Monday, April 11, 2011
The Lives of Charles M. Schulz
This is a Love Letter: Personal Correspondences from Charles M. Schulz, which spans art, artifact, and ephemera, is unlike any other show I have seen at Space 1026. The title explains the basic premise, but more on that later. It also brought out a more age-diverse crowd than any Space 1026 opening I have witnessed, no doubt due to the interest in Schulz and his Peanuts gang. It was an affirming feeling to see young and old enthralled by these letters. At a moment when omnipresent media force-feeds us predigested junk at a hysterical rate, a character like Charlie Brown can still be a reliable and satisfying staple. There is something incredibly centering about taking delight in these classic characters; for me, it elicits memories of my grandmother, and her love of Snoopy in the funny papers.
At face value, the letters tell the rise and fall of Schulz’s (or “Sparky,” as he was known to all) love for a young woman named Tracey Claudius in the early 1970s, who was a Philadelphia resident. His prose is romantic to the core, unabashed in letting emotion overflow as he writes repeatedly about his unquenchable and constant desire to see, speak, and be with her. Superlatives abound: his love for her is the strongest and she is by far the greatest. Doodles of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, as well as other one-off characters not among the Peanuts, punctuate some of the letters. Any woman would feel elated to be on the receiving end of such tenderness and constant attention.
But hidden in plain sight, the letters offer a far twistier story. The collection is effectively presented as is, without much curatorial guidance. A crucial detail goes unspoken: that Schulz carried on his affair with Claudius while he was still married to his first wife (source.) In a telling passage, he writes of “following Gatsby’s green light.” The connotation, taken in context with the rest of that particular letter, would seem to be that Schulz is simply a hopeless romantic; however, comparing himself to the doomed Gatsby, with his unrequited love for Daisy, does not foretell good things to come. If anything, Schulz was something like shades of Jay Gatsby (to his lover and as a cartoonist) and Tom Buchanan (to his wife and others) rolled into one.
Where Charlie Brown and Snoopy pop up in the letters, they act as stand-ins for Schulz’s fragmented psyche, the different parts of an outward persona that he had cultivated. Charlie Brown still plays the loveable loser, blissfully living in the moment and unbothered by worries of a love affair that can have no future. Snoopy, on the other hand, is roguish and consciously detached; the iconic Snoopy alter ego “Joe Cool” appears in a sketch placed near a photo of a smiling Schulz talking on the phone. Who was the real “Sparky”? Both elements, the starry-eyed lover and the smooth playboy, persist in the letters.
Does Schulz’s flawed personal life besmirch Peanuts? Of course not. Attempting to understand him adds depth to his already staggering oeuvre. In coming up with ideas for a daily strip that ran for fifty years, correlation between the man and his art was inevitable, for we write (and draw) what we know. If Peanuts ever seemed uncomplicated, there was so much more bubbling beneath the surface than we ever perceived.