Die Tunisreise: the legacy of Der Blaue Reiter in the art of Paul Klee and Nacer Khemir

Sarah McGavran

AMONG the principle concerns of Blaue Reiter were artistic exchanges between the so-called east and west and the relationship between the abstract and the spiritual.1 These ideas shaped the Swiss artist Paul Klee’s engagement with the arts of Tunisia. In turn, they determined his legacy for Tunisian artist, writer, filmmaker and professional storyteller Nacer Khemir. In Die Tunisreise or The Journey to Tunisia, a 2007 film directed by the Swiss filmmaker Bruno Moll, Khemir reflects on the significance of Klee’s famous Tunisian watercolours for his own diverse oeuvre. In a 2011 interview with the author at Khemir’s home in Paris, he elaborated: until he saw Klee’s Tunisian watercolours, which he believes draw from the abstract geometric forms of Tunisian architecture, ceramics and textiles, Khemir did not see Tunisian visual culture as a source for his own contemporary artistic expression. As Khemir put it: ‘Klee offered me the gift of my world.’2

In Die Tunisreise, Khemir, whose own films have won awards at international festivals, acts as a local travel guide.3 He leads viewers on a cinematic journey to the Tunisian sites and monuments that Klee and his Blaue Reiter companions, August Macke (1887–1914) and Louis Moilliet (1880–1962), visited for just under two weeks in April 1914.4 Throughout the film, Kheimr asserts that Klee intuited that the purpose of Islamic abstraction is to convey something beyond the visible world, and drew inspiration from it while in Tunisia and for the rest of his career. Bruno Moll, who makes television documentaries and independent films, remains off screen as director. As Moll explained to me during an in-person interview in Bern in 2011, he found it difficult to see the visual connections between Klee’s art and contemporary Tunisia.5 His inability to identify with Klee and Khemir adds critical distance to this multi-layered film.

Khemir has claimed an affinity with the Swiss Klee in the film, in his writings, and in an interview with the author at his Paris home in 2011.6 Scholars criticized the idea of affinity between modern artists and non-western art and locales in the wake of the exhibition Primitivism in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984 on the grounds that formal similarities do not necessarily convey similar intentions.7 Khemir’s affinity for Klee runs in the opposite direction – from North Africa to Europe – he nevertheless assumes a sense of shared purpose and understanding across time and cultures. As I shall explain in further detail below, the framework of modernist primitivism from which this criticism arose nevertheless helps historicize Klee’s Tunisian journey and Khemir’s reception thereof. Primitivism may be understood as the process wherein artists adapt the aesthetics of African and Oceanic art in order to critique academic art, and the social and economic institutions that supported it. Indeed, by claiming that Klee drew inspiration from the Islamic and Bedouin visual cultures of Tunisia to develop a new style, Khemir indirectly claims that Klee’s work was primitivist.

This chapter argues that Der Blaue Reiter’s interest in non-western art shaped Klee’s engagement with the cultural production of Tunisia and therefore provides a historical basis for Khemir’s contemporary work and self-fashioning. In turn, Khemir’s interpretation of Klee’s Tunisian watercolours and related works suggest new avenues of scholarly inquiry about Klee’s art and writings, both of which are often considered within the framework of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which emphasizes the dominance of the European colonizer and pertains to the Holy Land, the Middle East and North Africa.8 However, the Tunisian journey was the brief touristic encounter of German-speaking artists with a French colony, and the documentary evidence suggests that the artists’ contact with Tunisians was limited.9 Thus, Homi Bhabha’s post-colonial theory, which emphasizes the uneven cultural exchange and interaction between European colonizers and colonized peoples over time, is more helpful here.10 Khemir also provides a concrete example of inverse cultural exchange, from west (Klee) to east (Khemir), but one that took place over a much longer period than did Klee’s short trip to Tunisia in 1914.

Khemir’s affinity for Klee stems from his perception, which he reiterates throughout Die Tunisreise, that Klee intuited that the purpose of Islamic abstraction is to convey something beyond the visible world. Evoking the spiritual was indeed one of Klee’s aims. In his Schöpferische Konfession (Creative Credo, 1920), he asserted that ‘art does not reproduce the visible, but rather makes visible’.11 Furthermore, art ‘allows you to cast aside the pall and imagine moments of the divine. To always look forward to the end of the day, when the soul returns to the table to nourish its hungry nerves and to replenish its empty vessels with new wine’.12 As Khemir explained to me, in Islamic art, the most important ideas cannot be represented literally. To represent visually that which is invisible, forms must be simplified to the point of abstraction. For Khemir, Klee’s work evokes the spiritual because of ‘the apparent poverty of his tools … the great simplicity of his language’.13

During our interview, Khemir also explained why he thought Klee saw potential in Tunisian visual culture where other modernists did not. He says that Klee was unfettered by nationalism and xenophobia, and therefore considered Tunisians as equals who had something to teach him about his own art: ‘Westerners always look at Orientals in the same way. [Generalizing] is a way to get past their own [spiritual] poverty, to assert their superiority. You have to be somebody conscious of your own self to […] look at people you meet as equal. It’s universal, his universal side, a universal consciousness. He was advanced in his humanity’.14 By universal, Khemir means that Klee was open to and able to assimilate influences from various cultures into his work. Klee’s art is therefore of utmost interest to Khemir, who likewise wishes to convey the invisible, or the spiritual, through art. As discussed below in further detail, Khemir goes a step further than Klee. His films mediate between disparate cultures by instigating cross-cultural dialogues about the diversity of Islam.

Die Tunisreise juxtaposes documentary material with works of art, clips from Khemir’s films and his commentary on the Tunisian journey, calling into question the notion of affinity across divergent historical and cultural contexts. Additionally, Macke’s photographs of colonial Tunisia, lingering close-up shots of Klee’s Tunisian and Oriental-themed watercolours and footage of contemporary Tunisia underscore the temporal divide that separates Klee and Khemir. The director Moll’s juxtaposition of this material distinguishes his own perspective from that of Khemir. In this way, he calls into question Khemir’s interpretation of Klee as unique in his reception of Islamic and Tunisian art and architecture.

