The day after Christmas I went to see the new Tim Burton film Big Eyes starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as Margaret and Walter Keane (you can read my full review here on REBEAT!) In case you're not familiar with the Keanes, they were an artistic phenomenon in the late 1950s and early '60s, churning out paintings of forlorn looking children with large, penetrating, extraterrestrial-type eyes. Sometimes the kids would also be holding a kitty cat or dog. Walter Keane became famous when he decided to mass produce the portraits onto prints, calendars, and postcards. There was just one problem: not a single "big eye" was actually painted by Walter himself but by his wife, Margaret.
Basically, Margaret was an artist while Walter was a con artist. He was a real estate agent who passed himself off as a struggling artist and wined, dined, and seduced Margaret with tales of artistic training in Paris. According to the movie, Walter didn't even paint a single canvas of the street scenes that bore his name--and he also never told Margaret when he married her that he was divorced and had a daughter with his first wife. While Margaret locked herself away in her studio producing the paintings, Walter took all of the credit and the glory. After he started to get even more controlling and abusive, Margaret summoned the courage one day to take her daughter and leave in much the same way she had to leave her first husband.
A few years after the Keanes divorced, Margaret--who was living in Hawaii by then--revealed to a local DJ that she was the artist of the big eyes all along. A few years after that, Margaret had a showdown in court with her megalomaniac ex-husband to sue him for the rights to all of the work that she had done. Walter acted as his own attorney, cross-examining himself in a display of larger-than-life showmanship that had made him famous when he started promoting his wife's art. The judge decided that the only way to determine who was telling the truth was to give each party one hour to produce a big eye painting in the courtroom. Margaret had no problem. Walter stalled, saying he was waiting for his creative muse to show up, then pathetically faked a shoulder injury. Margaret still paints today, while Walter passed away some years ago "broke and penniless" according to the film.
Margaret's work when the Keanes were married was alienating--people either loved it or hated it. Many celebrities actually wanted the Keanes to paint their portraits, while art critics and gallery owners despised the big eyed children and dismissed them as a gimmick. It's a funny thing, though--as tacky as I think the paintings are, I will admit they kind of grew on me as I did research before the movie was released. Margaret's heart is in the right place; while the children she painted during the time she was married to Walter look hopeless, the work she's been producing in recent years shows optimism with her little boys and girls set in paradise, surrounded by wild animals.
|Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in a scene from Big Eyes. Image via the DailyMail.co.uk|
Here's some of the big eyes paintings that celebrities commissioned from the Keanes...creepy, no?
Jerry Lewis and his family (and fur children) were immortalized by Margaret Keane.
Dean Martin's is really unsettling to me. The kid lurking behind his shoulder looks like an alien.
Joan Crawford's crazy Mommy Dearest eyes lend themselves naturally to a big eye painting. Crawford was so enamored with the rendition that she put it on the cover of her book, "My Way of Life."
I like Natalie Wood's portrait the best...it's extremely flattering and shows Margaret Keane's talent.
What do you think about Margaret Keane's artwork?