Matthias (Mati) Klarwein (1932 – 2002) was born to a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany. Two years after the National Socialists came into power, his parents fled with him to Palestine. “I grew up in three different cultures, the Jewish, Islamic and the Christian. These circumstances and my family’s stern resistance against being part of any kind of orthodoxy has made me the outsider I am today and always has been. That is also why I took the name Abdul. If everybody in the Middle-East would call themselves Abdul, it would ensure a reconciliation that would end the antagonism and the wars in that part of the world. At least that’s what I thought at the time.”
In the fifties Mati Klarwein moved to Paris, a city then pulsing with existentialist ideas and jazz music. His ambition was to go to Hollywood and become a movie director, but instead studied painting with Fernand Léger. Léger was never any direct source of inspiration for Mati. However it was he that introduced Mati to the artwork of Salvador Dalí. Mati was also profoundly influenced by both the Italian renaissance painters and the Flemish masters.
After a few years in the French capital he took residence on the Riviera, in the town of St. Tropez. There he became acquainted to numerous socialites, such as Brigitte Bardot, and also met two people that would change the course of both his private and professional lives. One was Ernst Fuchs, who advised him to refine his oil paintings by using casein tempera, something Mati has stuck to ever since. The other was a wealthy woman, Kitty Lillaz, some twenty years older than him who became his passion, mecenate, educator and travelling companion for the next seven years to come. Together they visited almost every part of the planet scurrying from Tibet, India and Bali in the east, over North Africa, Turkey and across Europe to Cuba and America in the west. Travels that supplied Mati with enough visual memories to fuel his artwork until the end of his life.
In 1961 Mati met his first wife, Sofia. Their often chaotic relationship lasted four years and resulted in the birth of one daughter, Eleonore. Sofia befriended Dali, and this initiated Mati’s own long friendship with the Surrealist. Particularly during his years in New York, Klarwein and Dali met often.
It was 1964 in New York, that Mati (by then known as Abdul Mati) caused a commotion after having exhibited his blasphemous painting Crucifixion. The motif of the painting being a myriad of people caught in a garden of earthly delights, where no sexual, racial or gender barriers are bearing any significance. Something that threw parts of the society in such a rage that Mati at one point even was attacked by a man violently chopping away with a huge axe.
Even though Crucifixion caused a lot of animosity at the time, it was also to become part of the Aleph Sanctuary, a temple-like building consisting of 78 paintings from Mati’s production, that made him climb from obscurity into a long-awaited place in the sun. The Aleph Sanctuary, namely, was the place where Carlos Santana spent hours tripping out in profound meditation over the painting Annunciation, later to become the record cover of his million selling album Abraxas.
Mati’s works came to express the spirit of a whole generation of musicians ranging from the late Jerry Garcia to the equally late, great Eric Dolphy. Wherever there would be soul-searching, astral-travelling and mind-expanding records churned out, there would also be cover paintings by Mati Klarwein. A fact that possibly shut him out from the conventional art establishment.
“My coming across as a painter in that fashion is probably the reason why I don’t belong to the history of art today. Neither have I ever worked conventionally with galleries or any other forum within the well-defined boundaries of the world of art,” Mati points out.
Although considered a psychedelic artist by some, when asked in an interview “How do you feel about being classified as a psychedelic painter?” his response was:
“I think it’s subjective. Anybody can classify me as they wish. In the fifties I was classified as an illustrator, even though my work consisted of paintings. And in the sixties my work was classified as psychedelic. So I took psychedelics to find out what it was all about. I found out I couldn’t paint on them. I’ll tell you about a funny episode. Jean Houston and Robert Masters put together a book called Psychedelic Art in the sixties, and they came to me. They did an interview with me, like we’re doing now, to include me in their book. And they asked me, “What kind of psychedelics do you take when you’re painting?” And I said, “I don’t take anything when I’m painting. When I take psychedelics I get very horny, and I start going out to nightclubs and cruising.” (laughter)
So they said, “Well, we can’t put you in the book.” I freaked out, because I wasn’t in any book yet (laughter), and I said, “But I get my ideas when I’m high.” And they said, “Alright, we’ll put you in the book.” Next they asked me for the names of other psychedelic painters, and I gave them a whole list, including Fuchs. I called them all up right away, and I told them, “Tell them that you’re taking psychedelics!” And they all got in the book. (laughter)”
In the late sixties, Klarwein moved to New York, and was living and working in a loft on 17th Street. In 1971, he conceived the idea of the Aleph Sanctuary, an enclosed space 3 meters by 3 meters by 3 meters with 78 of his paintings to form the interior. This ‘portable chapel’ was exhibited in places as diverse as Colorado, California and Paris, while also being on more or less ‘permanent display’ in his New York loft.
On March 7th, 2002, Abdul Mati Klarwein died after a lengthy illness.
- Conny C Lindström and Peter Holmlund
- Laurence Caruana