over the creation of the state of Israel (Klarwein recalled being reduced to eating sparrows to survive), he moved with his mother to Paris. After studying commercial art at the Académie Julian, he met Luisa, a 40-year-old Spanish gypsy woman who persuaded him to study painting with Fernand Léger, the French Dadaist and Surrealist, whose style he osmosed into his own particular vision.

In the then Bohemian St Tropez he became friends with Ernst Fuchs, founder of the Viennese school of "phantastic" realism: "Ernst insisted on teaching me his mixed technique of Van Eyck and the Flemish school. I learned it in one week and sold every one of my paintings ever since." As he made an initial living by painting portraits, his drinking companions included Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Vian, Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot.

After a peripatetic existence that included time in Turkey and California as well as New York, he moved in 1984 to take up full-time residence in Deyá, the artists' community in the north of Majorca. He had had a long relationship with Deyá, which to all intents and purposes was founded by the poet Robert Graves, with whom he was equally close. Many of Klarwein's most successful "inscape" paintings are of the dramatic mountainous Majorcan coastline.

In recent years he had developed a further, characteristically witty, aspect to his work: "improved" paintings. For a few pesetas, Klarwein would purchase kitsch compositions from flea markets and "improve" them with his own brushstrokes. They were frequently hilarious: in one of them small children at bedtime stand on the hearth of an opulent, blazing fire, out of which a squadron of Nazi bombers is flying towards them – Klarwein's own addition.

Chris Salewicz