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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Just over a hundred years ago, Paul Klee embarked on a voyage that would change the direction of modern art forever.

This was a journey in more ways than one, setting the artist on a path that he would follow for the rest of his life, developing and adapting as he went.

Klee had studied in Munich for three years from 1898. 1911 saw him there again, associating with the Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), instigated by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Klee and Kandinsky became close, with the older artist helping the younger student.

Before this, Klee had been more inclined to work alone, attempting different styles and media, caricatures, Symbolist drawings, and small black and white creations on paper. At this time, he was attracted by the work of Cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and Robert Delaunay's translucent colour abstracts.

Then in April 1914 Klee, together with his fellow artists and friends August Macke and Louis Moilliet, made his first trip outside Europe, to Tunisia. The trio arrived in Tunis, travelling along a canal which kept the city partially concealed, intriguing the party from the first.

In the coastal town of Hammamet, he was dazzled by the brilliant hues that were a backdrop to the similarly-vibrant local lifestyle, all intensified by the overwhelming strength and heat of the North African sunlight. The sounds, animal noises and human voices would have appealed to the musician in him that always introduced a movement and rhythm to his work.

Add to all this the spicy aromas and pungent smells, and it became an assault on the senses that he never forgot. His aim from then on was not to imitate nature but to interpret it through his own eyes, to grow from within it rather than to remain an onlooker.

At the gates of the old Islamic quarter of the holy Moslem city of Kairouan, Paul noted in his diary that the spectacle possessed him, proclaiming that the "colour and I are one" and that now, he was "a painter".

It became his overriding passion for the rest of his life. In this former capital of the Aghlabid dynasty, he discovered the doors, domes and decorated windows that, together with the fresh shapes and colours, would help to make these Tunisian offerings different from his European output.

He loved the seaside location, its bends, corners and ramparts, and admired the beautiful Eastern gardens with walls of huge cactuses. Bushes and reeds formed what he called a "beautiful rhythm of patches", which could be a description of one of Paul Klee's own canvases. This exotic but meditative country allowed him to grow spiritually, so that he was able to free shapes, forms and colours from any restrictions.

The two weeks of their stay saw the advance of modernism. Klee created thirty-five watercolours and thirteen drawings, while Macke provided thirty-five paintings and seventy-nine sketches.

Moilliet kept his best for Southern Spain and Morocco, but Tunisia continued to inspire Klee for many years, sometimes drawing on memories or paintings from that period. As far ahead as the nineteen thirties, he executed more than twenty canvases that referenced Tunisia.

The experience led to the execution of his first abstract painting, In the Style of Kairouan, an expressionist watercolour of simple shapes. The change in colour from 1914 onwards is marked, but this was still a transitional period as the artist worked through his thoughts and ideas, exploring what he thought of as the romance of abstraction. As an expert draughtsman and lifelong musician, Klee was able to make use of these abilities in his quest for truth.

From their boat, the three had noticed the pretty cliff-top village of Sidi Bou Said, and they lost no time in visiting it, with Klee stopping at a garden gate to start a sketch for a watercolour. His view of the bustling town square, with its blue doors fronting white single-storey dwellings, is still recognisable today.

Red and Yellow Houses in Tunis is a jumble of cheerful North African houses and trees. The special light caught shades that are both intense and serene, such as Beach at St Germain near Tunis. View of Saint Germain, a watercolour on tan paper, is more figurative, as if the artist was still deciding. Garden in Saint-Germain, the European Quarter of Tunis, has elements of both, while In the Houses of St Germain and Streetcafé are both portrayed in grids, blending shades harmoniously.

Other 1914 works include Hammamet, which is another abstract, and Hammamet with Mosque, which reverts to a more traditional rendition of the building in question, with some shapes in the foreground. A View Towards Hammamet also portrays a recognisable city with palm trees. His work at this time was already typical, with symbols and patterns, and it continued to portray a mix of Western and Eastern styles.

However, it's hard to describe any of Klee's prolific output as typical, because it varied so much, with experimentation in styles and movements. Throughout his life, he constantly questioned and saw things afresh. For instance, during this fortnight, he came to understand the elements that made the scene on his easel vary from a similar one in a French resort, finding more dignity, depth and tranquillity in these surroundings.

What was set down, particularly by Macke, has proved to be a useful record of the costume, architecture and life of the country at that time. Kadinsky himself had taken this trip with Gabriele Münter in 1904, before the couple's friendship with Paul had developed, but their artistic record wasn't properly acknowledged at the time. Both stays sought to understand and reach out to cultural diversity, enriching European modernist art as a result.

Unfortunately, the direction of their lives was dramatically altered by the onset of the First World War, with Macke being killed within six months, and Franz Marc also dying. Yet the Tunisian experience stayed with Klee, leading him away from figurative work towards what he later called "abstract with memories". As well as influences at different periods of cubism, experessionism and surrealism, Klee studied orientalism, and the Tunisian holiday was a visual treat for him.

Southern (Tunisian) Gardens, painted in 1919, is an explosion of colour and movement, and Temple Gardens (1920) again recalls the bright colours and typical landscape. The work was cut into three, as Klee sometimes did, turning it into the kind of labyrinth that he might have found in the ancient back streets. Tropical Gardening (1923), a watercolour and oil transfer drawing on paper, reveals plants on a searing orange background, and must surely refer back to sights in Tunisia. Kamel (1920) is another grid-patterned rendering with exotic vegetation.

Klee's interest in North Africa, the Middle East and Arabic culture continued. Early in 1929, he visited Egypt, resulting in work that was a homage to this age-old civilisation, where he felt a connection to the ancient land, helping to add permanence and timelessness to his paintings. Perhaps this is why he brought back with him a shabti, a statuette used at funerals, from the Ramesside period. Just as his Tunisian escapade had followed Kadinsky's 1904 one, this Egyptian journey came after impressionist Max Slevogt's exploration of the land of the Pharaohs in 1914. All four were knocked out by what they found, dealing with it in different ways.

Paul was thirty four at the time of this excursion, but as a young man he had been described as resembling an Arab, due to his mother's roots being in that continent. No doubt these slightly-dark looks would have increased the disapproval of the Nazis, who later condemned his degenarate art, forcing him to flee to Switzerland in 1933.

This brief Tunis sojourn was a seminal entry on the calendar of twentieth-century art history. Considered as the father of modern art by many, including former director of the Tate Art Galleries Sir Nicholas Serota, Klee was a pioneer at all times. His career was an important step in the development of modernism, and a key influence on the likes of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko and British abstract artist Victor Pasmore. Today, his prolific output continues to delight and intrigue us, and we can thank Tunisia for that.