Take that, Charlie Brown! The artists putting the pain into Peanuts

Anxiety, misery, vanity, heartbreak … Snoopy and the gang were always darker than they appeared – which is why artists have reimagined them for our angst-ridden times

Mel Brimfield is talking to her psychiatrist about a troubling childhood memory. “My father,” she relates, “would insist on eating his cornflakes one at a time on Christmas morning to delay the opening of the presents.”

This recollection is contained in a speech bubble, one of many floating around an artwork she created called Mel Brimfield Is Nuts. “While I was aware that it would happen with ageing,” says another bubble, “my ever-increasing invisibility to men as a sexual prospect is hurtful.” Another upsetting memory reads: “I love my brother. I don’t know him any more.”

This intriguing work is the artist’s own response to Peanuts, the ostensibly cute cartoon strip drawn by Charles M Schulz from 1950 until his death in 2000. If there is a dark, complex side to Peanuts, Brimfield gets to the heart of it. Each bubble is uttered by the artist, her face lovingly rendered in Schulz’s style, and they all hover around the psychiatric booth from which the original strip’s appalling bossyboots Lucy van Pelt used to dispense advice for five cents a pop.

But the booth is empty: all those Brimfields are talking to the wind. Then you notice the bubbles are floating inside a silhouette of Lucy’s head, as if the character was a better shrink than we supposed, turning her patients’ worries over in her mind.

Pay five cents, feel worse … Mel Brimfield’s response to the resident psychiatrist in Peanuts.
Pay five cents, feel worse … Mel Brimfield’s response to the resident psychiatrist in Peanuts. Photograph: Mel Brimfield

Peanuts became an obsession for Brimfield at an early age. Her grandmother would cut strips from the newspaper for her to read. And so, when her school planned a musical called Good Ol’ Charlie Brown, she auditioned to play Lucy. “My mum made me a bonkers black wig, bless her,” she says. But why play the strip’s monstrous bully? “Because she had the best songs and the biggest role.”

Lucy has haunted Brimfield, who is based in London, ever since. “A few years ago, I was working in a hippy clinic where the people who came in – with real pain – were only offered shamanic soul retrieval from charlatans. There was something about how easy it was to set yourself up as a therapist that made me think of Lucy. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised the move to wellness and the licence to complete selfishness in our society is fed by people like Lucy. She only set up her booth because it was another way of exercising power. She’s a huckster.”

Mel Brimfield Is Nuts is one of the darker artworks in Good Grief, Charlie Brown!, an exhibition celebrating Snoopy and the gang that is about to open at London’s Somerset House. “I’m worried about what people will expect,” says curator Claire Catterall. Any parent bringing their kids for a half-term treat and a nose around the gift shop will get more than they bargained for. Among the show’s themes are existentialism, feminism, gender fluidity, race, politics, religion, happiness, war and psychiatry. Alongside original drawings are contemporary works by artists who have a passion for Peanuts, including the 2016 Turner prize-winner Helen Marten.

Catterall believes Peanuts is as pertinent today as it was half a century ago. But you could say it is actually even more so. “I keep thinking about Peppermint Patty,” says Brimfield. “Her gender was fluid in a way that resonates now but that probably wasn’t in Schulz’s mind. It isn’t so much that she was a tomboy but little odd touches that Schulz maybe wasn’t aware of – like she wore middle-aged men’s sandals. She’s become a lesbian icon.”

Schulz said Peanuts was “about nothing” and was just “a plain old comic strip”, but this may have been disingenuous. For instance, in 1968 he created Franklin, Charlie’s African American friend, in response to a Los Angeles teacher urging him to add a black character to help stem race hate.

The philosopher Umberto Eco didn’t think Peanuts was about nothing. He once tried to explain why 355 million people around the world were captivated by a weekly comic strip. It wasn’t, he argued, because Charlie, Patty, Lucy, Pigpen, Sally, Marcie and Linus were sweet kids with a cute beagle called Snoopy who distracted us from an intolerable world. On the contrary, the reason why Peanuts – syndicated to more than 2,600 newspapers – was so powerful was precisely because it dared to look into the dark abyss of human life.