Beyond orientalism

The words ‘Oriental’ and ‘Orientalist’ are used here in the sense of Edward Said’s influential 1978 study Orientalism, which the scholars discussed below have justifiably criticized. Khemir has adapted the late Palestinian scholar’s definition of the term, although he claims that he does not engage directly with scholarly discourses.15 Said argued that when Europeans represented the ‘Orient’ as an irrational dream world, such representations suggested that its people could not rule themselves, which became a means to justify colonial rule by the ‘Occident’.16 Said also observed that the idea of the ‘Oriental’ journey as a process of self-discovery for the western tourist shared colonialism’s exploitation of economic and cultural resources without regard for its inhabitants.17 Over the last four decades, scholars like John Mackenzie have observed that Said generalized about both the east and the west and did not historicize his argument.18 Bhabha has also criticized Said’s emphasis on the unequal power relations between Europe and its colonies.19 He proposed instead that cultural exchange is always reciprocal, no matter how uneven.20

The significance of this body of theory cannot be underestimated. It has provided Klee scholars with a rubric for analysing the artist’s Orientalist posturing in his diaries. At the same time, the frameworks of Orientalism and post-colonial theory sometimes lead scholars to return to the same questions again and again. In Paul Klee and the Decorative in Modern Art, Jenny Anger argues that Klee presented his Tunisian journey as Orientalist self-discovery similar to that of his romantic precursor Eugène Delacroix, who had journeyed to Morocco and Algeria in 1832.21 The 2009 Zentrum Paul Klee exhibition catalogue In Search of the Orient (Auf der Suche nach dem Orient) also focuses on Klee’s self-fashioning. On the one hand, exhibition co-curator Michael Baumgartner examines the critical reception of the myth of Klee’s affinity with the ‘Orient’ in the 1920s.22 On the other, Christoph Otterbeck distinguishes fact from fiction in the artist’s diaries and meticulously kept oeuvre catalogue, which Klee also altered in late 1921 in order to include several of the Tunisian watercolours that he had previously regarded as mere sketches.23 Khemir’s reception of Klee encourages re-evaluation of the historical circumstances surrounding this body of work and a broadening of the theoretical scope so that it is possible to move beyond the issue of the artist’s revised diaries and oeuvre catalogue.

A cinematic journey

Die Tunisreise is an essay film, a genre based on literary and photo essays. Unlike documentary films, it combines still and moving images to present a historical subject from personal and subjective viewpoints. This multivalent approach allows for several layers of meaning.24 Like Klee and Khemir, the film’s director, Moll, aims to convey intangible ideas. During approximately ten days of shooting in Tunisia, roughly the same length of time that Klee and his companions spent there in 1914, Moll filmed scenes of urban and rural Tunisia. These were shot in order to create visual metaphors for Klee’s theories of abstraction in his surroundings and designed to reinforce Khemir’s contention that these ideas originated in Tunisia.25 For example, in one scene a voice-over reads Klee’s assertion that one must study nature closely but avoid becoming caught up in the details. Moll uses the distinct properties of the medium of film to invite close looking but to make it impossible to fixate on minutiae: the camera zooms in on and pans across blurry, bright yellow flowers blowing in the breeze on the Tunisian shoreline. He also uses still shots of picturesque architecture bisected by bold shadows that evoke Klee’s abstracted geometric forms, as in Before the Gates of Kairuan, 1914 (figure 8.1). This device replicates the artist’s gaze for cinemagoers, helping them to view these sites as if they were seeking out motifs to paint as well.

Klee’s diary entries from April 1914 determine Khemir’s itinerary in Die Tunisreise: from Tunis to Kairuan, the fourth holiest city in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Since Moll was aware that Klee later revised his diaries, he selected freely from other entries, which ultimately span the years from 1898 to 1918, and from the artist’s other published writings on abstraction. For Moll the diaries are to be understood as fiction, not as falsified historical documents, as art historians have so often treated them.26 The passages chosen by Moll in turn prompt Khemir’s personal reflections on Klee’s work and on the broader relationships between Europe and the ‘Orient’. Along the way, Khemir points out the art, architecture, ceramic painting and metalwork that may have inspired Klee, as well as discussing the arts of Islam more generally. For example, in one scene in the old city of Tunis, he moves away some items from a market stall to reveal ceramic tiles painted with two lively figures standing under a tree. It is particularly important for him that viewers recognize that there is a tradition of figuration within Islamic art. In the film, he says he thinks Klee must have understood this since his abstract landscapes of Tunisia, such as Before the Gates of Kairuan (1914), often include representational elements. Khemir thereby attempts to dispel a common misconception about Islamic art and provides a point of comparison between the visual culture of Tunisia and Klee’s watercolours.

8.1 Paul Klee, Before the Gates of Kairuan, 1914, 216. Bern: Zentrum Paul Klee.

The following lines from Klee’s Tunisian diaries are significant for Khemir, who refers to them in his film:

My head full of impressions from yesterday evening. Art/Nature/Self. Got to work right away and painted watercolours in the Arab quarter. Grasped the synthesis of built architecture and pictorial architecture. Not yet pure, but still enticing, [the work conveys] the mood and excitement of travel, and something of the Self.27

For Khemir this passage demonstrates that Klee did not merely use objects of ‘Oriental’ art as props in exotic scenes, a practice that characterizes much of the nineteenth-century academic Orientalist traditions of painting by artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) and to which I will return below. Rather, he claims that Klee adapted the architecture of the medina as a compositional model. Khemir’s on-camera observations suggest that Klee’s approach was not Orientalist but rather primitivist in that it adapts non-western abstraction to restructure compositions and challenge art and the institutions that it upheld: the church and state. In this way, the primitivist approach stands in stark contrast to Orientalist painting, which is characterized by realism.

8.2 Paul Klee, View Towards the Harbour of Hammamet, 1914, 35. Bern: Private Collection.

In order to visualize the ways in which the Tunisian landscape and architecture may have inspired Klee in his new surroundings, Moll juxtaposes what are often generic shots of contemporary Tunisia with close-ups of the artist’s watercolours. For example, Moll shoots a shimmering aqua sea and dusty blue sky as abstract fields of colour without any other visual references that might anchor them in a particular time and place. These liquid blues then provide a visual link to Klee’s watercolour View Towards the Harbour of Hammamet (1914, figure 8.2), which is rendered in a palette of sheer cobalt, aqua and pink. In my interview with him, Moll revealed that during the brief period of filming, it was in fact difficult to recognize the Tunisia Klee portrayed.28 Moll said that the visual similarities between the live action shots and Klee’s paintings and writings are so general because the Swiss filmmaker failed to see the connection himself. He told me that it was not so much what Klee saw in Tunisia that informed his art, but what took place in the artist’s imagination.29 To alleviate his sense of dissatisfaction, Moll incorporated clips from Khemir’s films, which are set in a generalized ‘Orient’, to help to fill in the gaps between what Klee could have seen, what he wrote about and what he painted. Moll explained that these additional scenes from Khemir’s films allowed him to show locations that he did not receive permission to film himself and, indeed, that are often forbidden to the western viewer in general: courtyard gardens, the interiors of mosques and the faces of veiled women.30

Moll’s montages of Khemir’s films and Klee’s watercolours establish further points of contrast. In one instance, Moll pairs a close-up, panning shot of the crenelated walls of Kairuan with a voice-over from Klee’s diaries of the artist’s first impressions of the city; after arriving in the afternoon, he had tea and went out to explore the city:

