In late April almost twenty years ago I took my first ever swim down at the Cala. I headed out as fast as I could out into the middle of the bay before stopping to tread water and turning back to face the shore. I could see every detail of the rocks below me, of the fish that nosed in and out of the waving seagrass. Above me the sky was eggshell blue and empty. When I looked to my left, something seemed oddly familiar.
As I was getting dressed on the beach, I kept glancing over at the faded blue fishing boat pulled up on a ramp. A few days later, after another early morning swim, I realised what I was looking at.
The cover of the 1969 album Abraxas by Santana reproduces a 1961 painting by the artist Mati Klarwein (1932-2002) called Annunciation. Mati lived in Deià for many years, before and after it became Deià. In the painting, an eclectic and funky mix of elements from Mati’s life floats above a view of the olive terraces leading down to the Cala and the lower slopes of the mountains that surround the village. As a rock and roll fan who came of age in the 1970s I’d seen the cover of Abraxas countless times. Without my knowing it, the image of the Cala had become imprinted in my brain. It’s an experience many of us share.
Apparently, Carlos Santana saw Annunciation in a magazine and asked for it to be the cover of Abraxas. The album went on to top the US charts and sell well over 5,000,000 copies. By a simple twist of fate, Mati’s painting became one of the iconic images of rock and roll.
After Santana, Mati’s work featured on album covers by Miles Davies including the revolutionary 1971 jazz funk album Bitches Brew, This is Madness (1971) by The Last Poets and Last Days and Time (1972) by Earth, Wind and Fire. Each of these covers depicts beautiful, proud-looking African women and men, reinforcing the groundbreaking message of black pride contained in the grooves.
The most famous unknown painter in the world
Andy Warhol is reported to have said that Mati was his favourite painter. According to Mati, Timothy Leary is supposed to have told him that he ‘painted psychedelically before I took psychedelics’. But, while he was alive, Mati was in the strange position of being an artist known only to the hip cognoscenti but whose work was in millions of homes around the world.
Today, this is changing. Mati’s work is acknowledged by the visionary art movement and he’s increasingly being recognised as a major artist. His painting Grain of Sand (1963-65) is part of the You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 show which opens tomorrow at the V&A in London. Grain of Sand was used for the cover of the splendid 1970 album New Generation by psychedelic soul-funk pioneers The Chambers Brothers.
I don’t know what the acclaim would have meant to Mati but I do know that I return again and again to his paintings of the landscape around Deià. These have been described as psychedelic but I think they’re much more than that. So many painters have attempted to capture the mountain landscape around the village and been humbled by its sheer power. Perhaps because of his fearless willingness to simply observe, Mati’s paintings possess a vibrating intensity familiar to anyone who has stood looking up or down at the mountains, the olive terraces, the forests, the shifting sea and that empty sky and marvelled. While feeling a tiny bit unnerved.
You Say You Want a Revolution at the V&A
A website celebrating Mati’s life and work