You might remember seeing faded prints of sad, haunting, waif-like children with overly large eyes, displayed in charity shops or in houses during the 1960s and 1970s. However, did you know that the works by American artist Margaret Keane, though derided by art critics and dealers, hung in the mansions of major Hollywood stars and in European museums? Or that her paintings were praised by artists such as Dali, Picasso and Warhol?
Through mass marketing, Margaret’s work became was incredibly popular with the general public. It sold millions of copies, when reproduced in affordable forms such as wall sized posters and cards, which you could buy in supermarkets and gift shops. Margaret’s waifs influenced the style of other painters and graphic artists. Unfortunately, Margaret never received the money that she earned from sales of her paintings, nor received the recognition that she deserved until recent times.
Produced and directed by Tim Burton, the movie Big Eyes stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. It is based on the true story of how Margaret’s husband Walter Keane created an elaborate deception, fooling the world by claiming credit for his wife’s art.
The film opens with the statement that the 50s was a great time if you were a man.
Fleeing a bad marriage in the mid-1950s, shy suburban housewife Margaret Hawkins flees to San Francisco with her young daughter, where she makes her living painting motives on furniture. She supplements her income at an outdoor market, painting children’s portraits in her distinctive style because “The eyes are the window to the soul”. It is there that Margaret meets the charming, ambitious landscape artist and real estate salesman Walter Keane. When Margaret’s former husband attempts to declare her an unfit mother and secure full custody of their daughter, Margaret accepts Walter’s offer of marriage.
Always the opportunist, Walter seeks out new ways to sell their art. He rents out wall space in a popular club. When patrons of the club start to notice only Margaret’s paintings of children, Walter takes credit for her work. The lie builds in intensity, as famous identities come to the club to see buy the pictures and the media takes an interest in this latest trend. It is not until Margaret watches Walter selling the paintings at the club does she realise what is happening. Although she is disturbed by Walter’s behaviour, Margaret has so little self esteem that she reluctantly goes along with the charade. She loves Walter and tells herself that she is doing the right thing. Remember, this was an era where women were expected to defer to the judgment of the head of the household, to their husband or father.
Big Eyes handles serious themes such as violence towards women, but Tim Burton’s quirky influence comes through. Sets are beautifully designed and there is a sense of otherworldliness to the look of the film. Burton uses warm lighting, bright colours and intense pastels in the cinemaphotography and he depicts suburbia like a model village, reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands. The film has elements of a fairytale. Margaret’s character is Burton’s usual blonde protagonist. She is the innocent woman imprisoned in a tower, living a nightmare. In in her attic studio, she is forced by her evil husband to paint magical pictures for up to 16 hours a day.
Burton’s brand of comedy comes through in both his characterisation and in his presentation of peculiar situations. For example, the exceptionally sweet Jehohavah Witness ladies arrive at Margaret’s door and change her life. An art snob who runs a fashionable modern art gallery rejects the paintings of waifs as kitsch but tries to sell splotches of paint on canvases to wealthy customers. Christopher Waltz expertly plays the egotistical Walter Keane, depicting his flamboyance and over the top mannerisms. Yet we are never in doubt of how sinister and deranged the character really is.
Big Eyes is also the story of Margaret’s triumph. As society starts to change for women throughout the 1960s and 70s, Margaret will find the courage to take control of her life and fight for her reputation as an artist.
You can borrow the DVD or blu ray of Big Eyes through the One Card Network. Reserve it through the online catalogue or enquire at the Library. Find out more about Margaret and her work at: http://keane-eyes.com and http://www.margaretkeane.com/