Then a great delirium, which culminated at night with an Arab wedding. Nothing separate or distinct, only the entirety. And what an entirety! One Thousand and One Nights as an extract with 99% of the content true to reality. What an aroma, how permeating, how intoxicating, how enlightening at the same time. Authentic dishes and stimulating beverages. Escalation and intoxication. The burning of scented wood.?Homeland? [sic]31

An enchanting song from Khemir’s feature film Bab’Aziz: The Prince who Contemplated his Soul (2005), in part a re-imagining of One Thousand and One Nights, accompanies this evocative description of the intoxicating scents and tastes of the so-called Orient, as if it were the very music Klee himself had heard at the Arab wedding. Moll then splices in an almost surreal scene from Bab’Aziz, a film about a young girl and her grandfather, who wander the desert in search of a gathering of Sufi dervishes. The clip shows Ishtar discovering three mysterious veiled women in a courtyard of an isolated desert abode. When Ishtar lifts the veil of the woman seated in the centre, she sings. After the song is finished, the little girl lowers the woman’s veil and runs back inside, past a whirling dervish. She then exits the building and climbs to the roof in order to view the extraordinary events from a tiny domed skylight (figure 8.3).

After this heady display, Moll cuts to Klee’s Before the Gates of Kairuan, in which a tiny white dome rises unassumingly from the desert landscape. It is as if one has been awakened from an Orientalist dream by a bright ray of sunlight. The sounds of early morning birds chirping reinforce this impression. Ultimately, the scene from Bab’Aziz and Klee’s watercolour share the formal element of the dome, which indeed has spiritual connotations in both the east and the west. However, the mood of the film and the watercolour are very different. Thus, Moll underscores the similarities between the Khemir’s cinematic fantasy worlds and the Swiss artist’s imaginative writings but indirectly questions whether Klee’s abstract watercolours share the Orientalist propensity towards fantasy.

8.3 Film still from Nacer Khemir, Bab’Aziz: The Prince who Contemplated his Soul, 2005.

The soundtrack of Die Tunisreise likewise emphasizes the cultural and temporal divides separating Klee and Khemir. The voice-over reads Klee’s diaries in the original German, Khemir speaks French and the characters in his own movies speak Tunisian Arabic, classical Arabic and Farsi. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites provide the soundtrack for the scenes about Klee, who was also an accomplished violinist, while the song of a Tunisian nay, or reed pipe, player and the muezzin’s call to prayer accompany the shots of contemporary Tunisia. Music that evokes traditional Arab melodies brings Khemir’s fantasy world to life. In this way, Moll conveys his own scepticism about the mysterious communion between Klee and Khemir. At the same time, he suggests that their common aim, to convey something beyond the visible world, unites them across time and space.

Der Blaue Reiter and Islamic art

As Die Tunisreise relies heavily on Klee’s diaries, the artist comes across as an isolated genius without any substantial ties to a specific cultural milieu. However, what Khemir believes is Klee’s insightful interpretation of Islamic and Tunisian art and architecture is unthinkable outside the context of Der Blaue Reiter. These artists were committed to artistic exchange and crossover, between European and non-western art and between the members of the group.32 However, whereas Khemir says he thinks that Klee intuited the significance of Tunisian visual culture because he was ‘advanced in his humanity’, it is also likely that the Swiss artist also learned about non-western art from his fellow artists in the Blaue Reiter.

The 1912 publication Der Blaue Reiter proposed that modern artists should draw inspiration from a range of ‘primitive’ arts – which were uninhibited by the teachings of the official academy – including folk art, children’s drawings, Oceanic sculpture and even the popular arts of the ‘Orient’, presented in the form of Egyptian shadow puppets. However, the formative influence of Der Blaue Reiter’s primitivism has often been over-looked with respect to Klee’s Tunisian and Oriental-themed works, in part because they have been considered within the framework of Orientalist art since the early 1980s.33 Additionally, in his diaries, Klee downplayed the significance of August Macke and Louis Moilliet, his travelling companions and fellow members of Der Blaue Reiter, in order to assert his own artistic individuality. He claimed that travelling to Tunisia was a spiritual homecoming that allowed him to discover his individual artistic style and distinctive palette: ‘I leave work behind. It penetrates me so deeply and mildly, I feel it and become more confident, without strain. Color has me. I don’t need to chase after it. It has me forever, I know it. That is the significance of this happy hour: color and I are one. I am a painter’.34 This passage, which is preceded by a description of Klee’s tourist activities – shopping and drinking tea in Kairuan – conveys the notion of a special affinity between the artist and an unfamiliar landscape. Throughout the film and in his other interviews and writings, Khemir reinforces Klee’s assertion of a mysterious connection to Tunisia and asserts his own affinity with Klee as an artist who traverses national and cultural borders to arrive at a more universal and spiritual art.

Khemir says in the film that Klee’s work showed him how his culture could be modern, with emphasis on the word modern. Nevertheless, it was artists who would found Der Blaue Reiter who came to see Islamic art as a basis for modern European art in Munich in 1910. That year, Wassily Kandinsky, August Macke and Franz Marc saw Islamic art displayed as if it were modern European art at the groundbreaking Exhibition of Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art.35 The uncluttered installation was inspired by the aesthetic programme of the Deutscher Werkbund.36 According to its curator, Friedrich Sarre, this was a strategy to rectify public conceptions of Islamic art as colourful fantasy or as commercial goods sold at the bazaar. As such, it was a direct counterpoint to displays of Islamic and North African art in exhibitions of decorative art and at world’s fairs and colonial exhibitions.37

Around the time of the 1910 exhibition, Wassily Kandinsky was refining his ideas about abstract art as a harbinger of the spiritual. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky argued that while colour had psychological resonance, the artist imbued the work of art with spiritual significance by arranging colour harmoniously on the canvas.38 Similarly, in their catalogue entries, the curators of the 1910 exhibition in Munich emphasized composition, while black-and-white reproductions of individual works set against white backgrounds complemented their specific focus on design over colour. The masterpieces exhibited in Munich were historical objects from the eighteenth century or before. Isolating the works of art against a plain background was profoundly significant: it asserted that Islamic art had a place in the modern world. Moreover, previous exhibitions of Islamic art had presented it as fodder for designers.39 Conversely, the organizers explicitly stated in the 1910 exhibition guide that the works should provide inspiration to modern artists. Its aim was to demonstrate ‘that the creations of Mohammadean art have earned an equal place next to those of other cultural epochs, and that, in its colour harmony, in its ornamental grandeur it is especially suited to provide modern art with new stimuli and possibly to show it a new path’.40 As a result of a combination of the curators’ emphasis on composition, the innovative display and the direct appeal to modern artists, Kandinsky, Franz Marc and August Macke, soon to become founding members of Der Blaue Reiter in late 1911, came to see Islamic abstraction as exemplary to their own concerns.

