Snoopy Vs The Red Baron
Joanna Pocock, Galerie Barbara Thumm catalogue, 2011
“Dear Contributor: We are returning your stupid story. Give up! You are a terrible writer. Why do you bother us? We wouldn’t use one of your stories if you paid us. Drop dead! Never send us another story! Get lost! Signed, the Editors.”
Letter from Snoopy’s would-be publisher.
From Snoopy: The Musical, 1975.
Snoopy’s eternally unfinished novel opens with the words, “it was a dark and stormy night,” a phrase that has come to represent the epitome of the literary cliché. “Sometimes, when you’re a great writer, the words come so fast you can hardly put them down on paper,” Snoopy, the star character in Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts, informs us, thus opening a window onto the act of creation. Snoopy never actually speaks, but only thinks and imagines. He is a dreamer, a philosopher, and the ultimate anti-hero. His ongoing, unfinished oeuvre is inconclusive, a permanent work in progress.
As well as being a pet beagle, and an aspiring novelist, Snoopy is a World War I flying ace. In this latter incarnation he wants to both become the Red Baron, and kill him. The Baron, however exists only in his mind: a heroicised representation of fear. Like Fiona Banner’s sculpture Wing, 2011, he embodies an aspect of war that is both utterly attractive and yet deeply repellent. The upended wing of a Tornado fighter plane is anthropomorphized. Statuesque, it takes the form of a giant’s shadow. Stripped of military markings and telltale patriotic cosmetics, polished to a mirror finish, Wing reflects the viewer back at them self. The abandoned limb, a bird’s wing, now an absurd trophy, a totem: a secular object of worship, a fetishized part.
In this show Banner interleaves modernity’s monuments and anti-monuments. She alternates between complex aesthetics of the trophy object in her monumental sculpture, and gentle humour in her works on paper, as she looks at how we mythologize ourselves, our history, and our willingness to be seduced by our own myths.
Banner’s nudes – verbal descriptions and performances in which she recreates the formal architecture of the life room, examine not only the act of observation, but also the act of creation, both parodying it and yet revealing new intimacies. Banner once said, “Every life drawing, good or bad is an attempt to stall time for long enough to make some kind of reflection, assert some kind of control over our own mortality, in a way that is absurdly literal but also tender.”
Banner’s Life Drawing Drawings 2007-2011, an ongoing series of sixty six drawn and rebound dummy figure drawing manuals, also reference and apparently simplify our relationship with our own image. Yet in this instance it is the books that have been drawn, not the human figure. The books, with their empty pages, allude to drawings unmade and biographies unwritten. Like Snoopy’s unrequited quest to be a great novelist these unwritten portraits are constantly in flux.
Snoopy represents ‘being’ in its purest sense and form. The familiar contour of his form is totemic, reduced, almost a sign or a letter. In Beagle Punctuation the image of Snoopy’s face teeters on the edge of abstraction. Two neon question marks and a full stop blown by Banner herself conjure his unmistakable face. Beyond these punctuation marks, which seem to question language itself, lies the iconic cartoon.
“Now I am within thirty yards of him. He must fall. The gun pours out its stream of lead. Then it jams. Then it reopens fire. That jam almost saved his life.”
Baron von Richthofen (AKA the Red Baron) describing a WWI battle, 1917
“Good Grief! My guns are jammed! Curse you, Red Baron!”
Snoopy, in Peanuts, 1975.
Snoopy’s surreal humour contrasts with the real-life Red Baron’s sinister delight in killing. Baron Von Richthofen (1892-1918), the German WWI fighter, is considered the ace of aces, bringing down eighty planes, more than any other pilot. Shot down in combat, he died from a single bullet to the heart. Richthofen was legendary in his lifetime, and mythologized posthumously, he symbolizes war’s ersatz erotic excess whilst connoting it’s utter repellence. Originally buried in France, then in the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin, his remains were moved to the family plot at the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden in 1975.
In Fugue, Banner has created sheet music for the 1966 hit song “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” by the Florida rock band The Royal Guardsmen, reimagining the pop song as a timeless fugue. The band was sued by Snoopy’s owners, and as a result the sheet music is unavailable. The Latin fugare (to flee) and fugere (to chase) are the root of the word ‘fugue’: this form is the musical representation of the chased and the chaser.
Snoopy is born of a booming, paranoid, post-war culture. His universe is populated with beings who anthropomorphize the parts of ourselves that we constantly grapple with, but ultimately fail to understand. Life and death are prodded and parodied, or as Charlie Brown’s nemesis Lucy van Pelt famously announces, “I am torn between the urge to create and the urge to destroy”.
Exhibition catalogue, Snoopy Vs The Red Baron, Galerie Barbara Thumm, 2011