Klee first traveled through Italy in April 1914 while returning from a trip to Tunisia. The route of his steamship took him along the Sicilian coast, and he spent a day in Palermo, before sailing on to Naples, after which he visited Rome and Milan. He made a note in the Palermo entry in his diary on April 20, 'Very original façades', and was fascinated by the hillside towns that gave the appearance of climbing mountains. Memories of this brief visit inspired him to return to Sicily in the summer of 1924; it was his first trip outside Central Europe since the end of the First World War.
Klee executed more than two dozen watercolours of Sicilian subjects in 1924 - mainly landscapes, as well as several humorous portraits of local inhabitants and fellow tourists. Some of the places that Klee visited during this trip are recorded in the titles of these works: Mazzaró, Sant'Andrea, Catania and Taormina. The Sicilian works display the sun-drenched, high-keyed colours that Klee associated with the light of the Mediterranean, which had come as a revelation to him a decade earlier when he was painting in Tunisia. Will Grohmann noted that the watercolours 'of Mazzaró are so plastically and architectonically correct and so Sicilian in colour that one can clearly see how intensely Klee examined things when for once he approached them from without' (in Paul Klee, London, 1954, p. 197).
The present work was done in early 1925, and surely represents a recollection of the artist's Sicilian holiday the previous summer. Indeed, the powerful role of memory was probably paramount here: this nocturnal evocation of a southern town is a scene the artist could not have easily painted in situ. Back in his Weimar studio, however, he could have easily imagined the town in vivid detail, and been able to render and embellish it with great richness and intensity, so that the image emerged like a glimmering, half-lit dream. As in a dream, colour became irrelevant here, and instead the viewer is treated to a lavish array of delicately nuanced, tesserae-like blocks of grisaille tone which the artist has painstakingly applied.
Klee's choice of using a mosaic-like technique here probably stems from memories of his Sicilian trip. Like many knowledgeable tourists he would have likely visited the cathedral of Cefalù, the church of Santa Maria and the royal palaces in Palermo (fig. 1), or the large cathedral complex in Monreale, and studied the 12th century mosaic decorations created by Byzantine craftsmen for the Norman kings of Sicily. The avian and floral imagery in one of Klee's best-known watercolours, Vogelgarten, 'Bird Garden', 1924 (Paul Klee Foundation, ed., no. 3595; coll. Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich) appears to have been inspired by the wall mosaics in the chamber of the palace of King Roger in Palermo. The use of a tesserae-like brushstrokes may also have been influenced by the late divisionist style of Paul Signac, who was still painting during the 1920s, or the Neo-Impressionist paintings of 1906-1907 by Robert Delaunay, an artist whom Klee deeply admired.
Klee employed the grisaille mosaic technique seen here in only one other major work on paper, Kind im Astergarten, 'Child in the Aster Garden', also done in 1925 (Paul Klee Foundation, ed., no. 3762). There is also a contemporary group of works that used a colour mosaic style (see nos. 3758, 3760-3761), as well as some larger 'magic square' paintings (nos. 3800-3802).
Klee set aside this method for a few years, and then revived it in variant forms during 1931-1933, when he left the Dessau Bauhaus and began teaching at the Dusseldorf Academy. The artist's son Felix Klee referred to the 1931-1933 paintings as having been done in a 'pointillistic, loose mosaic style' (in his commentary to Paul Klee Briefe an die Familie, II, p. 1,153). It is probably no coincidence that Klee revisited Sicily in the summer of 1931, an event that perhaps catalysed this second and ultimate series in the mosaic style. The 1931-1933 group comprises more than 70 works in oil and watercolour; chief among them is the famous Ad Parnassum, 1931 (no. 5970; coll. Kunstmuseum, Bern).