Created by Charles M. Schulz, the comic strip debuted in 1950 and quickly became an international sensation: at its height, it was translated into 21 languages and had a readership of approximately 355 million people. Yet many people today will know little more about the characters than their appearance on stationary and endless other forms of merchandise.
For them the exhibition will be eye-opening. Schulz’s background and the strip’s humble beginnings are comprehensively covered in the first room. On the long mezzanine above, the rest of the history of Peanuts is organised by themes that have emerged in the comic over the years, and a convincing case is made for reading the strips in the light of big ideas like existentialism, feminism and religion.
Those who grew up on the Peanuts animations – and millions did – might feel that they are a little perfunctorily treated here. A room off the main exhibition, dubbed the ‘Snoopy Cinema’, plays an hour-long highlights reel from the films and TV specials, and is cosily set up with bean bags heaped on an imitation of a baseball pitcher’s mound. Yet this very literal side-lining makes the animations seem a little excluded from the broad cultural narrative so expertly presented in relation to the comics.
The collection of Peanuts-inspired contemporary art is interspersed within the main exhibition, and the prestigious list of contributors includes street artist KAWS and Turner Prize winner Helen Marten. Some of these works are overly theoretical, and clash with the demotic tone of the exhibition; the best ones embrace the universal appeal of the originals, such as Mark Drew’s Lichtenstein-esque repainting of the illustrations with rap lyrics in place of the original speech.
Something (Vanilla Ice/Suge Knight), 2018, Mark Drew
What becomes apparent is that the bootlegged works which slyly subvert the originals contribute much more towards the show than the more saccharine side of the official merchandise. To their credit, the exhibition’s curators include a section acknowledging the dumbing down of the brand's complex original themes during its rapid growth in the 60s and 70s.
The way the exhibition capably sifts through the huge amount of cultural memorabilia that surrounds the original comics is its biggest strength – yet for all the fascinating information on display, seeing letters and prints in the flesh is never as much of a revelation as seeing a painting for the first time. The exhibition is engagingly set up, including neat interactive touches like a live reproduction of Lucy’s Psychiatry Booth, but comes across as an informative rather than an aesthetic experience. It is nevertheless more than enough of an excuse to drop by the splendid Somerset House, and it sets a high benchmark for how to engagingly put pop culture in its proper context.
|What||Review: GOOD GRIEF, CHARLIE BROWN!, Somerset House,|
|Where||Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
25 Oct 18 – 03 Mar 19, Wed-Fri: 11:00-20:00
|Price||£11 - £14|
|Website||Click here to book now|