Marc made the direct connection between Kandinsky’s abstract paintings and the art on view at the 1910 Munich exhibition:

It is too bad that Kandinsky’s great Composition (II) and a few others cannot be hung next to the Mohammedean carpets at the exhibition grounds. A comparison would be unavoidable and how instructional for us all! Wherein lies our astonished wonderment at this Oriental art? Does it not playfully show us the limit of our European definitions of painting? Its arts of color and composition are thousand-fold more profound and put our conventional theories to shame. In Germany there is hardly a decorative object, let alone a carpet, that we can hang next to these. If we try it with Kandinsky’s Compositions, they would hold up to this dangerous challenge, and not as carpets, but rather as ‘images’. What artistic intuition this rare painter has recovered! The great significance of his colors balances out the freedom of his drawing – is this not at the same time a definition of painting?41

In Marc’s estimation, the Oriental carpets at the Munich exhibition transcended the category of decorative arts, just as Kandinsky’s abstract compositions defied conventional notions of painting. Marc hailed Oriental carpets as modern because, like Kandinsky’s artwork, they challenged traditional European ideas about what art could be. In other words, neither decorative objects nor conventional oil paintings but only the most innovative recent painting could hold its own against these carpets. By orchestrating the composition according to colour relationships, both the carpets and Kandinsky’s compositions struck a balance between intuition and intellect. Recall that the German word Geist, the driving concept in Kandinsky’s book, for which there is no precise English equivalent, incorporates both of these terms. Thus, just a year before the founding of Der Blaue Reiter, Marc argued that both Kandinsky’s paintings and Oriental carpets exemplified the spiritual in art.

In 1910, Klee divided his time between Munich and Bern, and it is unknown whether he attended the exhibition. He never referred to the 1910 exhibition in his writings, but as Klee expert Michael Baumgartner points out, he could have known the massive two-volume catalogue or heard about the exhibition from Kandinsky, Marc or his travelling companion August Macke.42 Before joining Der Blaue Reiter, Klee’s primitivism had encompassed children’s art and folk art. Given the founding members’ positive reception of Islamic art in the 1910 exhibition and the enthusiasm they expressed for non-western art in Der Blaue Reiter in 1912, it is plausible that the group set the precedent for Klee’s engagement with Tunisian architecture, art and visual culture.

Khemir says that the work of Klee’s companions is less relevant to him because their scenes of everyday life are more naturalistic. In the interview in 2011, he explained that Macke focused on the anecdotal and that the journey did not change his essential mode of representation, whereas he thinks that in Tunisia Klee adapted a new mode of composition grounded in Bedouin and Islamic abstraction. Specifically, ‘as soon as Klee arrived in Tunisia he began to use geometric forms to make his watercolours. He left the world of appearances from the very beginning’.43 Yet Macke was killed in battle in late September 1914, and therefore had little time to develop his numerous Tunisian sketches and watercolours in the ways that Klee subsequently did. However, in his Tunisian diaries, Klee also minimized Macke’s artistic endeavours. He contrasted his own revelatory experience of painting in the Arab quarter in Tunis with Macke’s ostensible materialism: ‘Macke extols the allure of spending money’.44 Nevertheless, Klee’s postcard to Moilliet from a year before the journey tells a different story. It demonstrates that the artist originally conceived of the Tunisian journey as a study trip where the artists would inspire one another. In fact, he refused to go alone.45

Louis Moilliet, who had been to Tunisia twice before, painted little on the 1914 trip. Macke’s enthusiasm for non-western art, and especially for Islamic textiles, however, could have reinforced Klee’s budding interest in non-western art. In the years between the 1910 Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art exhibition and the 1914 journey, Macke made paintings, sketches and textile designs that were inspired by the Persian miniatures and textiles he had viewed in Munich.46 Likewise, Klee had considered using carpet designs as models for abstract paintings in the months before the trip.47 In Tunisia, both artists experimented with the aesthetics of Tunisian textiles. Nonetheless, Khemir’s view that Klee assimilated a more general aesthetic that evokes the various types of Tunisian art and architecture is prescient.

As Khemir observes, Macke’s work from the Tunisian journey represents the scenic views and local sitters typically represented in Orientalist tourist photography. For example, in Vendor with Jugs, 1914 (figure 8.4), Macke reconciles the representation of space derived from Robert Delaunay’s Orphic Cubism with the format of certain Tunisian textiles, in which motifs and patterns are set within ‘medallions’ that constitute the architectural space of the vendor’s stall (figure 8.5). The irregular grid suggests both alleys in the medina hung with carpets for sale and the vendor’s stall bursting with ceramics. Macke thereby represents daily life in a rapidly modernizing Tunisia, where cramped stalls bursting with tourist wares testify to a European presence that usually remains outside of the frame in Orientalist painting.

Khemir dismisses Macke and Moilliet in order to reinforce Klee’s persona of the isolated artistic genius, which he himself has adapted. In a text published on the website of Fama Film, the original producer for the televised version of Die Tunisreise, Khemir explains that the geometric structures of Klee’s works resemble various forms of artistic production in Tunisia, from textiles and embroideries to garden plans.48 Indeed, the irregular, grid-like composition of Klee’s Before the Gates of Kairuan may derive from any of these examples, or from the seemingly off-kilter, cramped architecture of the medina. In contrast to the slick, realistic aesthetic of academic Orientalist painting, both Macke and Klee synthesize the colourful Orphic Cubism of Robert Delaunay (1885–1941) with Tunisian cultural production in order to foreground their own presence and subjectivity. Klee’s writings also conjure the persona of the artist-traveller who has found revelation in the ‘Orient’, while his abstract watercolours complicate this notion.

Before the Gates of Kairuan bears the marks of having been made on site, as the slightly diagonal strip of blank paper at the left was likely created by the band that held the support to the drawing board. Its composition is divided horizontally into the slim strip of foreground, the patchwork landscape in the middle ground, and the bluish-purple sky. Vertical divisions within the landscape and sky create a tension between a nascent sense of depth and the flat surface, as in Cubism, while fields of earthy brown in the distance interrupt the sense of atmospheric perspective. The landscape takes up the largest part of the picture plane and harbours the greatest aesthetic interest. Klee punctuates each section of mauve, blue and ochre with dashes and wavy lines that evoke both striations in the sand and decorative elements that enliven fields of colour like symbols on a Berber carpet. Furthermore, as in Macke’s Vendor with Jugs, the deployment of tiny, simplified animals at the top right pay homage to Tunisian textiles and ceramics, which display similar motifs. Despite this field of intense visual activity, the uneven diagonals at the centre create a path that leads the eye to the tiny white dome of the marabout, or saint’s tomb, and beyond. Before the Gates of Kairuan and other works like it are abstract enough for Khemir to argue that the Swiss artist drew primarily from Tunisian visual culture to restructure his compositions, although they are also indebted to modern European art.

