Margaret Keane: Her Agency & Our FF2 Retribution

Walter Keane was a narcissistic, con artist who stole the identity of a real artist. Margaret Keane was a victim of a charming narcissist and pathological liar. In the 50s, with very few female artists represented by art galleries or the press, this is not a surprising tale. Today, Walter Keane could not manipulate society or the art world. Who would believe a cisgender man painted precious little girls with huge eyes, kitty cats and puppies? This would certainly set off pedophile alarm bells, which would be a bigger problem for Walter Keane than identity theft. 

As Margaret slowly begins to understand the level of her husband’s fraudulent activities and abuse, in defending herself, her knowledge of art becomes more apparent. She references Georgia O’Keefe as an existing successful female artist. Explaining to Walter why the eyes are so big and disproportionate, she recalls recovering from a surgery as a child that left her temporarily hearing impaired. She said, “I stared a lot and relied on people’s eyes.” 

Walter took the credit for Margaret’s life’s work, while even threatening her life if she were to break her silence. 

Isolation sparked by trauma is often the most inspiring for artists, becoming a time of discovery and invention. The genesis of the waifs, as Margaret called them, was not burdened with commercial demand or being defined as kitsch by the New York Times art critic, John Canaday. Kitsch may have earned a bit of campy, cheeky value in Contemporary Art, but Canaday was basically defining Keane’s work as low class. This was a big insult considering the big eyed waifs were, according to Margaret, like her children. When they were stolen from her, she grieved in imprisoned silence for ten years. Money was rolling in, so she went along with the charade. Meanwhile, Walter took the credit for her life’s work, while even threatening her life if she were to break her silence. 

Were they kitsch? As mass produced posters and merch, yes. If they had been sold in a proper gallery using her own name, her work may have been perceived favorably by the art world considering the popularity of the waifs. The art dealer who dismissed Margaret’s work as distasteful, was following the trends as galleries still do. If dough eyed figures were en vogue at the time, he would have been hyping and selling it. He represents the ‘play it safe’ type of dealer. Ironically, notable, game changing art dealers at the time were women, such as Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons, but they weren’t changing the game for women artists. They did, however, pave the way for future female art dealers and entrepreneurs. 

Pop Art was emerging in the 60s.

Pop Art was emerging in the 60s. The concept of mass produced art was made successful by the King of Pop, Andy Warhol. Remember the scene in the grocery store with Amy Adams? As she turns the corner of an aisle and grabs a Cambell’s soup can, she runs into a display of Keane! posters for sale? Burton makes the connection between Warhol and Walter and Warhol and Margaret, with the soup can. Walter failed to achieve what only Warhol could, because he was a scam personified. Meanwhile, Margarat was never given a chance to achieve Warholian fame. Figurative art represented by female artists with art market success in their lifetime, has only been achieved as Contemporary Art. Most of the American female painters you have heard about from the 50s and 60s were Abstract Expressionists. Only in recent years have the AbEx female painters been receiving their due credit. The AbEx power couples included: Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem and Elaine De Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler and the notorious art critic, Clement Greenberg. Walter Keane obviously missed the point of an art power couple du jour, with his narcissism and secret exploitation of his wife. 

Click on image to enlarge

The big eyes, chalky skin and lanky figures do appeal to popular culture. Tim Burton’s most famous characters possess an obvious kinship. Perhaps Margaret Keane was ahead of her time and fell victim to existing as a female artist in the 50s and Walter Keane. I think Burton understood and delighted in setting the records straight. Margaret becomes the hero of her own story with a successful court case against Walter. In the end, what mattered to Margaret was agency of her work and her daughter’s approval. Throughout the film, Burton reminds us of her simplistic priorities. She left Walter with only her paintings in her trunk and her daughter in the backseat. For artists who are also mothers, your children are your most important critics of your art and your life choices. 

The most inspiring moment is watching Margaret take her identity and power back. 

Margaret finds her confidence and strength in the desire to be honest with her daughter Jane first, followed by her big announcement over the radio in Hawaii in an interview with Big Lou. Notice a theme here? Yes, it was huge. Choosing to come out with her truth on a local radio station was a middle finger to the art critics and Walter Keane. Their criticism must have been tainted with confusion over a cisgender man, in the 50s, painting this work. How unshocked they must have been at the news. Margaret won her fight in court with Walter in 1986, after the second wave feminist movement, therefore, some indication that American women were excited about the verdict would have been nice to see in the film. 

With the popularity of Big Eyes, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Barbie, it seems relatable women in film, taking the power back, is the new super hero. We love you Iron Man, but little girls need super heroes too! The juxtaposition of her child’s eyes as a consistent muse with her daughter’s gaze as criticism transforming into admiration is really touching. The most endearing aspect about Big Eyes, is watching Margaret become a hero through her daughter’s eyes, the muse itself. The most inspiring moment is watching Margaret take her identity and power back. 

© Amanda Wall (3/27/24) — Special for FF2 Media

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PS from FF2 editor-in-chief Jan Lisa Huttner: Big Eyes was released in 2004, making this Big Eyes’s 20th anniversary. FF2 Media is extremely proud to announce that Big Eyes is the focal point of our SWAN DAY SWEET SIXTEEN program on March 30, 2024. Based at the SVA Theatre in NYC, the program will be livestreamed and available to all simultaneously as well as afterwards on YouTube. If you are in Metro NYC, make an NYC reservation here via EVENTBRITE. If you are in Chicago, make a CHICAGO reservation here via EVENTBRITE for the parallel program. Our program is free and open to the public, but you must be on the reservation list to enter either the SVA Theatre building (in NYC) or the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center (in Chicago). 

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read more about Margaret Keane.

Learn more about Walter Keane (identified on Wikipedia as an “American Plagiarist”).

Unfortunately, very few pictures of “the real Walter” are still in circulation, but you can view a great number of photos taken by Bill Ray for the infamous 1965 issue of Life Magazine in which Walter claims that HE painted the best of the “Big Eyes” canvases: Margaret with her dogs, Margaret and Walter at the supermarket, Margaret and Walter surrounded by the Big Eyes paintings, Margaret and Walter with paintings including Tomorrow Forever, Margaret and daughter Jane in the pool, Margaret and Walter toasting the good life, Walter with El Grecko, and Walter with Rembrandt.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane (right) has an altercation with Terence Stamp as The New York Times art critic John Canaday in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. Photo Credit: ©The Weinstein Company / Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2JGM420

Bottom Photo: Crop from a copy of LIFE magazine dated August 27, 1965 (purchased on eBay). Click here to read the original article in which Walter — claiming credit for Margaret’s “Big Eyes” paintings — says outrageous things like “My psyche was scared in Europe…”

Bottom Photo: Did the New York Times every reassess its position after Margaret proved in court that SHE — not Walter — had painted the “Big Eyes” canvases? Well… yes but mostly no. Ironically John Canaday died in 1985 and the trial was in 1986, so he is off the hook. But, in 1992, the New York Times carried this amazingly snarky article For Waifs of Art, the Last Laugh (sadly, written by a woman) in the HOME section. Shame on YOU, NYT 🙁

Tags: Abstract Expressionism, Amanda Wall, Amy Adams, Andy warhol, Big Eyes, Christoph Waltz, Margaret Keane, opinion, Pop Art, POV, Tim Burton, Walter Keane

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