Big Eyes, a 2014 film directed by Tim Burton about the artist Margaret Keane, is one of the very rare movie treatments of an artist’s life that I could stomach. Most every other one I’ve seen is built on the assumption that if someone is particularly good at art they must be absolutely abysmal at everything else; socially immature on a dramatic level; narcissistic in the extreme; generally pathetic; and virtually without any sense of humor. Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” is the most ghastly example, reducing Vincent Van Gogh to a cringe-worthy lump of quivering emotion who wasn’t smart enough to string 3 coherent sentences together. In Big Eyes the thinly veiled villain isn’t the artist, but her evil-ish husband, Walter Keane, who claimed to have painted her pictures. Perhaps because Margaret Keane isn’t considered the caliber of artist to necessarily be an idiot-savant, the movie gives a fair enough account of her life and art to have made me curious enough to dig up more.

I’d avoided this movie partly because I thought it was fiction, and the rest because the artist’s work is so cheesy on the face of it, with bacon bits. Margaret is apparently the source of big-eyed, sad, crying little girl paintings the world over.

The First Grail by Margaret Keane, 1962.

Last night I started watching the movie anyway, partly because of how pertinent the theme of art theft is to contemporary art practices, including the recent phenomenon of AI art (if you don’t see the connection, keep reading]. Slowly, however, Margaret and her art began to win me over because of all the things she and her sappy canvases were not: devious, calculated, opportunistic, fraudulent, slick, lazy, avaricious, arrogant, and full of shit. These were honest, folksy, sincere, homespun paintings. But they were also not without some sophistication in the handling of paint and modeling of forms. And the more I learned about her life, the more the paintings became an expression of wide-eyed innocence tinged with tragedy, rather than vacuous rectangles of unadulterated kitsch.

The Reluctant Ballerina, by Margaret Keane, 1963.

It is immediately apparent that the children in Margaret’s paintings don’t just have enormous eyes, and aren’t just sad (with tears or eyes brimming with tears): there’s something ominous which was never specifically addressed in the film. The eyes are cast in shadow. This is further accentuated by the nose and mouth being illumined as if in a spotlight.

Untitled, Margaret Keane, 1960

For there to be a shadow there must be something blocking the light, but there is no apparent source for either the light illuminating the nose and mouth, nor some looming object to cause the shadow over the eyes. In “Untitled” 1960, above, even the top of the child’s head is brightly lit, along with the lower face, and yet the eyes remain mysteriously enveloped in darkness.

Beachhead, Margaret Keane, 1963.

During this same period, we see children and animals peering out from behind wooden fences or brick walls, while they are also cordoned off and imprisoned by chain link fences in dilapidated condition. Note that the treatment of the texture of the rough brick, and wiriness of the chain link are richly and evocatively rendered.

Girl with Dog, Margaret Keane, 1961.

The original inspiration for her child paintings was her own daughter, but by the 60’s, there are an array of children alone or with pets, and never with adults.

Watching, Margaret Keane, 1962

I think it matters that these paintings were made while she was painting up to 16 hours a day, alone, while Walter Keane was not only the public face for her art, taking all the credit, but was living the high life, cavorting, and boasting having 3 nude women at a time swimming in their pool. He’d call Margaret at home hourly to insure she was hard at work, and he threatened to have her killed if she ever divulged that she was the real painter.

The Lookout, by Margaret Keane, 1962

One of the things the film captured very well is the artist’s heavy resentment, disappointment, and anger at her husband taking credit for her work, which she felt was her own personal expression. When pressed in an interview as to why he liked to paint cute, sad little girls, Walter elaborated that he’d traveled around Europe after WWII and he’d seen lonely, haunted children wandering the landscape. Their very transparent existential crisis became the driving force of what he wanted to communicate in his art, so he said. Lacking any self-awareness, or the ability to grasp the true tenor of circumstances, he described the children as looking and acting like rats. How such a completely unsympathetic remark was supposed to seamlessly mesh with their plight being the core of his artistic expression, or the visages of the children in the paintings, I can’t begin to fathom. But there is the possibility that Margaret’s paintings of children stranded behind fences was an attempt — quite possibly orchestrated by Walter, who would instruct her what to paint — to give credence to his own story of why he painted the sorrowful waifs in the fictitious first place.

In the photo of Walter and Margaret posing with “his” paintings below, there’s the curious assemblage of a section of physical barbed wire fence affixed to a painting of a wall, with another smaller painting of saucer-eyed lost children immediately behind it. This almost looks like a forced attempt to recontextualize her art as about the lost children of the war. Note that he tried to get Margaret to teach him to paint the big eyed children, but he was incapable of learning to do so. I’m just guessing here, but perhaps attaching barbed wire to a canvas was something that he could manage.

Margaret and Walter posting with “his” paintings.

And I would be hiding something if I didn’t offer a completely plebeian explanation of why ominous shadows were mysteriously cast across the children’s foreheads. In “Girl in Waiting,” 1955, below, the brim of the girl’s hat creates a perfectly explicable shadow across her forehead.

Girl in Waiting, by Margaret Keane, 1955.

It’s possible that Margaret may have shed the hats, but kept their shadows for the dramatic effect. Neither of these explanations for her iconography necessarily undermine the interpretation that the forlorn children reflect her own smouldering sadness.

While she was still alive, Margaret was vindicated with the feature film, which, incidentally, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA], in New York. She died at age 94 on June 26, 2022.