8.4 August Macke, Vendor with Jugs, 1914. Munster: Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kunstgeschichte, Inv. Nr. KdZ 2120 LM.

8.5 Unknown artist, Gafsa Oasis, Tunisia, nineteenth century. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Norman J. Caris, 98.272.

Khemir’s creative resistance

Khemir writes that until he saw a reproduction of one of Klee’s paintings, he conceived of objects of Tunisian visual culture, such as Bedouin carpets and embroideries, as merely functional. He does not remember the title of the painting by Klee that so inspired him, only that the embroidery of a young Bedouin woman later reminded him of that painting by Klee, and ‘in this way Paul Klee revealed to me from a distance (in time and place) the underlying source of my physical surroundings’.49 Seeing these works from Klee’s perspective led him to consider Tunisia’s art and culture more broadly as sources of inspiration for his own work. He elaborates further that Klee’s organization of space bespeaks what he thinks is a specifically ‘Arab-Muslim nature’, in which symbols and signs convey realities that cannot be seen with the naked eye.50

Khemir sees in Klee’s process the potential for creative resistance to oppression. In my interview with him, he explained that:

During the time that we had a form of dictator, each time I could I thought that if I could change things how could I do it? I’m not a political man, but I could imagine giving a child the best imagination. And to open him to the world and to what is around him. You have to take the environment as a basis. That’s where Klee helped me. Because he looked at my environment with the gaze of an artist and with it he showed me what is beautiful in my surroundings.51

For Khemir, the intellectual and creative ability to see and interpret one’s own milieu is a form of freedom. Klee’s work from the Tunisian journey and after are what Khemir says enabled him to find satisfaction in making art from and about his own surroundings. In turn, Khemir hopes that his films and books will do the same for others. Thus, the visible world also plays an important role in Khemir’s oeuvre, just as it did in Klee’s art and in that of Der Blaue Reiter.

After the revolution in Tunisia in January 2011, Khemir’s project has become more urgent. Although he asserts that he does not make art to prevent wars, he still believes that visual literacy can help promote cultural understanding, because images provide immediate access to other cultures regardless of differences in language. He further argues that learning how to view images develops critical thinking, whereas mass media stifles creativity and reinforces stereotypes. Khemir is therefore finding ways to teach children in Tunisia visual literacy:

not as a didactic lesson, but as the language of the twenty-first century, and as a source of the discovery of images in the world. Then the image can be seen as a source of humanity. It’s not a joke, it’s not a spectacle. It’s the only way to arm the child with sensibility, thanks to the richness of the emotion conveyed by the images of the world.52

In this way, Khemir hopes to expand his own practice of making art that aims to bridge cultures, which was itself initiated by his early encounters with the work of Klee. Viewing images with an open mind can help raise cross-cultural awareness, not only in post-revolutionary Tunisia, but also in the rest of the world. He therefore challenges art historians to create a more inclusive canon to further this cross-cultural dialogue: ‘To create a balance we have to work at art history […] There is a new reading of [Muslim] tradition that demands a lot of [scholarly] work’.53

Khemir’s weapons are cultural. Like Klee, who continued to make Tunisian- and ‘Oriental’-themed art during World War I, Khemir has produced art in times of war and upheaval. Both Klee and Khemir initially tried to distance themselves from the chaos of war. For example, in contrast to his Blaue Reiter colleague and friend, Franz Marc, who embraced World War I as an agent of cultural cleansing, Klee perceived it as destructive to culture as well as to life.54 Drafted by the German army as a non-combatant in 1916, Klee nevertheless cultivated a detached persona and claimed to dwell in a different reality. Most famously, in a contrived diary entry published in the 1920 catalogue of his first retrospective exhibition at Hans Goltz’s Munich gallery, he claimed: ‘I cannot be understood in this realm at all. Because I dwell just as comfortably with the dead as the unborn. Somewhat closer to the heart of creation than usual. And not nearly close enough’.55 Similarly, during the First Gulf War, Khemir told an interviewer: ‘I don’t live in reality, and my friends are perpetually surprised that I constantly talk about elsewhere’.56 In both statements, there is a tension between the inevitable ties to one’s historical context and the psychological distancing from it that helps construct the myth of the timeless artistic persona.

Khemir vacillates between his claim that he is distanced from the everyday and having openly political artistic aims. He hopes his films will counter media representations of Islam as violent and fundamentalist. In Die Tunisreise, Moll intersperses shots of Khemir and his assistants setting up a haunting installation of plaster-covered sheep skeletons on the beach (see figure 8.6). Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that this ghostly herd of sheep symbolize the fundamentalist’s loss of individual identity. The strong sense of self so evident in Klee and Khemir’s projects takes on a political edge: it allows them to resist insularity and engage with cultures different from their own.

On screen in Die Tunisreise, the Tunisian artist and filmmaker elaborates that Islam has been under double attack – by the west and by fundamentalists from within. In keeping with the genre of the essay film, Khemir’s explanation underscores his subjectivity, as both personal experience and global political events have informed his viewpoint. He says that his father, who was named after the prophet Mohammed, was sent into exile by French colonizers. In a published interview, he expanded on this point allegorically:

8.6 Yla Margrit von Dach, photograph of Nacer Khemir’s sculptural installation shown in Die Tunisreise, 2007.

If you are walking alongside your father and he suddenly falls down, his face in the mud, what would you do? You would help him stand up, and wipe his face with your shirt. My father’s face stands for Islam, and I tried to wipe Islam’s face clean with my movie, by showing an open, tolerant and friendly Islamic culture, full of love and wisdom … an Islam that is different from the one depicted by the media in the aftermath of 9/11.57

For Khemir, both the west and the east have forgotten the world of Islam that he believes Klee understood and represented so well.

Whilst the passage above highlights Khemir’s subjectivity, he nevertheless adapts a more omniscient perspective when directing his own films. For example, references from disparate epochs and cultures merge into a unified image of Islam in Bab’Aziz. In the interview for the press book about the film, Khemir explained that he adapted the film’s narrative framework of a story within a story from One Thousand and One Nights: as Ishtar and her grandfather wander the desert, he tells her the story of a prince. In turn, this secondary story line was inspired by a twelfth-century Persian ceramic painting of a prince gazing into a pool of water. The dialogue draws from thirteenth-century Persian and Arab-Andalusian Sufi poets, while the footage itself was filmed in Tunisia and Iran. Khemir added that in one scene a character looks out of a window from a palace in Tunis onto a landscape in Iran.58 Thus, Khemir’s syncretic filmic vision, which collapses time and space, conveys his conception of the Islamic world as ‘moving like the desert, never really different and never quite the same’.59 This equation of vastly different cultures and epochs upholds the Orientalist convention of a generalized, timeless ‘Orient’.

