Humans are mortal, but cartoon characters can live forever. And so it is with Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang who are finding fresh cachet these days as subjects for international artists, featured alongside the original works of Charles Schulz in an international tribute at London’s historic Somerset House.
The exhibit, titled “Good Grief, Charlie Brown,” opened at the renowned international art and learning center overlooking the River Thames in October, and will continue until early March.
“You run into people who are great fans and have loved ‘Peanuts’ all their lives, but then you don’t know how widespread that is,” said Schulz’s widow, Jean, during a recent interview at the Schulz Museum, which opened to fans here in 2002.
The “Peanuts” newspaper comic strip by Charles “Sparky” Schulz made its syndicated debut in 1950. Eight years later, Schulz settled in Sonoma County, where he wrote and drew every panel until his death in 2000.
At its height, the “Peanuts” strip ran in as many as 2,600 newspapers, and reprints still run in about 2,000 papers, including The Press Democrat.
Add to that decades of TV specials and animated movies, stacks of related books and merchandise of all kinds, from plush toys to lunchboxes, and it’s clear the impact of “Peanuts” has been immense.
When the Schulz Museum was approached in March 2017 by Claire Catterall, senior curator for the Somerset House Trust, about a tribute exhibit, Schulz got new evidence of the lasting and far-reaching influence of “Peanuts.”
“The curator, who is very low-key and very British, but very enthusiastic, said she became intrigued with ‘Peanuts’ because at Somerset House they have maybe 80 artists of different sorts who they give studio space to, and she began to notice that many of them were using the ‘Peanuts’ characters in their work,” Schulz said.
The exhibit includes work by some of those artists — including pictures, installation art and even performance art — as well as 84 original “Peanuts” strips, plus related artifacts, on loan from the Schulz Museum.
For example, artist Steven Claydon pays tribute to the perpetually dusty character Pigpen with a portrait titled “Trom-pen (replicating, corpuscle), made from resin, aluminum and wood.” One of the installations is a mockup of Lucy’s famous “Psychiatric Help 5 Cents” booth, staffed by a rotating roster of experts prepared to answer questions on a wide variety of topics.
After the first contact between Somerset House and the Schulz Museum, the trust’s director, Jonathan Reekie, came to Santa Rosa in early 2018, followed a couple of weeks later by Catterall herself.
“You could tell that Claire knew her business, and had a take on ‘Peanuts,’ ” Schulz said. “So I felt we were in good hands with her.”
In the opening pages of the catalog for the Somerset House exhibit, Catterall wrote, “Today, as a generation of artists who grew up during the ‘golden age’ of ‘Peanuts’ come to prominence, its presence in the ideas and ambitions of contemporary art seems more powerful and relevant than ever.”
The Schulz Museum staff participated in the selection of items to loan, and composed the text to accompany the exhibit, which Schulz reviewed. The Somerset House leadership had some specific requests for their exhibit.