Dylan Jones: Klarwein's work is a sexfest that even now would be impossible to reproduce in a newspaper

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The Independent Online

If you happen to be in London today, and you feel like waking yourself up a bit then it might just be worth venturing into darkest Soho, to Beak Street in fact, to the Riflemaker Gallery, to see a classic work by the late artist Mati Klarwein. Crucifixion (Freedom of Expression) is the centrepiece of Riflemaker's current Voo-Doo exhibition, a gigantic tree of life that takes up an entire wall of this tiny terraced house.

It is a hyper-realist triptych, a sex-fest that was shocking when it was first shown in the early Sixties, banned in many places, and even now would be impossible to reproduce in a family newspaper. Klarwein's tree of life owes much to cod-surrealism, as well as to the sort of recreational drugs that were no doubt around in New York when he painted it (having moved there from his native Germany, and then Palestine). For the last 20 years or so Crucifixion has been mostly hidden in various collectors' vaults, and this is certainly the first time I remember it being shown in Britain; it's an extraordinary piece and I'm slightly bemused that its display hasn't caused more of a fuss.

After a while the painting begins to look like an enormous album cover, although as Mati later designed the covers of Santana's Abraxas and Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, among many others, this is not exactly surprising. What is surprising, though, is Klarwein's technique, and what looks like airbrushing in reproduction is actually made up of painstaking brushstrokes.

Painting is what he liked to do best, and I love the fact that he used to trawl flea markets looking for amateur pictures that he could then embellish with his own marks. He "added" to hundreds of pictures throughout his life, and looking at Crucifixion you can understand his obsession with his craft. It just goes on and on ... as though it can never possibly end.

In some ways Klarwein's work looks like the fantasy project of a 14-year-old boy, one perhaps whose obsessions involve illicit sex, the work Dali, and the cultural significance of record sleeves. Or maybe that's just what I was like at the age of 14. Either way it's a great painting.

Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'