Between 1914 and 1918, the battlefields of Europe forever changed a generation of artists. Modernist abstraction was refigured in the trenches, musical languages recast on the Western front. Nearly every prominent composer, writer, and artist of the era took part in World War I, a conflict that spilled across the continent and introduced Americans to a global stage.
Figures as wide-ranging as Ernest Hemingway and Alban Berg emerged scarred from the conflict, and worked through their experiences in their creations. Art before the war reflected an uncanny optimism, expressed by the violent and utopian gestures of early modernism. Art created afterwards echoed bitter truths learned on the battlefield. World War I was the final conflict in history to be eagerly anticipated by artists and intellectuals; returning disillusioned, this young generation created lasting testaments to what they witnessed.
While the brutality of World War I and its effects on art and culture are often overlooked, it will be an integral part of Carolina life in the 2014-2015 season, which marks the centenary of the beginning of the conflict. Following the success of The Rite of Spring at 100, UNC Chapel Hill’s World War I Centenary Project is a broad, interdisciplinary initiative focused on the legacy of WWI that encompasses twenty courses, two international academic conferences, and a slew of performances and exhibitions.
In tandem with the project, Carolina Performing Arts has crafted four programs that deal with the artistic ramifications of World War I. In “Beyond Zero, 1914-1918,” the acclaimed Kronos Quartet tells the story of the war with archival footage and a haunting score by Aleksandra Vrebalov. The UNC Symphony Orchestra and Carolina Choir will deliver Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a stunning lament that sets WWI – era poetry. As part of a 24-decade history of popular music, performance artist Taylor Mac focuses on the 1910s, offering a view of the era from the perspective of the music hall. And the Dutch theater troupe Hotel Modern stages a multimedia panorama of “The Great War,” illustrating the horrors of trench warfare by drawing on the letters of contemporary soldiers. With music and movement, CPA’s World War I performances provide a lens into a crucial period in our history, one whose artistic ramifications continue to echo today.
– William Robin