An Interview with Anna M. Schafroth “Homage to Maghreb”

Rails on the Gulf of Tunis, Louis Moilliet, oil on canvas
Rails on the Gulf of Tunis, Louis Moilliet, oil on canvas |

In 1914, Paul Klee, August Macke and Louis Moilliet journeyed to Tunis. Their journey is among the great legends of European art history. 100 years later, some of the works can now be seen in the place that inspired them. In our interview, curator Anna M. Schafroth explains how it happened.

For the first time, original works from the journey to Tunis taken by Louis Moilliet, Paul Klee and August Macke 100 years ago have been on show at the Bardo Museum in Tunis since late November. What exactly can visitors to the exhibition expect to see?

Schafroth: The exhibition is located in the old section of the Bardo Museum that today houses Roman mosaics, the former ceremonial hall of the Bey, the Ottoman governor. When you enter the hall, you first see a contemporary photograph of a street in the old city of Tunis. I would recommend that you first walk through the outer area of the exhibition, which portrays the background of the journey with maps and biographies of the three artists. Ten photographs from August Macke’s album are also exhibited here. The exhibition itself shows drawings by Macke, Klee and Moilliet, watercolours, most of them by Louis Moilliet, and a wonderful oil painting by Macke, The Turkish Jeweller. We also present oil paintings and watercolours from earlier and later stays and journeys of Louis Moilliet, which also took him to Morocco in 1921. Visitors thus also get to see an homage to Maghreb. The exhibition does not treat the Tunis journey as a textbook would, but goes far beyond that.

Why did the three artists take the journey to Tunisia together in 1914?

In the broadest sense, the journey can still be categorized among the Orientalist artist journeys of the 19th century. Louis Moilliet had been to Tunis already quite often because friends of his, a physician couple, had moved there. He, the least known of the three artists, was at the centre of this artist journey. it was he who introduced Klee, an old school chum from his days in Berne, to Macke, with whom Moilliet had become close friends in recent years. Klee had wanted to travel to Tunis with Moilliet for some time. In addition, Macke and Moilliet were neighbours on Lake Thun in 1913 and 1914 and sometimes worked together. In this way, Macke got involved in the journey plans. The big 1910 Munich exhibition on “Mohammedan Art,” which had made an impression on Macke in particular, played a major role.

What did the three experience on their journey?

The Turkish Jeweller, August Macke The Turkish Jeweller, August Macke | Photo: Leopold-Hoesch-Museum Düren (Peter Hinschläger) At first everything was quite European. Following the crossing from Marseille to Tunis the artists were met there by the Swiss physician family Jäggi who lived in the new French city. From there, they moved step by step to the Orient, daring a glance at the Medina, the old Arabic city. They took walks, drove around the surroundings of Tunis by car, they sketched, painted watercolours, nosed about and examined life on the streets. Their four-day stay over Easter 1914 in the beach villa rented by the Jäggis in St. Germain, a town built on the Gulf of Tunis by the French, became important. From there, they travelled further to Sidi Bou Saïd and finally by rail towards Hammamet and Kairouan, a city that had been closed to non-Muslims until 1881. There they were most impressed by the Medieval Arabic city layout, which can be seen in the wonderful watercolours by the three artists.

Did they paint a lot of pictures during the journey?

Yes, it is quite astonishing since their journey only lasted a little under two weeks. There are over 70 drawings and watercolours by Macke from this time. Klee produced about 35 really important works and sketches. For Moilliet, by contrast, the work was not so much the focus of this journey, he had already worked earlier in Tunisia and would later as well. Macke continued to focus on the theme quite intensively, but was killed on 26 September as a soldier in the First World War. In particular Klee continued to work on some paintings until 1924. His diary entries, which he extensively revised in 1920 and 1921 as an autobiography, provide more detailed information about the journey to Tunis.

How did this exhibition come about?

I have retraced the steps of the three artists in Tunisia many times over a period of 20 years and long thought about what could be done to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the journey. I worked on the part about Louis Moilliet for the big exhibition on the journey to Tunis at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne. So when the enquiry came from the Goethe-Institut in Tunisia in March 2014, I was able to accept it immediately in spite of the extremely brief preparatory time. The most difficult part was organizing an adequate number of loaned works. Many works had already been exhibited between March and June in Berne and some were already promised to other exhibitions. For reasons of preservation, watercolours in particular need to be stored in the dark for some time following an exhibition. I had to go to great efforts to convince the owners of the works to support this premiere by loaning their works. There had never been an exhibition like it in Tunisia.

Where are the pictures usually housed?

Curator Anna M. Schafroth: “For me, the work on this project is a great enrichment” Curator Anna M. Schafroth: “For me, the work on this project is a great enrichment” | Photo: Berit Brandt In various museums in Germany and Switzerland; but many pictures are also privately owned. With lots of persistence, support from colleagues and a little luck we were able to persuade the donors to lend us these treasures. In the end, I requested 85 works and in was able to exhibit 32. The construction I designed had space for about 38 works. In terms of numbers, Moilliet, who repeatedly spent time in Tunisia over 21 years, is the most represented of the artists.

In Germany, most of the works are part of the canon. How is it in Tunisia? Are the artists also known there otherwise?

There are two art historical publications that appeared in Tunisia in the 1980s and 1990s. But otherwise the works are largely unknown there. Not until this anniversary did the Tunisians realize that their country played a significant role in art history 100 years ago.

How is the exhibition being received in Tunisia?

Red and Yellow Houses in Tunis, Paul Klee Red and Yellow Houses in Tunis, Paul Klee | Photo: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bildarchiv The exhibition is well attended, the people are very moved. As I heard, they come from far away, even from the south, to Tunis. The press has praised the exhibition and some have even directly called on people to come to the Bardo Museum. I find it particularly interesting to see how people react to the originals. They notice how calm, quiet and reserved these pictures are – a counterpoint to the digital pictures of the present. Tunisia has a lively modern art scene, but an art historic exhibition with works by the European classical modernists is unique and certainly a premiere for the famous archaeological Bardo Museum. It attracts a great deal of attention. In this sense, the Goethe-Institut has really achieved something of cultural policy importance.

What has work on the exhibition given you personally?

For me, the work on this project is a great enrichment, and I feel great gratification that it succeeded, which is also thanks to the good collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, the director of the Bardo Museum, Moncef Ben Moussa, the German and Swiss embassies and the Tunisian Cultural Ministry. However, it also furthered an idea that I have been carrying around with me for many years: I would like to convert the house in St. Germain where the artists spent Easter 1914 to a sort of foundation where artists can stay and events can be held. I have been in contact with the owners of the house for some time already. Perhaps this exhibition has provided the decisive impulse to implement this long-term project.

Anne Kilgus conducted the interview.

Anna M. Schafroth is an art historian and exhibition curator. Her main sphere of work as a freelance exhibition curator with a focus on Classical Modernism is accompanied by active work as lecturer at home and abroad and as researcher. She worked at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne during its establishment phase from 2004 until 2006. She was in Tunisia often since 1994 to research the 1914 journey to Tunis by the three artists Klee, Macke and Moilliet. The exhibition Klee Macke Moilliet – Tunis 2014 will be at the Bardo Museum in Tunis until 14 February. More information is available on the website of the Goethe-Institut Tunis