Common Threads

Approaches to Paul Klee’s Carpet of 1927

Paul Klee, Carpet, 1927, 48, Private collection.

Paul Klee’s Carpet, 1927, creates a conundrum for scholars because it does not neatly fit the existing theoretical models concerning how European artists engage with non-Western art and cultures. At the same time, it opens up exciting new avenues for inquiry.

Paul Klee’s Carpet, one of the four focal objects of bauhaus imaginista, resembles both its namesake textile as well as architecture.1 The horizontal bands of pattern find their counterpart in vertically oriented, stacked rectangles at the right. With their embellished borders, these geometric forms recall Oriental carpets stacked one atop the other, as if by a rug merchant in a bazaar. The overlapping bands that form the border of the top carpet draw the eye to its central medallion. Here, diagonal lines suggest both a flat design as well as the orthogonal lines of linear perspective, while the darker checkerboard pattern likewise creates a sense of depth. When viewed in this manner, the stacked carpets transform into a window or a portal flanked by elaborate shutters, while the horizontal lines at the left come to resemble an edifice decorated with painted tiles.

As Klee scholar Fabienne Eggelhöfer notes, Carpet is similar to works in a series of linear pen and ink drawings depicting fantastic architecture, which Klee created in 1927. For example, in Beride (Watertown), Klee depicts the imaginary city of Beride as geometric structures built upon horizontal registers. At the top right, alternating squares and rectangles topped with triangles are both part of an overall pattern while also suggesting individual buildings or houses. As in Carpet, the deceptively simple compositional framework, shifting references, and versatile forms characterize the works in this series, which explores the foundational Bauhaus theme of relationships across artistic media. Further, the title Carpet relates to the fact that Klee had become more involved in the weaving workshop, and began offering an additional course in the summer of 1927.2 The title also recalls a major work, Carpet of Memory. Its origins lie Klee’s two-week journey to Tunisia in April 1914, which he undertook mere weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. Klee began the work shortly after his return, and reworked it sometime between 1921 and 1922, after he had joined the Bauhaus faculty in 1920.3 Finally, although Klee had indeed made works inspired by textiles before travelling to Tunisia, such as Carpet, 1914, both the title and the aesthetic of Carpet, 1927 suggest Klee drew inspiration from North African carpets.

When Klee traveled to Tunisia in the company of his artist friends August Macke and Louis Moilliet, it was still part of colonial French North Africa. Moreover, this small country belonged to the sphere of the so-called Orient, which the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said defines as both a geographical region and an imagined sphere that served as an ideological counterpart to Europe.4 It is therefore worth considering Carpet within the theoretical framework of Said’s book, Orientalism, and the corpus of post-colonial theory it inaugurated. However, just as the work itself seems to change and shift, it is difficult to anchor it within a single theory. An analysis of different theoretical approaches one might adopt in interpreting Carpet illuminates why Klee continued to draw from his Tunisian memories and souvenirs while at the Bauhaus in 1927, and how we might continue moving forward now that forty years have passed since the publication of Orientalism in 1978.

Paul Klee, Carpet, 1914, 19
Location unknown, © Photo: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.


Paul Klee, Beride (Wasserstadt) (Beride (Water Town)), 1927, 51 
Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, © Photo: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.

In Carpet, Klee adapts the shape-shifting aesthetics of George Braque and Pablo Picasso’s Cubism—where single motifs are represented from multiple vantage points—to explore the relationships between carpets and architecture. Cubism is also significant in this instance because Picasso had previously looked to African and Oceanic masks to develop the composition of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his proto-Cubist work from1907 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Art historians refer to the process of adapting the aesthetics of indigenous arts to critique conventional Western modes of representations and the institutions that supported them as primitivism. Like Klee, the Cubists did not acknowledge the vast geographical and temporal distances between the cultures they borrowed from, which ranged from cave painting to African masks. Furthermore, they assumed that the cultural sources of artistic renewal lay outside Europe, but that only the European artist would know how to harness them to bring this about.5

Living room of the Kanindinsky in the Master's House in Dessau, ca. 1926
from: Ute Ackermann and Wolfgang Thöner: Das Bauhaus lebt, E. A. Seemann, Leipzig 2009.

