Anxiety, despair, dread, depression, fear, misery, alienation: a pretty standard Friday night, but an unusual recipe for a kids’ comic strip. ‘Peanuts’ is special, though. Over his tens of thousands of strips – syndicated the world over and read by millions of adoring fans – Charles M Schulz combined simple line drawings and emotional non-sequiturs into little bundles of pure, heart-wrenching modern truth.
This show, looking at the history of ‘Peanuts’ and the art it inspired, starts with the development of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, based on Schulz himself and his childhood dog Spike. From the start, Schulz’s characters are forlorn, sad little things – always downtrodden, always caught on the worst possible day, but always with a bit of hope in their hearts. Then along comes Lucy, Woodstock and the gang and you start to see the birth of the world’s most popular comic strip. It’s almost shocking to be confronted with the emotional vulnerability of ‘Peanuts’ on such a scale. Charlie Brown is a loser, a sad sack. His mouth is a shaky line that seems moments away from quivering with sorrow. So raw, so vulnerable. Snoopy is a gentle, necessary foil, Lucy is a hotheaded mess, Linus is a needy wreck. It’s all too real for me, an overtired slightly hungover 33-year-old. How the hell do kids hack this?
But that’s the point. Schulz made the emotional vulnerability that we all feel acceptable. These original panels are so honest and close to the bone that you want to reach out and hug them. And he doesn’t just stop at the heart, he goes for the head too. He tackles war, philosophy and lets his gaggle of strong, fierce girls voice the power and necessity of feminism.
His black lines and endlessly repeating panels had a huge influence on culture, and upstairs is a brilliant collection of ‘Peanuts’-inspired art and memorabilia. The Snoopy-emblazoned army and navy jackets are fascinating, but it’s the works of contemporary artists riffing on ‘Peanuts’ that are really good. Ryan Gander finds a stark meditation on time in Schulz’s work, Andy Holden explores its impact more academically, Fiona Banner turns it into a song of mourning, Ken Kagami repeats and twists Schulz’s forms. His impact is incredible.
What’s really amazing, though, is that with just a few ultra-simple lines and choice words, Schulz created something iconic; something that offered a window into the weaknesses, vulnerabilities and emotions of living. What he exposed feels so pertinent now, so important and – more than anything – completely and utterly human. Thank you, Charles M Schulz.
|Venue name:||Somerset House|
|Opening hours:||Daily 8am-11pm|
|Transport:||Tube: Temple/Charing Cross/Covent Garden|
|Price:||£14, £11 concs|
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