Book Review: Artists’ Adventure

By Michael Webb

The Journey to Tunisia, 1914: Paul Klee, August Macke, Louis Moilliet. Hatje Cantz, € 29.80.

A companion book to an exhibition presented at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne to mark the centenary of a legendary journey. In April 2014, three artists whose friendship spanned national boundaries on the peaceful eve of the First World War, made a productive two-week trip to Tunisia. That brief immersion in an exotic culture, and the brilliance of the light and colors, transformed their art. Macke had only a few months to live; he was cut down in one of the early battles. The other two lived on, Klee until 1940, Moilliet until 1962, creating work that recalled their shared experience in North Africa.

The watercolors and sketches in the exhibition are all well illustrated, and these are supplemented by work the artists created before and after. Klee kept a journal and polished his entries years later to provide a vivid account of how they were received by a Swiss emigré “who seemed more of a stranger to me than the first Arab beggar I met” and how they began sketching the morning after their arrival. The country was a revelation, much as the French Riviera had been for an earlier generation of north-European artists. ““One swims in blue air; it is frightening,” as Monet wrote from Antibes in 1884. Anyone who loves the formative era of modernism and is curious how it came about, will treasure this account.

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