Klee was familiar with Cubism and primitivism, which he encountered on a trip to Paris in 1912. He also knew the early-twentieth century literature on non-Western art.6 It is therefore no coincidence that the bands of pattern and the slight diagonal orientation of the composition of Carpet resemble the souvenir drawings of fantastic architecture he had purchased on his trip to Tunisia in 1914.7 Klee’s drawing also bears similarities to monochrome North African Amazigh kilims, or flat-woven carpets. Many scholars have made the case for Klee’s interest in carpets.8 At the Bauhaus, these multi-purpose objects would have been of special interest, as they exemplified the crossover between textile and architecture. Well suited to nomadic life, they could be used as carpets, saddles, and even to construct tents and divide the architectural space within them.9 Additionally, a photograph shows that Klee’s friend and Bauhaus colleague Wassily Kandinsky displayed a carpet resembling a North African kilim or a Bauhaus rug inspired by such kilims in the living room of the Meisterhaus duplex the two men shared. Perhaps this object sparked Klee’s memories of Tunisian cultural production. However, to my knowledge, Klee only referred specifically to Tunisian carpets once, in an unpublished interview from 1931, in which he asserted that Bauhaus carpets were “pitiable” in comparison to a carpet he had seen that was designed in Tunisia and woven in Paris.10

Despite Klee’s adaptation of non-Western aesthetics, which falls squarely within the parameters of modernist primitivism, scholars have often presented his work as the culmination nineteenth-century academic Orientalist painting on account of his travels to what was then perceived as the “Orient.”11 Said offers three interrelated definitions of Orientalism. The first covers the study of Biblical and Oriental languages in the nineteenth century, which in Said’s estimation played a role in helping France and Great Britain to gain practical knowledge of their colonial possessions, while the second concerns a way of thinking about the so-called Orient and Occident as binary opposites. According to Said, the East’s perceived inequality and otherness provided an ideological rationale for colonization and related imperialist ventures. Third and most importantly for Said, “Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”12

Anonymus (Tunesia), Untitled, fantasy architecture with three-gated propylons, brought back from Tunisia by Paul Klee in 1914, From a private collection in Switzerland, deposited in the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, © Photo: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.

Said had developed his theory of Orientalism primarily using examples from British and French literature, and the late feminist art historian Linda Nochlin was the first western academic to bring it to bear on academic Orientalist painting. For Nochlin, the detailed realism of works such as Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Carpet Merchant, c. 1888, gives them the appearance of a truthful documentation of a scene witnessed by the artist. In fact, paintings like this one are pieced together from sketches made on site, studio reconstructions, and the artist’s imagination. Nochlin argued that because these scenes hide all traces of European modernity, they suggested the peoples represented would benefit from colonization.13 However, what are we to make of the Swiss Klee, who resided in Germany and had no stake in British or French colonial ventures? In stark contrast to Gérôme’s painting, the abstract, shape-shifting Carpet does not purport to tell a truth about an unfamiliar culture, but instead foregrounds the artist’s own imaginative viewpoint.

Said made a strong case for Orientalism as a prevalent discourse in European institutions ranging from the political sphere to academia throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, he overgeneralizes in arguing that it functioned as an instrument of imperialism in historical and geographical situations as disparate as the wars between the ancient Greeks and Persians and General Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt at the close of the eighteenth century. John Mackenzie therefore counters Said’s allegation that Orientalism is a near-universal characteristic of Western culture by arguing that Orientalist art and literature is the result of a wider impulse to seek renewal in places apparently untouched by modernization.14

