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Features / Exhibition

The little incidents: Jean Schulz on Peanuts and the legacy of Charles M. Schulz

In the exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts, Charles M. Schulz’ beloved comic strips are presented in a sort of spatial conversation with contemporary works that respond to Peanuts and its legacy. It’s a fitting reflection – considering the way Schulz, in his Peanuts comic strips, was reflecting on life – to now have contemporary artists “reflecting back on him”, as Jean Schulz, his widow and the founder of the Charles M. Schulz Museum, tells It’s Nice That.

Jean and her team at the museum provided 80 original comic strips for the show, which are interspersed with works by the likes of KAWS, Helen Marten, Fiona Banner and Ryan Gander, among many other international contemporary artists. There are films, sculptures, textiles, ceramics and prints, as well as a reimagining of Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth and light boxes to help you learn how to draw the Peanuts gang; in its interactive, absorbing approach, the exhibition not only gives a brief history of Peanuts, but drops you right into its world.

It was in providing context and thinking about the broader significance of Peanuts that Jean came into her own, in conversations with the exhibition curator, Claire Catterall:“To me, it’s not just the comic strip, it’s everything around the comic strip,” she says. Working in limited panels meant thinking about not just the rhythm of each story, but the narrative arc as a whole, while maintaining enough flexibility for life to happen and the stories to change shape. It’s a complexity that Charles M. Schulz, or Sparky as he was nicknamed at two days old, mastered first in his four-panel stories: “In 1983 the panel length became flexible, but initially it had to be four, and within that there had to be an actual story: a beginning, a middle and an end. I think it was in creating that rhythm that Sparky was a genius, we used to talk about it as ‘beat, beat, slooow, and then the punchline,’” Jean says. “Sparky used to say that if you looked at a lot of his four-panel strips and you took off the last panel – which is the Peanuts essence of it – it would be the joke that another cartoonist would do.”

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts: Snoopy’s Vietnam War patches, buttons and tour jackets, photographed by Tim Bowditch

As well as paying attention to the details and idiosyncrasies of line work, composition and narrative rhythm, Charles M. Schulz had a particular focus on language, and the potential significance of little incidents. “He understood the flow of language and conversation, and he talked about how important conversation was – just having the time to talk about things – and that’s what his characters do,” Jean explains. Charles M. Shultz himself proclaimed Peanuts to be “about nothing”. “Someone once complained: ‘Well, all they do is stand there and talk, there’s no action’, but that’s what Sparky was interested in – the little incidents – that was the whole point. Life’s not always big things and action.” In fact, the drama isn’t necessarily in the action: “It’s in the small details, the look of an eye. One little line could change an expression, and you’d know that Snoopy was about to stick his foot out and trip you,” Jean recalls.

Peanuts focused entirely on a society of young children, and as the show’s curator Claire Catterall wrote in her introduction to the exhibition: “The characters’ interactions form a tangle of relationships that is recognisable in the reader’s everyday reality. Poignant and tender in its telling, the ongoing storylines and the cast of colourful characters give voice to all the joys, vulnerabilities and anxieties of life.”

The characters in Peanuts express feelings of anxiety, loneliness, failure and despair, and the storylines are punctuated with irrational behaviour and random acts of cruelty; but it doesn’t belie the loyalty, love and occasional mind-boggling lust the Peanuts gang have for each other. Charles M. Schulz didn’t shy away from representing the complexity of human relationships, or dog to bird friendships, nor did he ignore the contemporary concerns of the time. The strip engaged with the Vietnam War, the Draft and the Civil Rights movement, as well as challenging gender norms in the storylines and personalities of Lucy and Peppermint Patty. Peanuts, and Snoopy in particular, also became an important emblem during the Vietnam War, both for the army and navy – with the name used in operations and missions, as a literal emblem on patches, and his image appearing on fighter planes and short-range missiles – and the resistance – with campaigns in 1968 and 1972 for “Snoopy for President”. Snoopy was NASA’s safety mascot, there’s a Snoopy lunar module orbiting the sun from the Apollo 10 mission, and the original “Silver Snoopy” remains the highest honour bestowed by NASA for outstanding services to space safety. To say that the “warm puppy” has lived quite the life would be an understatement.

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts: Photographed by Tim Bowditch

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts: Detail of Peanuts, 06.07.1968

The legacy of Peanuts is also down to much smaller moments and details in character: “I think that the lasting value of the strip is that people see themselves in it,” Jean says. “There’s Charlie Brown’s insecurity, and then there’s Linus’ insecurity – and they’re two different kinds. Then there’s Lucy’s boldness, but you know she’s not really that confident, she’s insecure too…” Linus’ insecurity, or rather his security blanket, even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, after its editor wrote to Charles M. Schulz to enquire about the blanket’s origins in 1989.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to the life and work of Charles M. Schulz is the Santa Rosa museum, which opened in 2002. “The museum opened after Sparky had died, two years after he passed away. But he was involved in all the important elements of it,” Jean recalls. “We’ve fulfilled what I set out to do, which was to let people see his original comic strips. I knew we didn’t want computers, or other mechanical things that Sparky didn’t use in his life or care about. It’s really the pen, the paper, the simplicity of the line, the comic strip and his tools – I think it’s reflected as you walk through the museum. It’s a quiet, simple way of explaining his themes and his art.”

Charles M. Schulz moved to California in the 1960s, and inspired by his childhood passion, built the Redwood Empire Ice Arena in Santa Rosa with his first wife, Joyce. Snoopy Home Ice as it came to be called, would go on to play a central role in his life, and the community. It was there that his five kids would learn to skate, there that he’d meet Jean, and there that he’d have his breakfast before getting to work at his studio each day, at the Warm Puppy Café. Now the museum does a daily tour of Sparky’s main spots, what Jean describes as “A Day in the Life of Charles M. Schulz”: “You start with a muffin with grape jelly in the morning at the Warm Puppy Cafe, walk around Snoopy Home Ice, over to his studio, and end with a tuna fish sandwich for lunch.”

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts: Detail of Peanuts, 22.09.1963

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts: Photographed by Tim Bowditch

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts: NASA, A Touch of Luck, 1969, courtesy of NASA

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts: Photographed by Tim Bowditch

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts: Photographed by Tim Bowditch