Paul Klee and the Oriental Carpet

Paul Klee and the Oriental Carpet
On the centenary of Klee’s journey to Tunis in 2014

In 1910, Munich was the setting for a large and unprecedented exhibition of ‘Masterpieces of Mohammedan Art’, presenting 3600 objects from European, Egyptian and Turkish collections. The exhibition made a tremendous impression on artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, and Henri Matisse travelled to Munich especially to see it.

For Paul Klee, however – who had been living in Munich since 1906 – it does not appear to be certain whether he even noticed the epoch-making event. There is no evidence and there are no personal notes by him to indicate that Klee visited the exhibition. It is certainly surprising that the artist – who was later to be linked so strongly with the Orient – apparently had no interest at this point in Islamic arts and crafts, including Oriental carpets.

Journey to Tunis

Even during his famous journey to Tunis in 1914, Klee – as can be seen from his journal notes – was impressed only by the light and the landscape. He completely ignored Oriental art, even though he could hardly have avoided walking on carpets during his time in Tunisia.

In the Tunis souk, where the outspread carpets must have been hard to miss, the souvenirs he bought to take back for his wife were ‘a fine knife and leather cushions. Two. Also a nice amulet, bracelets and an old coin.’ Not without ‘mistrusting’ the ‘Orientals’, as his travel diary records.[1]

Klee appears to have had little interest in Tunisian art, calligraphy, carpets, the abstract decorations on the mosques – in short, everything that specifically constitutes the country’s culture. The watercolours he painted while in Tunisia basically only show motifs of the sort that the average tourist would normally take snapshots of – although Klee, in contrast to his travelling companion August Macke, left out any human figures and concentrated entirely on the experience of the bright and pure colours of the south.

‘Colour has taken possession of me,’ Klee noted during an excursion to the interior, to Kairouan. ‘I no longer need to search for it. It has taken hold of me forever, I know this. This is what this happy moment means: I and colour are one. I am a painter.’[2] What became known as the ‘Tunis journey’ was undoubtedly an inspiration for Klee. It turned an artist who had until then mainly focused on graphic work into the painter who is still popular today.

By contrast, the culture of the Orient appears to have made little impression on Klee. The idea for an Oriental journal had in fact not been his own; Louis Moilliet, the third painter in the group, had already visited Tunisia once before and had probably enthusiastically described the light and colour there to Macke and Klee.

It seems, therefore, that Klee only began to digest the influence of the Orient afterwards. However, four months after he returned from the visit to Tunisia, which had lasted just under two weeks, the First World War broke out in August 1914. The war years – Klee was involved in a noncombatant role in the last two years of the fighting – initially seem to have led to his experiences during the journey to Tunis remaining largely unassimilated. During this period, the metaphysical element comes to the fore for Klee intellectually and in his artistic work. This was Klee’s way of dealing with the war – basically not situating it in the here and now, but regarding it as something timeless and cosmic.

Paul Klee, carpet, 1927, from: Auf der Suche nach dem Orient. Paul Klee. Teppich der Erinnerung, Zentrum Paul Klee Bern (ed.) (Ostfildern, 2009, p. 147)

Paul Klee, carpet, 1927, from: Auf der Suche nach dem Orient. Paul Klee. Teppich der Erinnerung, Zentrum Paul Klee Bern (ed.) (Ostfildern, 2009, p. 147)

Paul Klee, wall painting, 1924, from: Die Tunisreise. Klee – Macke – Moilliet, Stuttgart, 1982, p. 202
Paul Klee, pastoral [rhythms], 1927, from: : Auf der Suche nach dem Orient. Paul Klee. Teppich der Erinnerung, Zentrum Paul Klee Bern (Hg.) (Ostfildern, 2009, p. 159)
appliqué of the Ngeende (Kuba) Demokr. Rep. of Congo, from: John Gillow, Afrika. Stoffe und Farben eines Kontinents, München, Berlin, London, New York, 2003, p. 192
Ndop textile, made in Nigeria, from: Gillow, p. 188
Gunta Stölzl, design for a carpet, 1920-1922
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin
Gunta Stölzl, design for a  wall hanging, 1923
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin
Gertrud Arndt, design for a carpet (carpet 1), 1924
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

