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