Darren Hayman takes a walk around Somerset House exhibition ‘Good Grief, Charlie Brown! – Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts’.
It is said that Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz is the longest continuous narrative made by a single person. The last comic strips he made in the 1990s could be seen as a perfect refinement of the very first ones he drew in the 1950s. It is a life’s work of staggering singularity and focus, trumping other narrow visionaries like Samuel Beckett or Mark E Smith. It is a monumental achievement of relentless, untiring, consistent creativity. ‘I am the strip,’ said Schulz.
His fiction is like Beckett in other respects too. Peanuts exists in a surreal no-place. Time moves in the sense that the Vietnam War comes and goes, and cultural and social changes impact on the characters – but it also never moves, in the sense that the children are frozen at the age of around eight. No adults appear; they are located in a Midwest American town ,and few details are rarely seen. The children stand beside a fence or a tree, with a single line denoting the horizon.
I doubt, however, I have to explain what ‘Peanuts’ or ‘Charlie Brown’ or ‘Snoopy’ are to you though. If a mark of a good dramatic character is that it can recognised by its silhouette, then Schulz’s creations can be identified worldwide by a line for a mouth or two dots from the eyes. It is a masterclass of minimalism. There is nothing quite like the way Schulz used pen and ink, nothing like his shaky line.
‘Good Grief, Charlie Brown!’ is an exhibition on Peanuts and Schulz at Somerset House in London that runs until 3rd March 2019. There is trepidation upon entering the exhibition for even a casual Peanuts fan because there are really two Peanutses. On the one hand there is the Peanuts on greeting cards, Internet memes and soft plush toys, perhaps born out of perhaps the most famous Peanuts frame ever, ‘Happiness is a Warm Puppy.’ It is a joyful world of warmth and togetherness.
Fans however prefer a darker, more melancholic narrative about a boy plagued by self doubt, another boy who clings to a blanket throughout his life, a girl who is a borderline bully and a dog who can’t remember, or possibly pretends to forget, his owner’s name.
The exhibition does a good job of exploring the latter in depth, whilst never losing sight of the former (and why a good percentage of people are there). Some of the most heartbreaking moments are shown in their original hand-drawn art, and supported with intelligent and thoughtful commentary.
Peppermint Patty is shown in tears when she realises how pretty the Little Red Haired Girl is who is adored by her crush Charlie Brown.
We see part of the ‘Mister Sack’ storyline, where Charlie Brown hides his head in a sack to hide a rash and becomes a stronger, more respected version of himself. His life is restored to its usual mundanity when his friends realise who Mister Sack is.
We experience the unrequited love of Sally for Linus, Lucy for Schroeder, Peppermint Patty for Charlie Brown, and Charlie Brown for the Little Red Haired Girl.
The warmth and happiness we know from miles and miles of gift wrap is here as well. One panel explains the apparent incongruity of ‘Happiness is Warm Puppy’ thus:
While Schulz always defended his famous aphorism, challenging anyone to disagree with the idea that the greatest happiness was to be found in the simple sense of connection to others, in the strip itself the experience of happiness was a much more complex and elusive thing. For Schulz, happiness was just as likely to be found in the exquisite pain of unrequited love, and in learning from life’ bittersweet experiences of melancholy, disillusionment and loneliness. This essential truth was at the heart of Peanuts and many readers recognised their own lives in it. In Peanuts there would never be any happy endings, as Schulz himself said “… all the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses: the Great Pumpkin never comes: and the football is always pulled away.” Peanuts teaches us that it’s friendship, loyalty, dignity and creativity which are the things that will ultimately make us happy.
The exhibition works when it is as simple as Schulz’s creation. On the second floor, seemingly endless original strips are shown and the audience shuffles along, reading every strip and footnote. You would think that to see the cartoons in their original form would not add much, but they are transformed when their true scale is revealed. Schulz rarely pencilled first, he usually went straight to ink. There’s something touching about his glued-on copyrighted notices. Interested artists are treated to lots of detail about his working process and his pens and brushes are exhibited.
At one end of the long hall, a big screen shows Schulz’s hands drawing the characters incredibly fast as he describes each one and their traits. There are displays of memorabilia, original letters and photos telling of Schulz’s shifting attitude to and portrayal of the Vietnam War, and the sweet story of Schulz introducing his first Afro-Caribbean character, Franklin, in response to a plea from a fan.
The exhibition falters slightly only when we see anything drawn by someone other than Schulz himself. Schulz and Peanuts are so complete in their conception that anything else seems superfluous. There is a well-intentioned attempt to have contemporary artists comment on the Peanuts phenomenon; they take the form of huge canvasses and sometimes video and sound installations. They seem brash and loud and distract momentarily, but Schulz always pulls you back, with his smallness, his quietness. Everything seems over-complicated next to Schulz.
Go to the Schulz exhibition at Somerset House. Leave yourself an afternoon and take your time.
And stay eight years old forever.
Good Grief, Charlie Brown! – Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts is on at Somerset House until March 2019. More info and tickets available here.