ARTIQ Reviews: Good Grief, Charlie Brown! At Somerset House

Good Grief, Charlie Brown! at Somerset House celebrates Peanuts, one of the most popular and influential comic strips of all time. Whilst wandering around the show, I thought back to the summer’s afternoon when, around the age of seven, I came across my grandfather’s collection of Peanuts strips. With their stiff borders yellowed by humidity and the funny covers with their 2D, brightly-coloured drawings, these comic books became a personal obsession. At that age, I didn’t know much about history, collective memory or existentialism, but I do remember reading those strips over and over again and feeling a peculiar sense of comfort while I did so (and laughing along at the same time). I never knew the reason behind this strange feeling. Perhaps it was the idea of getting to know, through his books, my grandfather, whom I had never met and whose figure always fascinated me? Or perhaps those 70s Peanuts strips were conveying feelings everybody felt in relation to the times, but which were still – and continue to be – relatable to us all?

Charles Schulz’s cast of young characters, along with Snoopy the dog, with his wild imagination, and the bird Woodstock, named after the infamous rock festival, all deal with emotions such as worry, anxiety and love, while topics from war, faith and racism to art and feminism are addressed in the speech bubbles. Hilarious at times, and always astonishingly poignant in their simplicity.

When visiting the show at Somerset House, the viewer is guided by the characters through an incredible array of events, social and political change, new movements and new ideas, all expressed and explored in the author’s unique, understated manner. The ground floor display summarises the early life of the genius artist and the birth of his iconic comic strip and includes artist memorabilia, as well as video footage documenting Schultz’s practice, as well as the people who inspired some of the most distinctive traits of his cast of children. Original comic strips are spread across the entire exhibition, setting the pace and themes of the show. Through them, we experience their author’s story, as well as Western history and culture from the 1950s to the 2000s. From the more descriptive approach of the ground floor, the layout on the floor above becomes almost surrealist: an immersive sequence of images culminating in video works, music and experiential performances by contemporary artists inspired by Peanuts.

Amidst the current glut of self-celebratory personalities, loudly overpopulating the arts and media, it is comforting, refreshing and astonishing at the same time to learn about the Peanuts creator who, as a child, used to think that his ‘ordinary’ appearance was ‘a perfect disguise’ and who defined his body of work of more than 17,897 strips as being stories ‘about nothing’. It could be easily argued that Schulz was one of the greatest artists, philosophers and writers of the 20th century, able to capture complex thoughts, ideas and emotions in an extraordinary synthesis and with the ability to reach out to an incredibly vast and diverse audience.

Since childhood, Schultz presented himself as unpretentious and composed, with a passionate interest in sports, an unconditioned love for his dog Sparky and a prodigious and restless talent for drawing. It was possibly his very introverted nature that made him such an acute observer: an active, sensitive and reactive individual with a self-enhancing, yet universally relatable, sense of humour.

When we talk about emotions, we don’t immediately think of the neatly outlined Peanuts comic strips, in which stories evolve within orderly rectangles, in a white-backgrounded world where black line drawings encapsulate ideas, feelings and events in a (pea)nutshell. However, Schultz’s characters are at once deep and well-rounded as well as allegorical. Without age and with timeless style, they nevertheless keep growing and changing according to the passing of different eras, oscillating between showing the status of well-rounded personalities or being symbols or the personification of emotions.

Peanuts gives us the opportunity to observe ourselves from the outside and to realise that perhaps the only ways to cope with reality and life are true friendship and humour, showing friendship as a feeling of solidarity with and compassion for each other, personified by an unbreakable closeness – even during arguments and fights – where opposites push each other to react and afford the other insights, in the same way that Lucy dispenses advise to Charlie Brown from her lemonade-stand-like Psychiatric Help booth. And showing how to use humour as a weapon and a shield, an intellectual and emotional device that brings a sense of resolution and an understanding of what surrounds us.

Peanuts remind us that we all have at least one thing in common and that we are all friends in the end.

Review by Sara Tenti, Artist Liaison, ARTIQ