Good Grief, Charlie Brown!: The Art of Charles Schulz: "At the Heart of Schulz's Great Connection with the World Was His Humanity." (Museum Today)

Article excerpt

"I'LL NEVER BE Andrew Wyeth" the late Charles M. Schulz often lamented, referring to the famed American artist. This, from the man whose comic strip "Peanuts," over the course of its 50-year lifetime, grew into the most-successful and beloved strip of all time, one that would see publication in 2,600 newspapers with 355,000,000 readers in 75 countries. The strip and its characters were the inspiration for dozens of television specials, two plays, a symphonic concerto, many books, and countless licensed products. Peanuts products became a $1,000,000,000-a-year worldwide industry for United Features, and Schulz became the highest-paid, most-widely read cartoonist ever. Yet, even with the adoration of an eternally grateful public, he would rarely allow a self-congratulatory moment. In 1997, Schulz noted that comics illustration is "a low art form. We don't hang in art galleries. We're not good enough."

The world's artistic perspective isn't quite as narrow as Schulz had feared. An insightful new exhibition of his work is on view at a museum built around the work of a similarly beloved 20th-century illustrator and American icon. The Norman Rockwell Museum--where for over 30 years patrons have found inspiration, humor, and hope in his enduring depictions of the best of America--is a center devoted to the art of illustration, with the world's largest collection of Rockwell's original paintings as its centerpiece, Schulz, like Rockwell, was an artist and a Storyteller of the first caliber who transformed images of everyday life into art that captured the humor, vulnerability, and dignity of the human spirit.

The exhibition presents the chronology of Schulz's life from his Minnesota roots to his years in California. More than 40 original drawings for the strips, Schulz quotes, a timeline of the artist's life, and selected Peanuts collectibles illuminate the story behind the creation of this influential cartoon strip and tracks the developments of the characters that make up its unique world. Through the familiar gang of well-loved characters, Schulz shared his vision with readers, exploring such topics as friendship, compassion, disappointment, and unrequited love.

Schulz's spare graphic style and his subtle sense of humor have spoken deeply to readers for more than five decades, but what was the source of this deep-seated connection? Was it Schulz's artwork? Surely, he was a master of the understated grace note in his illustrations. A simple cursory glance by a character or a subtle alteration in a facial feature could have enormous impact. He was praised for revolutionizing the comic strip, which, until the appearance of "Peanuts," had been populated primarily with such action and adventure strips as "Terry and the Pirates." Schulz was deemed "master of the slight incident" and broke new ground for newspaper cartoons, using innovations such as Lucy's psychiatric booth, Linus' "security blanket" (a term Schulz coined), Snoopy's doghouse, and Schroeder's music.

Schulz also innovatively altered the point of view of the medium. His placement of the action at child's-eye level was a major factor in the characters' breakthrough appeal. Nobody before had tried to connect in such a visually compelling way with youngsters or had so honestly captured their voice and essence. Of course, Schulz wasn't really writing about children--he had been commenting on all of us, and on the human condition, all along. Seeing the world through the eyes of families like the Browns and the Van Pelts offered a rare perspective on both our glories and our foibles.

The fluidity of the lines in his strip, its remarkable lettering (all of which, Schulz was proud to point out, he did himself), and his keen sense of timing have often elicited immeasurable praise from fellow cartoonists. The storylines, then, would seem to be a major factor in the strip's success. Yet, other than a favorite gag or two, it's a rare reader who has enough sense of the strip's history to recall some of the astounding extended storylines that Schulz developed. …