Eastern memories and recollections

After the war, however, something surprising happens with Klee: his experience of the Orient resurfaces for him. He now begins to produce pictures that show Oriental influence in their motifs and style. The experience seems to be enhanced in memory, appearing more real than it did when he was actually there. During the 1920s, Oriental motifs become more frequent in his work. In 1922, for example, he painted the ‘Arabian City’ and in 1924 the ‘Oriental Castle’[3]; in the same year, Klee created – in ‘Mural’ and ‘Curtain’ – paintings that are quite obviously based on carpets, or to be more precise on the monochrome Kilims, with their detailed patterns, made by the Tunisian Berbers. Klee may have seen actual carpets of this type when he was in Tunisia in 1914; or perhaps he examined carpets from the Maghreb later on. No exact information is available. In any case, due to its frequency the Orient became a kind of trademark in Klee’s pictorial subjects during the 1920s. Wilhelm Hausenstein’s book Kairuan oder eine Geschichte vom Maler Klee [Kairouan, or a Tale of the Painter Klee], published in 1921, even transfigures Klee’s visit to the city during the journey to Tunisia into a kind of awakening experience for him. The book further intensifies Klee’s own statements about his destiny as a painter, which already contain mystical elements themselves. These include his vague hint to Hausenstein that his mother’s forebears ‘might have been Oriental, via southern France’.[4]

Mutual influences at the Bauhaus

Klee then appears to have begun to style himself retrospectively as an Oriental. In addition, in 1923 he more or less accidentally became the head of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus for a brief period and was thus placed in a quite practical way in connection with carpets – the great domain of Oriental art. It was flat-woven textiles that were produced at the Bauhaus, rather than hand-knotted carpets. In any case, the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus was initially quite amateurish. The Bauhaus students Gunta Stölzl and Benita Otte, who inaugurated the weaving workshop on their own initiative, had to go to Krefeld to begin with in order to learn weaving techniques and how to dye yarn. There was no one at the Bauhaus to teach them these methods. However, the naivety on the topic at the college had advantages – the weavers were able to work without guidelines or the burdens of tradition. The Bauhaus in any case wanted to innovate in many ways. Klee only taught the weavers the basics of form and colour, but not weaving, since he himself had no command of the craft. It was his basic teaching that was important here. Conversely, the technique of weaving appears to have influenced Klee’s art and his painting technique. However, this was again only in retrospect. At the Bauhaus, Stölzl and Otte anticipated in textiles around 1923 what Klee was only to translate to the canvas later, after travelling to the Orient for a second time.

Journey to Egypt

Particularly after Klee’s journey to Egypt from mid-December 1928 to mid-January 1929, the impressions of the southern light, the ‘View of the Land of Fruits’ (the title of a painting from 1932) on the Nile and the techniques of weaving fuse into new forms of pictorial invention. Major works emerged after the journey to Egypt, such as ‘Main Path and Byways’ (1929) or the watercolour ‘Pyramids’ (1930), and then above all the cipher paintings inspired perhaps by hieroglyphs in Klee’s late work up to his death in 1940, such as ‘Rich Harbour’ of 1938.[5] A quite different influence now becomes visible here as well, however, as the paintings now strikingly resemble the raffia weaving[6] of the Kuba people of the Congo – particularly the appliqué skirts of the Ngeende group. These raffia works are highly admired by connoisseurs.[7]

State of research

Whether and where Klee might have seen such works, or whether he again only discovered them in retrospect while intellectually and artistically assimilating the journey to Egypt, has not yet been satisfactorily investigated. However, there are features noticeably in common between the art of Islamic carpet-making and Klee’s work following his two Oriental journeys. In the few studies that have been conducted so far on Klee’s relationship to the Orient, an ‘elective affinity’[8] has been mentioned, for example. Any direct influence is denied or dismissed with the meaningless statement, ‘It is unnecessary to offer any explanations for this affinity.’[9] It is claimed that there are merely ‘parallels’ between two worlds – Klee’s inner world and the ‘millennia-old Islamic world.’

