Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Peanuts at Somerset House
Becky Brown reviews the UK’s first significant exhibition of the world’s most influential comic strip, Peanuts, and its revered creator Charles M. Schulz.
Not only does Somerset House’s latest exhibition celebrate the indelible work of Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, but it explores how his comic strips and legendary characters like Snoopy and Charlie Brown have inspired and emotionally affected a global readership.
In Good Grief, Charlie Brown!, we learn about Schulz’s creative process and his prolific success—he authored 17,897 comic strips which were syndicated in over 2,600 newspapers—while a showcase of work by artists who grew up during the peak of Peanuts’ popularity add a striking contemporary sensibility to the exhibition. They illuminate the themes brought up in Schulz’s original strips, such as friendship, faith and race; in essence rendering his work timeless.
Peanuts was far from a fixture of my own childhood. Prior to the exhibition I knew only vaguely of Charlie Brown, the stubborn young boy who eventually became a fan favourite. However I felt an undeniable nostalgia as I entered Charles M. Schulz’s fictional world.
The beginning of the exhibition focuses primarily on Schulz’s childhood, explaining through short extracts and photographs where he drew his inspiration from. Snoopy, for instance, was modelled upon Schulz’ childhood dog. Throughout the exhibition there are also displays of the artist’s comic strips (many of which, on loan from the Charles M. Schulz Museum in California, have rarely been seen in Europe) which have been thoughtfully placed to invite different reactions relative to where you stand.
The Peanuts strip at the very beginning of the exhibition, for example, depicts Charlie Brown playing with an elaborate train set at a friend’s house, before returning to his own meagre single-track train set at home which he looks at despondently. This heart-wrenching strip, from 1 February 1954, identifies the feeling of inadequacy that all of us have felt from time to time. It is testament to Schulz’s talents that his cartoons allow us to look back on our own experiences and be grateful for what we had, not jealous of what we lacked.
The weaving of Schulz’s professional and emotional progression throughout is astounding, as are the insights on his craft: from the descriptions of how Schulz’s use of language helped present different topics of interest to the reader, to how he could evoke emotion simply through the thickness of a line.
This exhibition also examines how Schulz’s work has informed wider contexts of politics and art. An array of flags boasting “Snoopy for President!” hark back to the US elections of 1968 and 1972, when Schulz’s disillusioned young adult readers made their mark by voting for Snoopy. At the time, Peanuts had become the most widely read comic strip in American history and Schultz was using it to express his misgivings over social issues and the war in Vietnam. For many, Snoopy became an important part of the war’s iconography.
Noteworthy too are the ways contemporary artists have incorporated Peanuts characters into their own work, such as a Snoopy’s face made from punctuation in bright-white lights. The upper floor of the exhibition is mostly dedicated to these contemporary works, while there are masses more of Schulz’s comic strips and a table full of books over which visitors are given free rein to sit and read.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring element of the exhibition, at least for me, is the ‘Snoopy Cinema’, where guests can settle into a peanut-shaped beanbag and watch remastered versions of Peanuts cartoons. For someone who had never actually seen Schulz’s work in this format, I found myself absorbed.
The final area of the exhibition is also the most interactive. Here, Lucy’s Psychiatric Help Booth had been set up: the wall is decorated with ‘job’ titles which can be displayed on the booth itself, and in certain sessions visitors can engage with a ‘Life Expert’ and feel all the more immersed in the world of Peanuts. It is incredible to see so much effort put into bringing Schulz’s work into reality. Nearby is a table where you can create your own story, beginning with the same first line of all of Snoopy’s novels: “It was a dark and stormy night…” I thoroughly enjoyed reading those which Peanuts fans had created – you can feel the enthusiasm beaming from the pages.
Good Grief, Charlie Brown! grips both heart and mind through its tender exploration of the life and work of Charles M. Schulz. Whether you are the biggest Peanuts superfan to have graced the earth or simply familiar with Snoopy’s name, I highly recommend paying this exhibition a visit before it’s gone.
Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts at Somerset House runs until 3 March 2019. For more information click here.