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Volume 42, Number 3May/June 1991

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Travels in Tunisia

Written by June Taboroff


For Klee and Macke, Swiss and German respectively, the 1914 journey was not only their first voyage to North Africa: It was their first venture outside Europe at all. Moilliet, Klee's compatriot, had visited Tunisia twice before, in the summer of 1908 and again for three months in 1909-10, and it was his descriptions of the country that had impelled his friends to see it for themselves. And artistically, the prospect was heady stuff: Their fellow painters Kandinsky and Matisse had visited Tunisia and the trips had unquestionably influenced their painting. Finally, there was Jaggi, a Swiss doctor who lived in Tunis with his family. Moilliet had met him on his previous visits, and he had invited Moilliet to return and bring his old schoolmate Paul Klee. The die was cast.

Financial obstacles had already forced the three painters to abandon a planned trip in 1913, but now all three were subsidized by their families and patrons, and all expected to sell the works they were going to paint in Tunisia. Macke sold his brother's motorcycle to pay for his share of the trip, although, according to Klee, his art was already "selling pretty well." Moilliet offered to advance Klee money in exchange for paintings: Klee had been exhibiting widely for some two years, but had not yet begun to sell his work.

After only a day's voyage from Marseilles, the three painters reached the port of Tunis. "The harbor and city ... were behind us," wrote Klee of his first glimpse of Tunisia, "slightly hidden. First, we passed down a long canal. On shore, very close, our first Arabs. The sun has a dark power. The colorful clarity on shore full of promise. Macke too feels it. We both know that we shall work well here."

Indeed, in the span of only two weeks, Klee created nearly 50 watercolors and hundreds of sketches and Macke took many photographs as well as making hundreds of sketches and watercolors. Moilliet worked at a more deliberate pace: Only three watercolors and five drawings are known from his stay in Tunisia, although he would gather a mental image-bank that he would use in his work for many years.

Klee's diary continues to describe their arrival: "The docking in the modest, somber harbor very impressive. The first Orientals we saw close up were those on the banks of the canal...." Macke, more than Klee and Moilliet, was fascinated by Tunisian dress and the Tunisian way of life, and produced a series of sketches that have both ethnographic and artistic value. With rapid strokes, he rendered scenes in the -suq, or marketplace, and the narrow streets of the medina, or old city.

The evening of their arrival, Dr. Jaggi took them on "a nocturnal walk through the Arab town." "Reality and dream simultaneously, and myself makes a third in the party, completely at home here. This will be fine," Klee wrote. The next day he remarked, "My head is full of the impressions of last night's walk. Art - nature -self. Went to work at once and painted in watercolor in the Arab quarter."

The old Arab town he was depicting was once one of the greatest cities in the world, and although it had lost some of its importance, it had lost none of its allure. An earlier traveler described it as "white, domed, studded with minarets, honeycombed with tunnel-like bazaars," and it remains unlike anything to be found in Europe. The narrow streets, bustling with crowds or quietly lined with palaces and historic buildings, inspired the artists. Klee noted, "Began the synthesis of urban architecture and pictorial architecture. Not yet pure, but quite attractive."

What sort of place was the Tunisia that the three European artists discovered as their own continent hovered on the brink of the Great War? Tunisia entered its 33rd year of French occupation in 1914 in a period of general economic growth and active European immigration. By 1900, European settlers were estimated to make up almost five percent of the population: 25,000 were French, but they were outnumbered by some 70,000 Italians. Klee wrote in his travel diary, "Tunis is Arab in the first place, Italian in the second, and French only in the third. But the French act as if they were the masters." European influence was to be seen in the wide boulevards and the art-nouveau and arte nova buildings that had been constructed in the new areas of the city at the turn of the century. But the European aspects of Tunisia were a veneer, and they were of much less interest to the three painters than the country's traditional architecture, customs and landscapes.

Soon after their arrival, Jaggi - without a license - took the artists on a drive around town. Klee describes the ambience: "Heavy sirocco wind, clouds, the extremely subtle definition of the colors.... To the rear, a big lake [Lac de Tunis], which is said to dry up in the summer. A slight feeling of desert, threatening.... We walked a little. First into a park with very peculiar plantings. Green-yellow-terracotta." Klee was particularly attuned to city-scapes and landscapes, and took delight in the luxuriant gardens of Tunisia. The palm became one of his recurrent motifs in the Tunisian paintings and drawings.

Camaraderie, high spirits, and intense concentration marked the artists' time in Tunisia. As Klee's diary informs us and Macke's photographs illustrate, mornings and afternoons were spent drawing and painting outdoors, the days punctuated by meals and swimming. Temperatures in the mid-20's (mid-70's F) were a relief from the frigid climate of Switzerland and Germany. As guests of Jaggi and his family, the artists were shown the sights not only of Tunis, but also of Carthage and Sidi Bou Said, and invited to join the family at Jag-gi's weekend house at the beach resort of St. Germain, southeast of the city. As Klee tells us, "August [Macke]... painted a plaster wall in the dining room [and was] immediately at home in the large format, a complete scene, donkey and master, etc. I contented myself with two small pictures in the corner...."

During their days in Tunis, the artists painted scenes from the harbor and from the beach of St. Germain. While there, Klee had an important realization. "Some watercolors on the beach and from the bal-ony... [c]ould have been painted near Marseilles just as well. In the second [watercolor], I encountered Africa for the first time.... The heat overhead probably helped." Klee now began to grasp the elements of Tunisia, its light, colors and forms. His diary reveals his impressions: "The prospect across the water was splendidly beautiful, but not extravagant. Everything has great dignity... The evening is indescribable." He speaks of an "internal affair to keep me busy for the next few years" and notes that "the evening is deep within me forever."

