Paul Klee, Louis Moilliet, and Auguste Macke’s trip to Tunisia

Famous artists have often travelled abroad to find inspiration. Turner’s love affair with Italy, Gaugin’s obsession with Tahiti and, more recently, Hockney’s sun-soaked Californian landscapes are just a handful of noteworthy artistic excursions.

Often overlooked, though, are a trio of Swiss-German painters – Paul Klee, Louis Moilliet and August Macke – who travelled to Tunisia just weeks before the outbreak of World War I.

When they arrived in Tunisia, the Paul Klee, Louis Moilliet and August Macke quickly began exploring the country’s colourful cities. Though Klee had previously experimented with different styles and media, including symbolist drawings and black and white illustrations, the Swiss-born German artist’s work took a dramatic turning point. For the first time, he tentatively experimented with abstract shapes in the beach town of St Germain.

View of St Germain, 1914 (below), which depicts a landscape dotted with shapes suggestive of houses, trees and mountains, adopts a grid-style composition, opening up the picture plane to multiple, layered perspectives. Though he had struggled to find artistic confidence before, Klee asserted in his travel journal that he had started to consider himself a ‘painter’. 

Inspired by the cornucopia of vibrant vistas, Macke produced a series of now-famous Tunisian views. St Germain near Tunis, 1914 (below) – with its inviting balcony overlooking the luminous Mediterranean coastal town – is a particularly striking example. 

‘Colour possesses me. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one.’

Paul Klee

When they travelled south to Kairouan, a lively city filled with Islamic architecture, the artists were dazzled by the brilliant hues they discovered. Traditionally, Klee omitted colour in his works, considering it a decorative element. But, in Tunisia, it quickly crept into his watercolour studies. 

Kairouan Style, Transposed into the Moderate, 1914 (below), with its technicolour arrangement of rectangles and circles, is a particularly powerful display of Klee’s whole-hearted embrace of colour and abstraction

Perhaps influenced by his readings of Kandinsky’s colour theory, Klee noted in his travel journal, ‘Colour possesses me. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one.’

Macke, who had previously experimented with strong brushwork and fierce colours borrowed from his Fauvist contemporaries, also hunted for new artistic challenges in foreign lands.

Many of his Tunisian watercolours feature early elements of Orphism. A non-objective style of cubist painting developed by Robert Delaunay and his wife Sonia, Orphism used prismatic hues to suggest movement and harmony. 

In The Bright House (Version I), 1914 (below), Macke applies blue paint to the left half of the composition and balances it with shades of yellow and orange in the opposite direction. This cleverly draws the viewer’s attention toward the sunlit-terracotta buildings in the centre of the painting. 

Shortly after their trip to Tunisia, World War I broke out. Macke, who was the most prolific artist of the three men (reportedly executing as many as fifty drawings and several watercolours on his most productive days) was drafted into the German army. He sadly passed away three months into battle. Nonetheless, the impressive body of works he left behind has been interpreted as some of the earliest signs of Modernism. 

For Klee, the two-week trip to Tunisia altered the course of his art. Over the next twenty years, he obsessively studied and tinkered with colour, as demonstrated by his 1928 oil painting Castle and the Sun. A complex kaleidoscope of abstracted shapes set against a deep copper background, it illustrates Tunisia’s continuing influence on his oeuvre. 

Related stories

spotlight Meet painter and printmaker David Price

The Margate-based artist talks to curator Becca Pelly-Fry about his fascination with brash, colourful ‘non-art’, and the edition he’s made for our Curated Editions collection, New Mythologies.

spotlight Ele Pack’s new beginnings and emotion-filled abstracts

Upon the release of our latest collection with artist Ele pack, we caught up with her to discuss her recent relocation to Derbyshire, and the new direction of her work.

spotlight David Hockney’s collectible exhibition posters

Discover the collectible exhibition posters Hockney designed for Tate, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Opera and more.

spotlight Meet London-based design studio Oscar Francis

Join us as we talk to Sarah Evans, the architect turned artist behind London-based design studio Oscar Francis about her work, inspirations and her experience of life as an artist during lockdown.

spotlight Brighton-based mixed-media artist VeeBee’s technicolour works

Learn more about her unusual nocturnal art practice, her beloved cat ‘NooNoo’, and the vibrant portraits she creates of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and more.

spotlight Rosco Brittin’s impossibly intricate floral collages

Based in London, quirky collage artist Rosco Brittin tells us about his animal muses and an intriguing 'spirit genie' that offers him creative fuel...

spotlight Meet Hastings-based abstract landscape painter Louise

Join us as we catch up with Hastings-based abstract landscape painter Louise Body to discuss fisherman’s smocks, juggling work and home life, and her previous career as a wallpaper designer. 

spotlight Must-see autumn exhibitions

Discover our top picks, brought to you by many of our long-standing museum and art gallery partners including V&A, Charleston Trust, and Tate.

spotlight Meet London painter and collage artist Andy Barker

As Howard Hodgkin’s studio assistant for over 22 years, Andy Barker accompanied him on several trips to his beloved India. Find out more about his new print inspired by a tree he spotted from Hodgkin’s balcony.

spotlight Curated Editions: Meet Emma Cousin

London-based painter Emma Cousin uses the figure as a mechanism to explore phenomenological experiences.

spotlight Paul Klee, Louis Moilliet, and Auguste Macke’s trip to Tunisia

Though they didn’t know it at the time, when three Swiss-German artists travelled around Tunisia for two weeks in 1914, they changed the course of twentieth-century art.

spotlight Matisse cut-outs colour matched with guidance from The Matisse Estate

Henri Matisse’s original cut-outs were last exhibited at Tate Modern in 2014. To keep the spirit of these seminal works alive, we have obtained the rights to produce these vibrant works as part of our Tate collection.

spotlight Meet London-based collage artist Scarlett Bowman

Scraps of fabric found at markets, toxic colours, and traffic cones – these are just some of the things that influence London-based collage artist Scarlett Bowman.

spotlight Rare Film Posters: Hollywood giants and iconic actors

Join us as we take a closer look at some of the world’s best-loved blockbusters that feature in our Rare Film Poster archive.

spotlight Art Deco travel posters by A.M. Cassandre

A.M. Cassandre’s early work afforded him instant acclaim. We delve deeper into the journey he took to become one of the most sought-after commercial illustrators of his generation, creating works such as Normandie, Nord Express, and many more influential graphic design posters.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Be the first to hear about our new collections, limited edition launches, and enjoy artist interviews.

By subscribing you agree to our privacy policy.

Contact us: customer care
01273 511 942
Email us
Mon–Fri, 9 am–5 pm

All art prints and images on this website are copyright protected and belong to their respective owners. All rights reserved.