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 Curated Editions: Meet Lindsey Bull

Interested in figures of an indeterminate gender, Manchester-based painter Lindsey Bull’s figurative works explore psychological states and how they manifest in the external world.

spotlight Curated Editions: Meet Henry Hussey

Henry Hussey creates artworks that are emotionally raw. His work is often created with force through often paradoxically laboured mediums, including textile, glass, ceramic, paint and film.

spotlight Curated Editions: Meet Rebecca Byrne

Inspired by nostalgia and fantastical landscapes, American painter Rebecca Byrne’s work is colourful, gestural, and touchingly optimistic. She talks to curator Becca-Pelly Fry about memories of growing up on a farm on the outskirts of Chicago in the 1980s, how her work has changed since she moved to London, and the edition she’s made for our inaugural Curated Editions collection, New Mythologies.

spotlight Curated Editions: Meet collage artist Ambrosine Allen

Ambrosine Allen’s work is intricate, delicate and multi-layered. Mystical landscapes and dramatic scenes are built from thousands of tiny fragments of collage, painstakingly assembled over many hours, days and weeks.

spotlight Curated Editions: Meet painter Dee Ferris

Dee Ferris’ work pushes against the serenity of idealised travel images found in books and glossy magazines. With a keen eye for colour and narrative, her exquisite landscapes are at once peaceful and intentionally unsettled. 

spotlight Must-see winter exhibitions

Discover our top picks, brought to you by many of our long-standing museum and art gallery partners including The Royal Academy, The National Gallery and The Courtauld.

spotlight The beautiful game: famous football prints

Learn about the stories behind the famous football prints and posters in our collection.

spotlight Bella Freud’s prints go on display in her Marylebone store

The celebrated designer’s new prints are now on display at her beautiful store in Marylebone. Here are a few highlights from the launch event. 

spotlight RARE: Four original 1994 Pulp Fiction posters 

Join us as we dive into the ‘Tarantinoverse’, exploring some of our favourite characters depicted in these original ‘Pulp Fiction’ posters, originally displayed in contemporary movie theatre foyers

spotlight Meet celebrated designer Bella Freud

We catch up with Bella at King & McGaw to discuss the stories behind her most famous designs and the new special edition prints she’s produced with us.

spotlight Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ – an artwork for eternity

Since its genesis in the nineteenth century, Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa’, has swept the world with its sublime beauty. We explore how the Japanese artist’s woodblock prints fascinated the likes of Vincent van Gogh, and still manage to beguile viewers today.

spotlight A change in season: Autumnal Vogue illustration covers

To welcome in the change of season, we revisit some of our favourite Vogue cover illustrations from our exclusive archive.

spotlight Coming soon: Bella Freud

Arriving in November, an exclusive series of screen prints and limited edition prints by celebrated designer Bella Freud, drawn from her historic design archive.

Subscribe to our newsletter

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.