Sidi Bou Said, a cliff-top village northeast of Tunis, was then as now a place of extraordinary charm. "Sidi Bou Said," wrote Klee, "the town that we first saw from the ship. Drove all the way up.... The town lies so beautifully up there and looks far over the sea.... Stopped by a garden gate and began a watercolor sketch."

The first building on the cliff top was a ribat, or fort, built in the early years of Arab rule, but the village grew up around the tomb of a 13th-century man revered for his virtue, Sidi Bou Said. By the turn of the century it was "discovered" by wealthy French and other expatriates who bought houses there and went to great lengths to preserve the town's charm. Even today, the impetus of civic pride has continued: The town was awarded an Aga Khan Architecture Award in 1980 for "the action of a community to conserve its town; an already old historic preservation law," the citation noted, "was able to preserve not only the picturesque but the very essence of the town."

Almost every artist visiting Tunisia spends some time in Sidi Bou Said's central square, around the Cafe des Nattes. Klee portrayed this scene of cubical white houses and blue-studded doorways. Macke photographed the scene and sketched it.

Carthage was the next stop on the artists' itinerary. Klee notes, "We were soon to see clearly that Rome's victory over Carthage was absolute.... This site is more beautiful than the place where Tunis is situated ... more open to the sea, with more of a panorama...." Carthage was a subject of great romantic interest. The English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner produced a painting called Carthage Story, while Flaubert published Salamtnbo, a historical novel set in Carthage, in 1862 (See Aramco World , September-October 1988). But Klee, Macke and Moilliet's interests were directed elsewhere.

For a train trip south to Hammamet and Kairouan, the three artists were at the station at 6:00 a.m. Klee described the trip: "A small queue in front of the ticket booth.... Beautiful voyage. Serious forest.... We looked into a garden where a dromedary was working at the cistern. Downright biblical." They were excited by what they were discovering of the country.

At the turn of the century, Hammamet had been a small fishing village which made some extra dinars by selling lemons from its dense citrus groves to Sicily for export to America. In the 1920's, the international set arrived, and soon Hammamet became part of the world's Orientalist legend of a "sensual" Tunisia. Today, with some 40 hotels, it is Tunisia's most important resort.

"The city is magnificent," related Klee, "right by the sea, full of bends and sharp corners. Now and then I get a look at the ramparts! In the streets more women are to be seen than in Tunis.... The reeds and bushes provide a beautiful rhythm of patches. Superb gardens in the vicinity. Giant cactuses form walls. A path with cactuses... Painted a good deal and sauntered around." Some of Klee's finest Tunisian works were painted in Hammamet, the landscapes and the garden scenes vibrant with color.

They boarded the train again for Kairouan. "Magnificent trip through more and more desert-like country..." notes Klee. The three artists set out to discover "this marvelous Kairouan." They quickly found themselves in the midst of Tunisia's oldest Arab city, and one of the most important centers of Islam after Makka, Madina, and Jerusalem. Known historically for its magnificent architecture and as a center of learning, Kairouan became a successful market town for agricultural goods - apricots and almonds are grown nearby - and as a major producer of carpets and cigarettes.

"At first an overwhelming tumult, culminating that night with the Manage arabe...," Klee recorded. "The essence of A Thousand and One Nights, with a ninety-nine percent reality content.... How intoxicating, and at the same time clarifying." The next morning the artists were out painting. Klee explains: "In the morning, painted outside the city; a gently diffused light falls, at once mild and clear.... In the afternoon,... the mosque. The sun darted through, and how!... In the evening, through the streets. A cafe decorated with ... beautiful watercolors.... An evening of colors as tender as they were clear." Klee reached a new state of equilibrium as an artist. "I feel [my work] and it gives me confidence in myself without effort," he wrote. "Color possesses me. I don't have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color and I are one. I am a painter."

The next day Klee continued painting the cityscape. "In the morning, again painted outside the town, close to the wall, on a sand hill. Then went on a walk alone, because I was so overflowing, out through a gate, where a few trees stand."

The artists left Kairouan overwhelmed by their visual impressions. Klee felt that he must "be alone; what I had experienced was too powerful. I had to leave to regain my senses." Macke and Moilliet too "have had their [inner] experience," according to Klee. He characterized Macke as "facile and brilliant," and Moilliet as "dreamy."

Their brief but vivid fortnight in Tunisia over, they prepared for departure from Tunis. Klee mused, "Many watercolors and all sorts of other things. Most of it is inside me, deep inside.... I felt somewhat restless, my cart was overloaded...."

The years following the Tunisia trip brought dramatic changes to the lives of all three artists. Macke, indeed, met his death in Champagne less than six months later, in the first months of World War I. His letters from Tunisia had described the exhilaration he felt there: He was "like a bull which leaps from a dark stall into a clear arena, filled with colorful matadors." He speaks of "a joy in working that I have never known." Macke found his personal style during the last years of his life and was especially stimulated by the beauty of nature. The large body of work that he produced in Tunisia - watercolors, pen sketches, pencil sketches, and an oil painting - reveal much about his poetic view of the world. Moilliet, who lived until 1962, also went on to develop the vocabulary of images that he encountered in Tunisia.

At least as much as for his two companions, the Tunisia journey was profoundly important for Paul Klee, for it was during this time that he gathered and concentrated the power necessary to create his personal voice: The Tunisian experience seemed to release his gift for color and to point out to him the variety of patterns and rhythms of nature - yet it also changed the nature of his art away from figurative description and toward a form that he later described as "abstract, with memories."

All three artists left a legacy of intense and powerful works - and a key to the allure of Tunisia.

June Taboroff, who earned her Ph.D. at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, writes about Middle Eastern arts and landscapes.

This article appeared on pages 10-19 of the May/June 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1991 images.