So far, there is only circumstantial evidence to show that this view needs to be contradicted and that there certainly do exist direct and indirect influences from Klee’s journeys and probably through his knowledge of publications on the topic. However, the subject of ‘Klee and the Oriental Carpet’ has not yet been explicitly investigated in art-historical research. It is only recently that textiles, and in particular Oriental weaving and carpets, have been brought into focus as a source of inspiration for so-called classic modernism.[10]

Ex oriente ars

It is certainly remarkable that almost all of the discoveries and innovations of modernism had precursors and sources of inspiration outside of Europe. With regard to ‘Negro sculpture’ as a model for Expressionist and Cubist sculpture, this has long since become a commonplace.[11] It is no longer controversial nowadays to exhibit Picasso’s paintings in the museum along with fetishes and ancestor figures from Africa.[12] Art history has already shifted its position here towards a subject foreign to it. With regard to the Oriental carpet and its potential influence on modernist art, this rapprochement has yet to take place, however. The reasons for this peculiar delay appear to lie in the fact that textile work has previously not been regarded as an art form in Europe. Weaving has only existed here in the form of tapestry (Gobelins); otherwise, carpets have been imported from the Orient – and for a very long period already, as depictions of carpets in paintings by Hans Holbein and Lorenzo Lotto show. However, there is a lack of an indigenous European carpet-making culture; weaving was for a long period regarded by art historians as an inferior handicraft, and one that was also almost exclusively carried out by women. It is only today, in the wake of globalization and gender studies, that our eyes have opened to the previously overlooked influence of the Oriental carpet on modernism. Paul Klee’s work has yet to be reassessed on the basis of these new premises.

[1] Ernst-Gerhard Güse, ed., Die Tunisreise: Klee, Macke, Moilliet(Stuttgart: Hatje, 1982; exhib. cat., Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Münster), p. 52.

[2] Carola Giedion-Welcker, Paul Klee in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten(Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1961), figure on p. 43.

[3] Michael Baumgartner, ed.,Auf der Suche nach dem Orient: Paul Klee, Teppich der Erinnerung (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2009; exhib. cat., Zentrum Paul Klee, Berne),figure on p. 225.

[4] Cited after Michael Baumgartner, ‘Paul Klee und der Mythos vom Orient’, in ibid.,Auf der Suche nach dem Orient2009 (see note 3), p. 132.

[5] Carola Giedion-Welcker,Paul Klee (see note 2), figure on pp. 150–1.

[6] Raffia is a plant belonging to the palm family.

[7] Cf. John Gillow,African Textiles: Colour and Creativity across a Continent(London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), p. 190.

[8] Eloise Brac de la Perrière and Jean-Pierre van Staevel, ‘Die islamische Kunst im Spiegel von Paul Klees Werk’, in Baumgartner,Auf der Suche nach dem Orient 2009 (see note 3), p. 23.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Oddly, several large exhibitions on the topic opened in 2013: ‘Kunst & Textil. Stoff als Material und Idee in der Moderne von Klimt bis heute (Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg), ‘Marokkanische Teppiche und die Kunst der Moderne’ (Neue Sammlung, Munich) and ‘Decorum’ (Museé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris).

[11] Carl Einstein’s bookNegerplastik was published as long ago as 1915.

[12] As in the Berggruen Collection at the State Museums in Berlin.


Ronald Berg works as art critic and journalist in Berlin.

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