Post-colonial scholars such as Homi Bhabha have also taken issue with Said’s overriding emphasis on Western domination over the Orient and his totalizing concept of the West and the East. Bhabha conceives of the interaction between the colonizing nation and colonized peoples as a process of exchange, however uneven.15 Cultures therefore continually redefine themselves through contact with one another.16 Thus, he argues that conceptions of Europe and the so-called Orient are also constantly being revised. Furthermore, Bhabha’s concept of native agency has inspired a fascinating body of scholarship and art concerning methods people in the former colonies used to adapt modes of representation developed in the West, such as oil painting and photography, in order to assert local political and cultural agendas.17 Kader Attia’s new film on the appropriation of European money in Berber jewelry, produced in the context of bauhaus imaginista, likewise addresses these themes.

Unlike the French colonists who lived in Tunisia, Klee was there for only a short time and had limited contact with locals.18 Following Bhabha’s lead is difficult, because it is unclear whether Tunisian artisans had the opportunity to see Klee’s work in 1914. Nonetheless, post-colonial scholarship prompted me to ask what Klee learned from the visual cultures of Tunisia and how he applied those lessons in his modernist primitivism.19 It is also possible to take a long-term view of the processes of exchange Bhabha describes, and to examine how artists and intellectuals in the Maghreb today respond to and adapt Klee’s art.20 What is more, instead of conducting research in archives, libraries, and museums like the Orientalist scholars of the nineteenth century, this line of questioning has led cultural organizations and scholars, including the organizers of bauhaus imaginista, to strike up conversations with artists and intellectuals in the Maghreb.21 In our own age of ongoing political tensions between the so-called East and West, Klee’s Carpet becomes a common thread.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Carpet Merchant, c. 1887
Minneapolis Art Institute.

Paul Klee, Carpet of Memory, 1914, 193
Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, © Photo: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.

