Schulz and primitivism

Meditations on Schulz 3:


Many of the more obvious, recurring stylistic choices of Schulz’s Peanuts reinforce the strip as emerging from a child’s perspective.  In the first case, there is a virtual taboo on characters occupying the top third of the panels’ vertical space.  This space is reserved for dialogue, and occasionally Snoopy atop his oddly two-dimensional doghouse.  Similarly, Schulz tends more often to depict his figures in full, preferring not to sever their bodies with panel borders, or by only using the bottom of the panels to achieve this.  Both tendencies work to underscore the diminutive stature of the strips’ characters, dwarfed by the already tiny square panels as reproduced in newsprint.  Incidentally, both of these tendencies have subsequently been replicated in the animated South Park to rendered the same sense of a child’s world graphically.  However, it might be more interesting to consider how Schulz’s very drawing style was meant to reflect this child’s perspective by embracing, like his high art contemporaries, a particular strand of mid-century primitivism, which sought to mimic the child artist’s tendency to de-differentiate form.

Rudolph Arnheim, in his magisterial Art and Visual Perception, spends a large amount of time describing and praising the inventiveness so-called primitive art, including the unschooled art of children, for the way that it lays bare his thesis that perception is not imitative, but inventive.  According to Arnheim, perception, replicated in the act of art production, relies on rendering material specific resources into discovered analogues for the experience of empirical reality.  And children specifically rely largely on experimentation with line and especially with the circle, neither of which exist purely in nature, but only the graphic imagination of artists.  The over-use of the primordial circle comes as a short hand not for roundness or volume, but for “thingness” itself; or as Arnheim puts it, “once the child has during the early explorations of the new medium hit upon the idea that the things he is making can be used to make pictures of other things, the circle serves to represent almost any object at all.”  The result are renderings such as the figural drawings affectionately called “tadpoles,” portraits wherein the body is a simple circle adorned with lines for appendages.  Here the circle is not a rough translation of the head without a body, but a representation of a whole body through the form of a circle.  Slowly, child artists begin to move from simple forms to complex ones through the act of so-called differentiation as limbs are added, absurdly long fingers are added, over-sized teeth are added, all going through the evolution of line, circle, to complex shape.  And eventually these complex shapes multiply, or differentiate resembling what we all recognize as “realistic” drawing.

Cartooning, because of the limitations of the medium and the innate constraints on artists, is an art of simplification.  Printing can only transmit so much detail and artists can only sacrifice so much time on rendering.  What makes Schulz’s particular simplification interesting is the way in which it represents a sort of de-differentiation and emulation of elements of child art.  Of course, Schulz was a master craftsman and artist; I’m not suggesting he was a naive or crude draftsman, but that he was able to combine child-primitive visual strategies to enhance the overall tone and mood of his strips.  Indeed one can work one’s way backwards in the evolution of differentiated drawing, according to Arnheim’s plan, and pick out Schulz’s aesthetics.  For example, child drawings are said to exist on a vertical-horizontal angularity, avoiding oblique views.  I have already discussed Schulz’s overpowering horizontality, particularly in the representation of environments, which are nearly always perpendicularly to the panel.  For example, think again of Snoopy’s doghouse, always depicted as a flat, two-dimensional plane, making the dog’s lounging appear illogical and almost magical.

– To my knowledge, the only time we ever see the front of the doghouse is the series of strips depicting Snoopy pinned down by a deadly large icicle.

Occasionally, Schulz employs shallow depth effects, but largely even the figures exist on a simple clothesline of action.  And certainly scaling effects, that is the relative size of objects, are re-configured in Schulz’s figures in which the head is equal to the size of the remainder of the body.

But perhaps it is Schulz’s use simple shapes that puts his art in deep conversation with the child-primitive.  Detail is de-differentiated, particularly in his prototypical round heads, which are almost, but not quite perfect circles.  De-differentiation is practiced to the point that only a slight modifying curve to the primordial thing-shape / circle will result in a fairly accurate facsimile of a Peanuts character.  Even the slightly attenuated shape of Snoopy is more or less a set of doubled ovals.


– Notice the television set rendered a “simple” square.

And even Lucy’s more differentiated hair is really on a matter of combining a set of five or six circles and her brother Linus’s with as little as six lines (to say nothing of Charlie Brown’s ambiguous single hair squiggle), hardly the devotion to illustrative detail indicative of Schulz’s newspaper progenitors from Hal Foster to Roy Crane.

Certainly, much of this simplification can be attributed to Schulz’s desire to command a usable / re-usable graphic syntax that could be replicated on a daily basis, literally.  However, the very specific ways he achieved this, I have suggested, was through the emulation of child aesthetics.  So, while Peanuts has been traditionally celebrated as a work of art that brought a sense of dignity and especially complexity to the child’s world and psychology, I would suggest that Schulz achieved a similar and supporting goal by exemplifying the complexity and sophistication of so-called primitive graphic technique.  Indeed, that is one of oft-remarked remarkable aspect of the series: its ability to transmit deep emotion and expression with not only poignant writing, but a limited, but ingenious, “child”-like visual grammar.


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