Khemir reacts strongly to the question of Orientalism in his films, commenting that ‘simple minded people say my films are Orientalist’.60 At first glance, however, his imagery often resembles the work of that nineteenth-century arch-Orientalist Jean-Léon Gérôme, with its fantastic and exotic scenes rendered in jewel-like tones. Yet his work is distinct because he foregrounds its very artificiality. Khemir told me: ‘You don’t know the miniatures … just as in miniatures, there are no shadows in my films … whereas in Orientalism it is all about shadows […] You have to be an expert to see these points. To do films without shadows is to say that it is not reality. It’s the same in miniatures’.61 To elaborate, Orientalist paintings are rendered according to the laws of linear perspective and modeled in light and shade, often with strong shadows, as if they were objective views of unfamiliar locales.

In my own comparison between Gérôme’s Dance of the Almeh, 1863 (figure 8.7), and a still from Khemir’s Bab’Aziz (figure 8.8), these differences are scarcely discernible on first sight. For example, the soldiers in Gérôme’s painting watch a scantily clad, languid belly dancer, who gazes alluringly at one of the soldiers in her audience. Khemir’s much more fully clothed dancer strikes a more active and deliberate pose, doing her best to attract his attention, while he, however, remains lost in thought. To reiterate, during my interview with him, Khemir did concede that ‘you have to be an expert to recognize the differences’.62

8.7 Jean-Léon Gérôme, Dance of the Almeh, 1863. The Dayton Art Institute, gift of Mr. Robert Badenhop, 1951.15.

Khemir’s counter-representations of negative images of Islam in the media sometimes over-simplify to make their point, just as Edward Said’s Orientalism was a polemic response to formalist scholarship on what was often highly politicized cultural production. Khemir would be a compelling case for post-colonial studies, as his project could be analysed as a cultural hybrid, or it could be argued that he presents himself and his culture according to ‘western’ expectations. At the same time, after reading Said and the subsequent post-colonial scholarship of Homi Bhabha, one might expect Khemir to criticize Klee. Yet Khemir’s reception of Klee serves as a reminder that even as theory can open up new paths of inquiry, it too can lead to preconceptions. Klee scholars who are interested in Orientalism tend to focus on his diaries, but Khemir suggests that the artist’s reception of the Islamic and Bedouin aesthetics of Tunisia merits further exploration and thereby returns the focus to the works of art themselves. Additionally, an art historical approach that also encompasses broader themes of tourism is necessary to understand artistic exchange between modern European artists and the ‘Orient’. If the scant historical record makes it difficult to analyse artistic exchange between Klee and Tunisian artists and artisans, it is certainly possible to study his experience and those of his travel companions within the wider framework of early twentieth-century tourism.63

8.8 Film still from Nacer Khemir, Bab’Aziz: The Prince who Contemplated his Soul, 2005.

Said argued that Europe defined itself against its idea of the ‘Orient’ and emphasized the dominating influence of the European colonizer. Yet Khemir and Moll’s film visualizes the complexity of cross-cultural exchange, as conceived by Homi Bhabha and other post-colonial scholars. Die Tunisreise demonstrates the ways ‘outside’ perspectives become integral to processes of self-reflection and self-definition. Klee’s travelling companion Macke was particularly articulate about this. In ‘The Masks’, his essay for Der Blaue Reiter almanac, Macke argued that artistic progress was contingent upon the mixing of styles from different times and places: ‘Artistic styles can die out from incest. The crossing of two styles yields a third, new style. The Renaissance and classical antiquity, that pupil of Schongauer and Mantegna – Albrecht Dürer. Europe and the Orient’.64 By juxtaposing three distinct visions of Tunisia, those of Klee, Khemir and Moll, Die Tunisreise demonstrates that the crossing of hybrid cultures is not as seamless as Macke made it out to be. The significance of images and stories changes as they travel back and forth until sometimes, as for Moll, they become unrecognizable. Nevertheless, for Khemir, the non-believer Klee’s early twentieth-century representations of Tunisia and its arts, which were firmly grounded in the ideals of Der Blaue Reiter, open a forgotten window onto his culture. At the same time, Khemir’s affinity to Klee, which I have argued is possible because Klee was influenced by the primitivism of Der Blaue Reiter, serves a political purpose. Like Klee, Khemir traverses national and cultural borders to achieve an art that transcends the everyday, but with the political aim of bridging the so-called east and west.


1Although renowned post-colonial scholar Homi Bhabha has rightly argued that ‘east’ and ‘west’ and ‘Europe’ and the ‘Orient’ are polarizing terms, they are used here for the sake of brevity and ultimately for lack of more satisfactory language. For more on this dichotomy, refer to Bhabha, The Location of Culture ([1994] London: Routledge, 2006 rpt), pp. 28–9 and 101–5.

2Interview with Nacer Khemir, conducted in person at the artist’s home in Paris, June 2011. I would like to thank Dr Barbara Caen for her assistance translating my interview questions for Khemir, and Bénédicte de Chalain for her simultaneous interpretation of the interview.

3Films in Khemir’s ‘Desert Trilogy’ have won awards in the Middle East. In 1984, Les baliseurs du desert (Wanderers of the Desert) won the Grand Prix of the Festival des Trois Continents and was an official selection at the Valencia Film Festival and the Carthage Film Festival. Le collier perdu de la colombe (The Lost Collar of the Dove) received the Special Jury Prize at Locarno, and Best Artistic Contribution and Best Screenplay at the Namur International Festival of French Speaking Film in 1991. Bab’Aziz: The Prince who Contemplated his Soul (2005), was honored at the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, Iran and the Muscat Film Festival in Muscat, Oman and was voted Best Feature Film at the Kazan Golden Minbar Film Festival. In recent years, Khemir has written and directed five more films: the documentary André Miquel: An Encounter with the Arabic Language (2010), Sheherazade: Or Words against Death (2012), Yasmina and the Sixty Names of Love (2013), Looking for Muhyiddin (2014) and Whispering Sands (2018). For an excellent introduction to Khemir’s films and writings, see Roy Armes, ‘The Poetic Vision of Nacer Khemir’, Third Text 24:1 (2010), pp. 69–82. Die Tunirsreise and many of Nacer Khemir’s films are available for purchase on DVD on the website of his distributor, Trigon Film: www.trigon-film.org.

4Along with fellow artists August Macke and Louis Moilliet, Klee travelled from Marseilles to Tunisia on 6 April 1914. The artists spent the first few days in the capital city of Tunis and in the suburb of Saint-Germain, which was primarily an Italian settlement. From there they travelled to the picturesque artists’ colony at Sidi-Bou-Said and to the ancient site of Carthage. They then went further south to Hammamet, then a small fishing village, and then on to Kairuan. On 19 April, Klee spent a final morning in Tunis before returning to Europe via Palermo, Italy. Macke and Moilliet departed on 22 April.

5Khemir, interview with the author, 2011.

