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Santana's 'Abraxas:' The Sexy Album Cover That Was A Religious Experience

Music | April 6, 2019

A detail of 'Annunciation' (see the full version below); Carlos Santana circa 1970. Source: Pinterest; BMI/Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

What comes to mind when you think of Santana’s Abraxas album -- the cover or the music? The 1970 release contains the classic-rock mainstays "Black Magic Woman" and "Oye Como Va," and is considered one of the greatest albums of the era. At the time of its release, Abraxas was hailed as a rock-fusion masterpiece that blended the sounds of Latin America with blues and jazz. And there was no missing that Abraxas cover art -- trippy, risque, and completely suited to the eclectic music, it was a major head trip for shoppers perusing the latest releases at the local record store, assuming it was on display in full.

The art, which shows a naked, black Virgin Mary speaking with an angel riding a conga, among numerous other psychedelic visuals, was controversial from the start. Was it art? Was it pornography? In spite of the squabbling over the album art at the time, it’s now considered one of the most majestic album covers of the 20th century. 


Santana Saw The Original Painting In A Magazine And Felt Connected To It

Mati Klarwein's 'Annunciation,' 1961. Source: pinterest

The album art for Abraxas wasn’t specifically designed for Santana’s music. The art began its life as a painting in 1961, nine years before the album was released. The original painting is titled “Annunciation,” and it was painted by the psychedelic surrealist Mati Klarwein, a German-French artist who created the piece shortly after immigrating to New York City from Europe.

Around the time that Santana and his group were recording Abraxas he saw the painting in a magazine and he felt that the image conveyed exactly what his group was doing on their album. Santana said:

I'd just discovered that music and color are food for the soul. When we looked at the painting, we said, 'Man, this is a great feast! Who did this?'

The Cover Art Is Full Of Biblical Symbolism

'Annunciation' by Matthias Stom, 1630s. Source: Google Arts & Culture

While many critics of the album art look at Abraxas and see a naked woman gazing at a red, naked angel, the painting’s creator, Mati Klarwein, was turning his surrealist eye on a collection of Biblical symbolism. Klarwein was inspired by the story of Gabriel, the archangel, visiting the Virgin Mary to tell her that she’s going to give birth to Jesus. This moment in the Bible is called the Annunciation (for announcement) and has been a subject of Christian art for centuries

The model for Mary was Klarwein’s girlfriend at the time, who hailed from Guadeloupe, Mexico, and he used himself, wearing a hat and sunglasses, as the model for (maybe) Joseph. So why is Gabriel riding a conga on the way to deliver Mary’s good news? The artist explained:

Drums were always used to announce something. They were a medium of communication in Africa, and I put the angel announcing the birth by beating the drum.

Where Klarwein Saw Something Biblical, Santana Saw A Melding Of Spirituality And Music

source: pinterest

Klarwein’s intention with “Annunciation” was to show viewers his vision of Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, but when Carlos Santana saw the piece he felt that it was a beautiful encapsulation of his musical aesthetic. However, with the naming of the album he sought to further deepen the message that he wanted to send to listeners.

The title “Abraxas” comes from the Herman Hesse novel Demian, a story about Jungian individuation and the concept of duality. In the novel Hesse writes:

We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas…

The Album Art Was Immediately A Source of Controversy

Source: pinterest

Even though Carlos Santana saw the art for Abraxas a melding of spirituality and music into a sensual creative statement, that’s not how everyone took it. CBS Records initially had an issue with releasing the album with a naked woman on the cover regardless of the artistic intent. Groovy readers who purchased the LP at the time of its release may remember seeing two different versions of Abraxas.

There’s the legendary album art that we’re still talking about today, and then there’s a version that’s still Klarwein’s “Annunciation” but the nudity on the cover is hidden with a sticker featuring the Time magazine review of Santana’s album. While the censorship is bad enough, some fans say that the sticker was placed directly on the cover, not the shrink wrap. 

Santana’s Abraxas Has Outlasted Its Controversy

Source: pinterest

In spite of the squares of the world censoring the gorgeous painting on the cover of Abraxas, cooler heads prevailed in 1970 and the album was stocked in stores sans censorship. In the decades since the release of this standout rock-fusion album the art has gone one to be listed as one of the best album covers ever released.

The cover’s painter, Mati Klarwein, who died in 2002, spoke at length about Santana’s choice to pluck his painting from obscurity has changed his life forever. In his book Collected Works 1959-1975 Klarwein wrote:

Carlos Santana saw a reproduction of the Annunciation in a magazine and wanted it for the cover of his all time best selling Abraxas album. It did me a world of good. I saw the album pinned to the wall in a shaman's mud hut in Niger and inside a Rastafarian's ganja hauling truck in Jamaica. I was in good global company, muchissimas gracias, Carlito!

Mati Klarwein Also Painted Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew'

Cover of Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew' from 1970 by Mati Klarwein. Source: Amazon.com

Abraxas wasn't the only cover to feature Mati Klarwein's art, nor was it the first. Several artists, including the Last Poets, the Chambers Brothers and Gregg Allman, chose or commissioned Klarwein's visions for their sleeve covers. The second most famous cover in Klarwein's portfolio (or perhaps the first, if you're a jazz fan) is the one he did for Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, which was also released in 1970, just a few months before Abraxas. Davis commissioned this piece (unlike Carlos Santana, who selected an existing work because it spoke to him), and its symbolism has been much discussed, in light of the musical controversy surrounding the album. Here's a taste of an extensive analysis of the art and music at Revive-Music.com:

The complexity of the cover captures the multi-layered and tangled understandings of jazz fusion and particularly Bitches Brew. For many, the sounds and images of Bitches Brew were intrinsically linked to the political climate, and specifically the racial climate of the early 70s. The cover’s decidedly Afro-centric and psychedelic undertones reverberated within both the Black Power movement and the progressive counterculture of the early 70s, but for different reasons. Critics of the album believed that Bitches Brew represented the death of jazz. They thought that Miles had left behind black music for the commercial success of white rock music and the counterculture lifestlye that has become mainstream after Woodstock in 1969. Others saw Bitches Brew as a pivotal moment in jazz and a remarkable and daring album that was ahead of its time. The feedback on the album was as vast and colorful as the music itself.

The Toad On The Back Of 'Live-Evil' Was Based On A Real Person

Cover of Miles Davis' 'Live-Evil,' 1971, by Mati Klarwein. Source: discogs.com

Miles Davis' Live-Evil (1971) also features Mati Klarwein's artwork, which again has a theme of contrast, with a funny twist. Klarwein explained:

I was doing the picture of the pregnant woman for the cover and the day I finished, Miles called me up and said, 'I want a picture of life on one side and evil on the other.' And all he mentioned was a toad. Then next to me was a copy of Time magazine which had J. Edgar Hoover on the cover, and he just looked like a toad. I told Miles I found the toad.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Abraxas | Album Covers | Mati Klarwein | Miles Davis | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Santana | Surrealism

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.