  • 1 I would like to thank Fabienne Eggelhöfer for sharing her forthcoming essay “Paul Klee’s Pictures of Architectural Tapestries” for the bauhaus imaginista catalogue with me. Fabienne Eggelhöfer: “Paul Klee’s Pictures of Architectural Tapestries” in Marion von Osten and Grant Watson (eds.): bauhaus imaginista, Berlin forthcoming 2019.
  • 2 Klee referred to it as a “design course weaving workshop.” Lesson plan in the pocket calendar WS 1927/28, in Felix Klee (ed.): Paul Klee. Briefe an die Familie 1893–1940. Band 2: 1907–1940 (Paul Klee. Letters to the Family 1893–1940. Volume 2: 1907–1940). DuMont, Cologne 1979, p. 1093, cited after ibid.
  • 3 Osamu Okuda: “Paul Klee. Buchhaltung, Werkbezeichnung und Werkprozess,” pp. 374–397 in Wolfgang Kersten (ed.): Radical Art History. Internationale Anthologie Subject O.K. Werckmeister, InterPublishers, Zürich 1997, p. 385.
  • 4 Edward Said: Orientalism (1978), Vintage, New York 1994, pp. 1–2.
  • 5 For a thorough historiographical overview of the term primitivism, see Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten: “Primitivism,” pp. 217–233 in: Norbert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (eds.): Critical Terms for Art History, 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 2003.
  • 6 Klee’s personal library included a 1912 German translation of the French primitivist Paul Gauguin’s Noa Noa, an account of his first Tahitian sojourn from 1891–1893, Carl Einstein’s Negerplastik of 1915 (published in English translation as Negro Sculpture) and Africanische Plastik (African Sculpture) of 1921 as well as William Hausenstein’s Barbaren und Klassiker. Ein Buch von der Bildnerei Exotischer Völker (Barbarians and Classics: A Book on the Images of Exotic Peoples) of 1922.These books are housed in the archive of the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.
  • 7 Klee purchased three watercolors of fantastic architecture and one drawing of a man with lions in Tunisia. For more on the drawings, see Roger Benjamin: “’Schöne Aquarelle’. Paul Klee and Indigenous Art from Kairouan,” pp. 232–239, in: The Journey to Tunisia, 1914. Paul Klee, August Macke, Louis Moilliet, (exhibition catalogue) Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern and Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2014.
  • 8 See for example Hamid Sadighi Neiriz: “Paul Klee und die Kelims der Nomaden,” in: Magdalena Droste and Manfred Ludewig (eds.): Das Bauhaus Webt. Die Textilwerkstatt am Bauhaus, Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin 1998, pp. 120–143, as well as my essay “Paul Klee, Zeichensammlung Südlich (Collection of Southern Signs), 1924,” Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum Spotlight Series (April 2012), online publication: (6/5/2018).
  • 9 Kilims are still produced throughout North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East. For more information, see Alastair Hull and José Luczyc-Wyhowska: Kilim. The Complete Guide. History, Pattern, Technique, Identification, Chronicle Books, San Francisco 1993.
  • 10 In the original German, Klee referred to the Bauhaus carpets as “jammervoll.” Rudolf Bach: “Gespräche mit Paul Klee,” Eight conversations (March 2-April 19, 1931), recorded by Thea Bach, unpublished typescript, 1931, Archive, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.
  • 11 See Roger Benjamin: Orientalism: From Delacroix to Klee, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney and Thames and Hudson, London 1997. More recently an exhibition at the Zentrum Paul Klee anchored Klee’s work in a longer trajectory. See: Michael Baumgartner and Carole Haensler (eds.): Auf der Suche nach dem Orient, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern 2009.
  • 12 Said 1994, p. 2–3.
  • 13 Linda Nochlin: “The Imaginary Orient,” in: Art in America (May 1983): pp. 118–131; 187–191.
  • 14 John Mackenzie: “The ‘Orientalism’ Debate,” pp. 1–19, in: Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts, Manchester University Press, Manchester 1995.
  • 15 Homi Bhabha: The Location of Culture (1994), Routledge, London 2006, pp. 28–29; 101–105.
  • 16 Ibid, 2–3.
  • 17 See for example Jill Beaulieu and Mary Roberts (eds.): Orientalism’s Interlocutors: Painting, Architecture and Photography, Duke University Press, Durham 2002.
  • 18 One exception was his host Dr. Jäggi’s Arab servant Ahmed, with whom the artists spent a few days at the beginning of their trip. Decades later, their hostess Frau Jäggi later recalled that Klee and Macke had painted Easter eggs and a mural in the family’s living room, the style of which was ‘guided by Ahmed’s native way of seeing things’. Easter eggs are of course ephemeral objects and the house is not accessible, so it is difficult to determine exactly how this brief but intense exchange played out. Walter Holzhausen: “The Visit to Tunisia. Recollections and History,” pp. 18–24, p. 20 in Günter Busch (ed.): August Macke. Tunisian Watercolors and Drawings, Harry N. Abrams, New York 1959.
  • 19 See my doctoral dissertation: Sarah McGavran: Modernist Orientalisms. Klee, Matisse, and North Africa, c. 1906–1930, St. Louis 2013 (diss. Washington University in St. Louis).
  • 20 For instance, I interviewed the Tunisian filmmaker Nacer Khemir in 2010 to learn more about the role of Klee’s work in his own artistic development, which he discusses at length in Die Tunisreise, a 2007 film collaboration with the Swiss documentary filmmaker Bruno Moll. See my forthcoming essay: Sarah McGavran: “Die Tunisreise. The Legacy of the Blue Rider in the Art of Paul Klee and Nacer Khemir,” in: Dorothy C. Price (ed.): German Expressionism. Der Blaue Reiter and Its Legacies, Manchester University Press, Manchester, forthcoming 2019.
  • 21 A series of rich collaborations and conversations took place in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of Paul Klee’s Tunisian Journey. For example, the Goethe-Institut Tunis and the Swiss Embassy sponsored the exhibition Photos de voyage-jadis et maintenant that juxtaposed August Macke’s photographs from the trip with work by contemporary photographers from Tunisia. That spring, Khaled Abida, Professor of Art at the Institut Supérieur des Arts et Métiers de Kairouan and Rachida Triki, Professor of Philosophy at the Université de Tunis, organized the international conference Paul Klee à Kairouan: Destination Mystique … 100 ans après, which featured speakers from Australia, France, Tunisia and the United States. The Zentrum Paul Klee also hosted artists and scholars from Tunisia, Europe and the United States for a weekend of lectures and performances. On the programs that took place in and around Tunis, see:
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The art school of the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro was established in 1952, led by Ivan Serpa, who gave classes for both children and adults—including artists who would go on to form the Grupo Frente (1954–56) and later the neo-concrete movement (1959–61). Writer and critic Mário Pedrosa described the “experimental” character of these classes, but the fact this experimentation was structured through study of color, materials, technique and composition has encouraged art historian Adele Nelson to claim Serpa’s teaching method was substantially based on the Bauhaus preliminary course. → more

