In fact when Lost T-Shirts wrote about the Top 10 things to do in Tunisia, #2 position was given to this town. "Sidi Bou Said, a picturesque blue-and-white-painted artist's town on a cliff overlooking the bay of Tunis. Follow the cobblestone street upward into town and get great views of the blue sea and marina. There are many small streets to wander around, and great places to sit and have a mint tea among a clowder of cats. You can reach Sidi Bou Said with a long metro/train ride from Tunis".
Macke, Cafe des Nattes, 1912, watercolour
August Macke (1887-1914) had lived most of his creative life in Bonn, with the exception of a few months spent in Switzerland and various trips to Paris, Italy and Holland. Macke and his friend Paul Klee considered themselves as part of Der Blaue Reiter, exhibiting and publishing together with their more mature colleagues.
Two of Macke's and Klee's art colleagues raved about North Africa - Wassily Kandinsky had been to Tunisia in 1904, and Henri Matisse had travelled to Algeria in 1906, and Morocco in 1912. The results of Kandinsky's and Matisse's North African experiences could be clearly seen in their art work back home in France! Klee and Macke wanted the same experience for themselves. So Paul Klee and August Macke arrived in Sidi Bou Said on Easter Monday in 1914.
Saudi Aramco World noted that in the span of only two weeks in 1914, Klee created nearly 50 watercolours and hundreds of sketches; Macke took many photographs, as well as making hundreds of sketches and watercolours. Macke, more than Klee, was fascinated by Tunisian dress and the Tunisian way of life, and produced a series of sketches that have both ethnographic and artistic value. The two young men made some preliminary studies of sites in Sidi Bou Said, with Macke focusing on a cafe with a white rectangular minaret looming over it.
Sidi Bou Said, lanes, today
Just two years later Soldier Macke was tragically killed in a WW1 battle, but his version of Sidi Bou Said still interests people decades after his death. Note one discrepancy. While the Macke work was filled with light and colour, there was no bright blue on the buildings. Apparently a French painter-musicologist called Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger didn't apply the blue-white theme all over the town until straight after WW1 ended.
Today shiploads of German, French and English tourists arrive, going past the souvenir sellers and photographing Macke's view of Cafe des Nattes. And when people walk inside the town, it was and still is a labyrinth of winding streets, filled with flower-filled courtyards; heavy, vivid blue doorways; verandas closed against the summer heat; and unexpected flights of steps.
Cafe des Nattes, today
Because I was most interested in Macke in this post, I have almost neglected Klee. So interested readers should read the two bloggers (above) who discussed the impact of Tunisia on Klee's paintings. Klee was passionate about city architecture and landscape paints, and took particular delight in the lush gardens of Tunisia. In fact the palm became one of the central motifs in Klee's Tunisian paintings and drawings. Even more impressively, June Taboroff quoted extensively from Klee's diary, written during his stay in Sidi Bou Said.
Klee, The Tunisian Journey, 1914.