A ‘real’ portrait of ‘Big Eyes’ artist Margaret Keane

Margaret Keane sighs softly and shifts uncomfortably in her seat. She’s just been asked to describe what she felt the first time she saw “Big Eyes,” the new Tim Burton film about her life and her art — paintings of waifish children with weepy saucer eyes that became ubiquitous in the 1960s.

A fervent Jehovah's Witness, Keane wears a JW.org button on her coat lapel and speaks with passion about the scriptures. The Bible, she says, has a thing against lying.
A fervent Jehovah’s Witness, Keane wears a JW.org button on her coat lapel and speaks with passion about the scriptures. The Bible, she says, has a thing against lying.

Looking wistfully out a sliding glass door at the sunlight filtering through the trees surrounding a Beverly Hills hotel, her own clear blue eyes well with tears.

“It was extremely traumatic and emotional,” she says. For a brief moment she resembles a grown-up version of one of her paintings. “It’s kind of like the worst part of my life, just seeing it up there, it was so real.”

She was in shock for two days after seeing Burton’s film, which shows how her then-husband, Walter Keane, schemed to take credit for her work and made millions for the pair.

It was an impressive end run around the art establishment when he opened his own gallery and sold cheap mass reproductions of Keane paintings in supermarkets and department stores.

Margaret’s stunning revelation in 1970 that she was the creator of the critically lambasted but publicly adored Keane paintings led to a courtroom brawl, which is not only the subject of Burton’s “Big Eyes” but a new book, “Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes,” published by the avant-garde imprint Feral House. The releases have spurred a resurgence of interest in all things Keane.

“Big Eyes” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski hope the film causes the art establishment to re-evaluate Keane’s work. Others, like Meg Cranston, chairwoman of the fine arts department at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, say that will never happen. As for Keane, 87, she’s painting every day in her Napa studio, unflustered by the flap.

“I was in a trap, and I didn’t know how to get out,” she says of those long-ago days when a woman was expected to be passive and do the bidding of her mate. “It just kept snowballing.”

Her only salvation was painting. She didn’t know why she painted big eyes, but she finally figured it out: She was painting her own feelings into those eyes.

“Now, I try to paint happy children and animals playing together in paradise scenes, like here in L.A., looking out the window,” she says, shaking off the darkness, her voice becoming musical and sweet. “Beautiful.”

In the nearly 50 years since Margaret filed for divorce from Walter, leaving their home in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco for Hawaii, she experienced a religious conversion. She said it gave her the strength to expose the lie she had been cornered into telling for more than a decade.

A fervent Jehovah’s Witness, Keane wears a JW.org button on her coat lapel and speaks with passion about the scriptures. The Bible, she says, has a thing against lying.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with lying ever again,” she says, adding that the truth finally redeemed her. “I felt very guilty that I allowed it to happen, and, of course, it destroyed Walter, and I could have stopped that if I had been stronger.”

Like many Hollywood creations, Burton’s version of Keane’s unhappiest days — the film stars Christoph Waltz as Walter and Amy Adams as Margaret — has likely been sanitized for mass consumption, says Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey. In sharp contrast, “Citizen Keane,” which Parfrey co-wrote with Cletus Nelson, contains a much darker version of events.

Parfrey’s account is based on a story he wrote for the San Diego Reader in the early 1990s, when he met and interviewed Walter, who was languishing in an unkempt La Jolla bungalow, still claiming he was the artist behind the big eyes.

“He had just published his ridiculous autobiography,” Parfrey recalls of Walter, who died in obscurity at age 85 in Encinitas in 2000. “It was absurd. He kept comparing himself to Michelangelo. He doubled down on his whole lie.”

He was bitter and vindictive when he spoke of Margaret, calling her a liar and claiming she had had sex with a car hop on their wedding day, Parfrey says. Walter grilled Parfrey about his sex life and offered suggestions on how to improve it.

“He was really crazy,” Parfrey says.

The shadow existence that Margaret lived as the result of Walter’s bullying is depicted in the film through shots of Adams painting alone in a stuffy, smoke-filled room, afraid to open the door even for her daughter, Jane.

“Now that the world knows that Margaret is the painter, it gives the art more integrity,” screenwriter Alexander says. “In their heyday, the paintings were attributed to Walter, who was this big, loud, masculine guy with booze in his hand. The crying children didn’t seem to make any sense coming from him.”

Added co-writer Karaszewski, who took the film to the Art Basel-Miami Beach art show this month: “That’s what made it kitsch.”

At first, Karaszewski was nervous to present “Big Eyes” in front of so many tastemakers, but he quickly discovered that his fears were unfounded.

“The lines between high art and low art and art and commerce have been blown to pieces,” he says. “Walter could almost be totally open about his con today. He could say, ‘Someone else does my paintings and I sign them, that’s my art.’ At the Keane gallery, you didn’t exit through the gift shop, you entered through it.”

Keane’s paintings are so attractive to the public because they were so “extravagantly and unapologetically kitsch,” says Otis’ Cranston. “Her paintings are easy to understand but touch people in ways that are profound…. She’s something other than a great painter, but she’s certainly an interesting and poetic figure.”

In the 1950s, when people were inundated with austere geometric abstraction, many missed the heart. Keane gave it to them, Cranston says. “Art critics weren’t interested in her paintings because they were, by their standards, formulaic.”

In the 1960s, New York Times art critic John Canaday described Keane paintings as “tasteless hackwork,” but that didn’t stop the Keane legend from growing. In 1984, a writer for the Los Angeles Times referred to Walter as “one of the best-known painters of the century,” adding that his paintings’ “haunting eyes remain a trademark as universally recognized as the Campbell’s soup kids or McDonald’s golden arches.”

When it comes to Margaret’s work, Parfrey says, it is perhaps best understood in a modern context, which finds artists such as Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum celebrating kitsch as a badge of honor rather than a derisive slur.

“In some ways, the whole low-brow movement did that as well,” Parfrey says. “Kitsch was used as a way to insult people, and it still is, but there may be different interpretations of that.”


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