Walking on a Möbius Strip — The Inside/Outside of Art in Brazil

This text investigates how the topological figure of the Möbius strip, famously propagated by Bauhaus proponent Max Bill, was used in Brazil within dissident artistic practices of the 1960s and 1970s as a tool for reflection on the subject, alterity and public space. The Möbius strip is revisited in this essay as a conduit for thinking critically about possible subversions of Eurocentric forms, as well as various appropriations of traditional popular culture by modern and contemporary art in Brazil. → more

The Poetry of Design — A search for multidimensional languages between Brazilian and German modernists

In the 1950s and 1960s, intense debates and exchanges took place between Brazilians and Germans working in the fields of design, art, and their various manifestations—from architecture and painting to music and poetry. These intertwined lines are identifiable in myriad events: journeys, meetings, exchanges of letters, exhibitions, lectures, courses, and publications. Common modes of production emerged out of these different encounters where, more than relations of influence, one can observe how entangled realities led to a questioning of the directionality of the flow between center and periphery. → more

The Latent Forces of Popular Culture — Lina Bo Bardi’s Museum of Popular Art and the School of Industrial Design and Crafts in Bahia, Brazil

This text deals with the experience of the Museum of Popular Art (MAP) and the School of Industrial Design and Handicraft, designed by the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, in Salvador (capital of the state of Bahia), Brazil. Such a “school-museum” is based on the capture and transformation of latent forces that exist in Brazilian popular culture. → more

Teko Porã — On Art and Life

Cristine Takuá is an Indigenous philosopher, educator, and artisan who lives in the village of Rio Silveira, state of São Paulo, Brazil. She was invited to present a contemporary perspective on questions and tensions raised by interactions between the Indigenous communities and the mainstream art system, as well as to address Brazil’s specific social and political context. → more

Times of Rudeness — Design at an Impasse

In 1980, Lina Bo Bardi began working on a book concerning her time in the northeastern part of Brazil. With the help of Isa Grinspum Ferraz, she captioned the illustrations, revised her contributions to the book and drafted the layout and contents. The latter also included texts by her collaborators who, in a truly collective effort, had tried to envision the project of a true Brazil—an unfettered and free country with no remnant remaining of the colonial inferiority complex which had plagued the country earlier in its history. Bo Bardi discontinued her work in 1981. In 1994, the Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi published this project as Times of Rudeness: Design at an Impasse. → more

Connecting the Dots — Sharing the Space between Indigenous and Modernist Visual Spatial Languages

Ever increasing numbers of design institutes note the merits of cultural diversity within their pedagogy and practice. Rather quixotically, however, Eurocentric modernist ideals remain dominant within design curricula. This ambiguity results in non-Western social, cultural and creative practice, remaining side-lined, albeit while still being lauded as of great value. Critical of this duplicity, this paper introduces three Indigenous visual spatial languages, identifying a number of correlations and contradictions these offer to the establishment and implementation of Bauhaus pedagogy and subsequent examples of modernism adopted beyond Europe. → more

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