6For another example, see Nacer Khemir, ‘Textauszüge’, Fama Film AG, www.famafilm.ch/filme/die-tunisreise/textauszuege-nacer-khemir, accessed 23 February 2011.

7See the exhibition catalogue: William Rubin (ed.), Primitivism in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, 2 vols (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984). The most notable debate was between art critic and professor of Art History Thomas McEvilley and the exhibition’s curators William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, whose heated exchange of letters was published in Artforum in 1984. For documentation of the debates on primitivism, see Jack Flam and Miriam Deutsch (eds), ‘The Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 Primitivism Exhibition and its Aftermath’, in Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), pp. 311–413.

8See, for example Ernst-Gerhard Güse (ed.), Die Tunisreise. Klee, Macke, Moilliet (Münster: LWL-Westfälisches Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte; Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1982); Ute Gerlach-Laxner and Ellen Schwinzer (eds), Paul Klee. Reisen in den Süden, ‘Reisefieber praecisiert’ (Hamm: Gustav-Lübcke-Museum; Ostfildern-Ruit: Gerd Hatje, 1997); Jenny Anger, Paul Klee and the Decorative in Modern Art (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 56, 120–35.

9Klee purchased four watercolours in the Arab quarter in Tunis, which are housed today at the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Additionally, Frau Dr Ernst Jäggi – Klee and Moilliet’s hostess in Tunis and St. Germain – recalled many years after the Tunisian journey that the artists had painted Easter eggs with the servant Ahmed; she claimed that both Klee and Macke were especially fascinated by the servant’s style of painting and that they kept the eggs he had painted. Frau Dr Jäggi as told to W. Holzhausen, ‘The Visit to Tunisia’, in G. Busch (ed.), August Macke: Tunisian Watercolors and Drawings, trans. N. Guterman (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1959), p. 20.

10Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, pp. 2–3.

11‘Die Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sondern macht Sichtbar’. Paul Klee, Kasimir Edschmid (ed.), Schöpferische Konfession (Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag, 1920), pp. 28–40, reprinted in Christian Geelhar (ed.), Paul Klee. Schriften, Rezensionen und Aufsätze (Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag, 1976), p. 118. All translations from the German are my own.

12‘sie verhelfe dir, die Hülle abzulegen, dich auf Momente Gott zu wähnen. Dich stets wieder auf Feierabende zu freuen, an denen die Seele zur Tafel geht, ihre hungernden Nerven zu nähern, ihre erschlaffenden Gefäße mit neuem Saft zu füllen.’ Paul Klee, ‘Schöpferische Konfession’, in Ibid., p. 122.

13Khemir, interview with the author, 2011.



16Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), pp. 2–3.

17See Said’s discussion of nineteenth-century British and French travel writers in Said, Orientalism, pp. 177–81.

18John Mackenzie, ‘The “Orientalism” Debate’, in Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp. 1–19.

19Bhabha, The Location of Culture, pp. 28–9 and 101–5.

20Ibid., pp. 2–3.

21Jenny Anger, Paul Klee and the Decorative in Modern Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 56.

22Michael Baumgartner, ‘Paul Klee und der Mythos vom Orient’, in Michael Baumgartner and Carola Haensler (eds), Auf der Suche nach dem Orient (Bern: Zentrum Paul Klee, 2009) pp. 130–43.

23Christoph Otterbeck, ‘Zweimal Orient – und zurück’, in Baumgartner and Haensler (eds), Auf der Suche nach dem Orient, pp. 170–85.

24This definition of essay film is from N. Alter, Chris Marker, Contemporary Film Directors, ed. James Naremore (Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006), pp. 17–20.

25Moll, interview with the author, 2011.


27‘Den Kopf voll von den nächtlichen Eindrücken des gestrigen Abends. Kunst/Natur/Ich. Sofort ans Werk gegangen und im Araberviertel Aquarell gemalt. Die Synthese Städtebauarchitektur/Bild-architektur in Angriff genommen. Noch nicht rein, aber ganz reizvoll, etwas viel Reisestimmung und Reisebegeisterung dabei, eben das Ich’. Paul Klee, diary entry 926 f, 8 April 1914, in Paul-Klee-Stiftung Bern and W. Kersten (eds), Paul Klee Tagebücher 1898–1918, Textkritische Neuedition (Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje; Teufen: Verlag Arthur Niggli, 1988), p. 340.

28Moll, interview with the author, 2011.



31‘Zunächst ein grosser Taumel, der nachts beim Marriage arabe kulminiert. Nichts Einzelnes, nur das Ganze. Und was für ein Ganzes!! Tausend und eine Nacht als Extract mit 99% Wirklichkeitsgehalt. Welch ein Aroma, wie durchdringend, wie berauschend, wie klärend zugleich. Speise, reellste Speise und reizendes Getränk. Aufbau und Rausch. Wohlriechendes Holz verbrennt.?Heimat? [sic]’. Paul Klee, diary entry 926 n, 15 April 1914, in Paul-Klee-Stiftung Bern and Kersten (eds), Paul Klee Tagebücher, p. 350.

32F. Marc, ‘Die “Wilden” Deutschlands’, in W. Kandinsky and F. Marc (eds), Der Blaue Reiter, Jubiläiumsedition (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2004), p. 30.

33See, for example E. G. Güse, ‘Vor der Tunisreise’, in Güse (ed.), Die Tunisreise, pp. 18–27. More recently, Klee’s work has been presented as the culmination of European Orientalist production that began with Giovanni Bellini in the late fifteenth century in Baumgartner and Haensler (eds), Auf der Suche nach dem Orient.

34‘Ich lasse jetzt die Arbeit. Es dringt so tief und mild in mich hinein, ich fühle das und werde so sicher, ohne Fleiss. Die Farbe hat mich. Ich brauche nicht nach ihr zu haschen. Sie hat mich für immer, ich weiss das. Das ist der glücklichen Stunde Sinn: ich und die Farbe sind eins. Ich bin Maler’. Paul Klee, diary entry 926 o, 16 April 1914, in Paul-Klee-Stiftung Bern and Kersten (eds), Paul Klee Tagebücher, p. 350.

35The significance of this exhibition was reevaluated at exhibitions and in publications on the occasion of its centennial. See A. Lermer and A. Shalem (eds), After One Hundred Years: The 1910 Exhibition ‘Meisterwerke muhammedanischer Kunst’ Reconsidered (Leiden: Brill, 2010) and C. Dercon, L. Krempel and A. Shalem (eds), The Future of Tradition – The Tradition of Future: 100 Years after the Exhibition Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art in Munich (Munich: Haus der Kunst/Prestel, 2010).

36A. Lermer, ‘Orientalising Munich: Local Conditions and Graphic Design for the Munich 1910 Exhibition’, in Lermer and Shalem (eds), After One Hundred Years, p. 181.