‘She’s become a lesbian icon’ … Peppermint Patty with Franklin, who was added to the strip in a bid to stem race hate.
‘She’s become a lesbian icon’ … Peppermint Patty with Franklin, who was added to the strip in a bid to stem race hate. Photograph: © Peanuts

“These children,” wrote Eco in his foreword to Arriva Charlie Brown!, the 1963 book that introduced Peanuts to Italy, “affect us because, in a certain sense, they are monsters: they are monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of industrial civilisation.”

Eco had a point: Charlie Brown was a bundle of neuroses. “Sometimes you lie in bed and you don’t have a single thing to worry about,” he says in one strip. “That always worries me.” And as for the monstrous – consider Lucy. When Charlie turns up at her booth for therapy and tells her he’s feeling deeply depressed, she says: “Snap out of it. Five cents please.” Her clients leave feeling worse and poorer.

Good Grief, Charlie Brown! also includes that existentially freighted 1973 strip in which Charlie Brown wears a paper bag on his head to hide an embarrassing rash. The kids at summer camp nickname him Mr Sack – and he gets the respect he has sought all his life. After the rash clears up, he removes the bag and is no longer admired. Life lesson? In order to be liked, he has to hide his true nature.

Gentler side … a strip from 1981.
Gentler side … a strip from 1981. Photograph: © Peanuts

Then there’s the 1970 strip about Linus agonising in the pumpkin patch, his doubts about the existence of a greater power echoing those of Schulz himself. Every Halloween, Linus waits for the Great Pumpkin, who gives presents to all the good children, and every year he is disappointed. “SHOW UP, STUPID!” he wails, before covering his mouth, ashamed at his blasphemy.

Peanuts was never averse to exploring the depths of the human psyche. No wonder paediatrician Benjamin Spock and psychologist Timothy Leary were among its biggest fans, borrowing its scenarios to demonstrate their theories. And paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott used Linus’s blanket as an illustration of a “transitional object”, a key term in his account of infantile substitutes for mother’s breast.

One psychologist even devised the Charlie Brown Theory of Personality. According to James C Kaufman, Charlie Brown is a model neurotic, Snoopy an extrovert, Lucy personifies disagreeableness, Linus is open to new experiences, while Schroeder (always setting the alarm for 7am on weekends so he can practise Beethoven on the piano) is the conscientious type.

Artist Lauren LoPrete recalls having a Peanuts epiphany while working at a job she hated. It was a cold, gloomy San Francisco summer and she was listening to the Smiths on repeat at her desk. The more she listened, the more she realised the band was a kind of Peanuts for the ears.

“The Smiths have that same multidimensional appeal as Peanuts,” she says. “Its dancey, jangly pop surface appeals to the masses and club-goers. But underneath its melodic guitar lurks depressive subject matter. I would read the strips as a kid, finding them fluffy and childish. Then, much later, I started to understand the darkness: the themes of unrequited love, anxiety, sadness and narcissism.”

Loved by Morrissey … Lauren LoPrete’s Peanuts/Smiths mashup, from her Tumblr page This Charming Charlie.
Loved by Morrissey … Lauren LoPrete’s Peanuts/Smiths mashup, from her Tumblr page This Charming Charlie. Photograph: Lauren LoPrete

So she created a Tumblr page called This Charming Charlie, mashing up Peanuts strips with Smiths lyrics. In one image, Charlie Brown is lying in bed staring out of the frame, saying: “Last night I dreamed that somebody loved me.” In another, Linus tells Snoopy: “And the pain was enough to make a shy bald, Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder.” When Morrissey publicly expressed his support, the page went viral and the best of her work appears in Good Grief, Charlie Brown!

French artist François Curlet remembers the day Schulz died. He had long been a fan, identifying with Charlie Brown’s sense of inferiority, and he had a notion that all these characters were now out of a job. “The issue of unemployment obsessed me all day,” he says. “Then that evening in the Métro, I came up with an idea for a new job for Charlie Brown.” He saw a peanut stall in the station, bought it from the seller, and transformed it into an installation called Charlie Brown Job, which will be on show in the exhibition.

Like Linus and his comfort blanket, Curlet and all these other artists can’t let go of what gave them such solace when they were little. And so, 18 years after the death of their creator, the Peanuts gang live on.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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