In our A–Z of Paul Klee this week, curator Matthew Gale investigates the modernist painter’s breakthrough into colour following a trip to the Tunisian town of Kairouan

Episode at Kairouan Paul Klee 1920

Paul Klee
Episode at Kairouan 1920
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

© 2013. The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

Of the stories that gathered around Klee perhaps none is more powerful than the one that he encouraged about his visit to Kairouan. ‘Colour and I are one’, he wrote in his diary, in response to his stay in the Tunisian town in April 1914. Though this comment may have been written later, the sentiment that Klee encouraged was that he ‘broke through’ from his skill as a draughtsman into colour during his North African trip. He even hinted that his Swiss mother might have had ancestors from the region, so powerful was the adventure. What is clear is that the experience of Kairouan, visited with the painters Auguste Macke and Louis Moilliet on the eve of the First World War, fuelled Klee’s work for years to come.

The delicate watercolours that Klee made on the trip to Tunisia will feature in a major exhibition that opens at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern in March 2014, just as our show closes.