37F. Sarre, ‘Vorwort’, in Fredrik Robert Martin and Friedrich Sarre (eds), Die Ausstellung von Meisterwerken muhammedanischer Kunst, vol. 1 (Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1912), p. iii.

38W. Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Insbesondere in der Malerei [1911]. New revised edition edited by J. Hahl-Fontaine (Bern: Benteli Verlag, 2004), pp. 70–1.

39For example, in the preface to the English edition of the catalogue for the exhibition of Oriental carpets that took place in Vienna in 1891, Arthur von Scala wrote that the exhibition and its accompanying publications sought to revive the decorative arts traditions in Europe. Arthur von Scala, ‘Preface’, in Caspar Purdon Clarke (ed.), Oriental Carpets (Vienna: Österreichisches Handelsmuseum, 1892), pp. i–ii.

40‘Sie [die Ausstellung] will zeigen, dass den Schöpfungen der muhammedanischen Kunst ein ebenbürtiger Platz neben denen anderer Kulturperioden gebührt, dass sie in ihrer Farbenharmonie, in ihrer ornamentalen Größe vor allem geeignet ist, dem modernen Kunstschaffen Anregungen zu geben und ihm vielleicht neue Wege zu weisen’. Ausstellung München 1910. Amtlicher Katalog (Munich: Rudolf Mosse, 1910), p. 13.

41‘Es ist schade, daß man Kandinskys grosse Komposition (II) und manches andere nicht neben die muhammedanischen Teppiche im Ausstellungspark hängen kann. Ein Vergleich wäre unvermeidlich und wie lehrreich für uns Alle! Worin besteht unsere staunende Bewunderung vor dieser orientalischen Kunst? Zeigt sie uns nicht spottend die einseitige Begrenztheit unserer europäischen Begriffe von Malerei? Ihre tausendfach tiefere Farben- und Kompositionskunst macht unsere konventionellen Theorien zuschanden. Wir haben in Deutschland kaum ein dekoratives Werk, geschweige denn einen Teppich, den wir daneben hängen dürfen. Versuchen wir es mit Kandinskys Kompositionen – sie werden diese gefährliche Probe aushalten, und nicht als Teppiche, sondern als “Bilder”. Welche künstlerische Einsicht birgt dieser seltene Maler! Die grosse Konsequenz seiner Farben hält seiner zeichnerischen Freiheit die Waage – ist diese nicht zugleich eine Definition der Malerei?’ F. Marc, ‘Zur Ausstellung der “Neuen Künstlervereinigung” bei Thannhauser’, special edition of ‘Neue Künstlervereinigung München’ (Munich 1910) rpt. in K. Lankheit (ed.), Franz Marc Schriften (Cologne: DuMont, 1978), pp. 126–7.

42Baumgartner, ‘Paul Klee und der Mythos vom Orient’, p. 137.

43Khemir, interview with the author, 2011.

44‘Macke lobt den Reiz des Geldausgebens’. Klee, diary entry 926 f, 8 April 1914, in Paul-Klee-Stiftung Bern and Kersten (eds), Paul Klee Tagebücher, p. 340.

45Paul Klee to Louis Moilliet, postcard, 19 May 1913 (Bern: Zentrum Paul Klee).

46Several of Macke’s textile designs are reproduced in Güse, ‘Vor der Tunisreise’, in Güse (ed.), Die Tunisreise, pp. 24–6.

47Through the careful examination of exhibition lists, Anger has determined that Klee’s Carpet, 1914, was painted and exhibited before the Tunisian journey in April 1914. Anger, Paul Klee and the Decorative in Modern Art, p. 63.

48Nacer Khemir, ‘Textauszüge’, Fama Film AG, www.famafilm.ch/filme/die-tunisreise/textauszuege-nacer-khemir, accessed 23 February 2011.

49‘Auf diese Weise enthüllte Paul Klee mir auf Distanz (von Zeit und Raum) die eigentliche Quelle meines plastischen Universums’. Ibid.


51Khemir, interview with the author, 2011.



54Klee and Marc articulated their differing positions in a series of letters while Marc was on the front. Klee copied the better part of his letter to Marc from 10 May 1915 as a diary entry, in which he acknowledged that although both he and Marc agreed that art should stem from the self that is in tune with or connected to the rest of creation, they differed on how to access it. Marc thought that it was through engagement with worldly events and participation in war, while Klee believed strongly that this pure self could only be found by transcending the war art: Klee, diary entry 961, 1915, in Paul-Klee-Stiftung Bern and Kersten (eds), Paul Klee Tagebücher, p. 370. For more information on their exchange of ideas, see Michael Baumgartner, Cathrin Klingsohr-Leroy and Katja Schneider (eds), Franz Marc–Paul Klee: Dialog in Bildern (Wadenswil: Nimbus, 2010). K. Förster (ed.), Franz Marc–Paul Klee: Der Briefwechsel (Wadenswil: Nimbus, 2010).

55‘Diesseitig bin ich gar nicht Fassbar. Denn ich wohne grad so gut bei den Toten, wie bei den Ungeborenen. Etwas näher dem Herzen der Schöpfung als üblich. Und nach lange nicht nahe genug’. Klee, untitled text in ‘Katalog der 60. Ausstellung der Galerie Neue Kunst Hans Goltz’, special issue Der Ararat (MayJune 1920), p. 20.

56‘Ich lebe nicht in der Realität, und meine Freunde sind stets erstaunt darüber, dass ich dauernd von Anderswo rede’. B. Jaeggi and W. Ruggle, ‘“Wenn man nicht in etwas verleibt ist, fehlt dem Leben das Ziel”: Ein Gespräch mit Nacer Khemir’, trans. W. Ruggle, in W. Ruggle and B. Jaeggi (eds), Nacer Khemir. Das verlorene Halsband der Taube (Baden: Verlag Lars Müller, 1992).

57N. Omarbacha, ‘An Interview with Nacer Khemir’, from the press book for Bab’Aziz: The Prince who Contemplated his Soul (2005) rpt. Spirituality and Practice: Resources for Spiritual Journeys, www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/features.php?id=17822, accessed 23 February 2011.



60Khemir, interview with the author.



63See the second chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation, Sarah McGavran, ‘Belated Orientalisms: Klee, Matisse and North Africa, c. 1906–30’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Washington University in St. Louis, 2013). Roger Benjamin has also noted that tourism was an important context in which to consider the Tunisian journey. Benjamin, ‘The Oriental Mirage’, in Benjamin (ed.), Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee (Sydney: The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997), p. 25.

64‘Auch Stile können an Inzucht zugrunde gehen. Die Kreuzung zweier Stile ergibt einen dritten, neuen Stil. Die Renaissance der Antike, der Schongauer- und Mantegnaschüler Dürer. Europa und der Orient’. A. Macke, ‘Die Masken’, in Kandinsky and Marc (eds), Der Blaue Reiter, p. 56.

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