While moviegoers, painters, and other artists may sympathize with Margaret, Walter much better represents some of the dominant forces in contemporary art and art theory if you stop and think about it. I am constantly told on social media that, “Great artists steal”, and the richest and most celebrated of contemporary artists are those whose careers are built on artworks executed by someone else’s hands, and even ideas generated by the minds of others. Damien Hirst has publicly admitted that he stole all his ideas, and when pressed Jeff Koons had to reach back into his childhood when he played with putty to lay claim to any hands on art-making. Mauricio Cattelan is called a “sculptor”, but this really only means that he exhibited sculptures he commissioned skilled sculptors to create in his name. There are all sorts of [bogus] justifications for not making ones own art, and in the very present, tens of thousands of over-night artistic geniuses — courtesy of AI art bots — take all the credit for images rendered by digital super intelligence, even quoting the apocryphal and abominable lie that “great artists steal” as justification. If you want to know why “Great artists steal” means the exact opposite of what it sounds like, you can read my article: Good artists copy, great artists steal. Not so fast. In the 5 years since I wrote it nobody has been able to launch a counterargument.

Margaret toiling away in her studio, with the window closed, reminds me of AI being milked for whatever art it can create for an enterprising “artist” to sell as an NFT. So what if Margaret made the physical paintings when likely nobody would have ever heard of them if Walter didn’t do the real work of self-promotion, which has become synonymous with art-making itself, largely through the legacy of Andy Warhol (who also had assistants make his art). Isn’t good business the highest form of art according to Andy Warhol?

If you want to know why Warhol’s quote is complete BS you an read my article: Abominable Ideas About Art #1: Making Money is Art, or watch the video version below:

Well, Walter is ticking all the boxes of a great contemporary artist: stealing, making money, working (not at art), and doing good business. Surely in the contemporary art world we celebrate the charismatic marketing professional living the life of the rich and famous, who tells the lowly and inconsequential crafts-person what to make in the dingy studio, and we don’t identity with the sad worker toiling away in ignominy! Walter should be our savvy hero and role model. All hail! I’m kinda’ kidding here, but sadly there’s a shit ton of truth in that humor.

Call me ass-backwards and incapable of evolving beyond craft myself, but, I’d suggest that if you own a Damien Hirst spot painting [painted by underpaid assistants] you sell it immediately and buy a painting by Margaret Keane. Perhaps through her innocence, naivete, and apparent complete detachment from the world of contemporary art, she was able to accomplish something rarely seen in the modern art world — a painter manifesting their inner vision on canvas in an extended series. Most any artist who was anyone who hoped to be taken seriously abandoned such practices in favor of conceptual art. It would only be the hopelessly isolated and sheltered artist who would even bother to attempt such a thing. But there it is. Her paintings ended up not only somehow captivating hordes of people, they are merged with the zeitgeist of an era and have become an irreplaceable fixture in mid-century Americana. Through whatever alchemy, Margaret Keane turned her personal tragedy into painterly kitsch that managed to transcend itself.

She went on to make scores more paintings and explored more stylistic range. Her skills are more apparent in other works, even if she ended up channeling her inner demons into her kitsch variety of images. I will end with her “The Coffee Break” of 1963, which I think clearly shows another level of stylistic sophistication. At the time she was trying to create a separate body of work from the saucer-eyed waifs, and which she could publicly claim as her own, though Walter was having none of it. While this work is still heavily stylized and a bit folksy, the subjects are adults, and it’s an interesting and elaborate composition. I can enjoy just looking at the placement of the cups accompanied by the women’s hands.

The Coffee Break, by Margaret Keane, 1963.

~ Ends

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18 replies on “Big Eyes: The Film, The Artist, The Legacy

  1. Eric,
    I lost your email so I will have communicate here. Did you see the video of the girl throwing orange paint on Van Goghs sunflower painting? I just saw it today. Unbelievable.

    Hopefully all is good with you. Things are looking kind of ugly for the near future as far as hyperinflation coming to a store near everyone. Hopefully your living somewhere relatively out of the way of the storm that’s brewing. Knowledge is power and most people have none.

    I was trying to find the interview with Bezmenov for you but can’t locate it. He was talking about Malevich and those artists on the one I was referring to, but I also saw one where he was talking about demoralizing America and how that was basically all but done. That was in the 80s so he seems to have been correct.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting article Eric. It’s convincing, and heartening, to read that an artist is someone who sits in their studio (living room, whatever) and paints their own particular vision; that their art is more real than the manipulative and self congratulating concepts of the remote ‘artists’ who pursue fame and fortune. Yes, these latter do resemble the ‘evilish’ (good coinage) husband who appropriated her work.


  3. My aunt had a copy of a Keane painting hanging in her living room, a picture of a wide-eyed little boy holding a puppy. (It may have been a girl—I was about ten at the time the picture appeared in her house: I assumed it was a boy because s/he was wearing a striped short-sleeve “Dennis the Menace” shirt, a visual shorthand back then for boys of a certain age.) I was just old enough to have developed some snobbery about art, and deemed the picture “Hallmark card art.” After reading your essay however, I have to admit I was also a little afraid of it. I didn’t have the words back then to explain why, but those huge eyes made me uneasy, as if they were asking something of me. Perhaps they were, one sad child to another who hid hers with anger.

    Your comments about Walter Keane and AI art are spot on, which have me thinking about the Supreme Court case about the photographer who is suing Andy Warhol’s estate for having “borrowed” her portrait of Prince with neither attribution or a share in the royalties. Another artist whose blog I read thought the case was troubling because “all artists steal.” I think he confuses inspiration with copying and theft, but I don’t know enough about copyright law to explain the differences. As always, an interesting post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for sharing that story. I would definitely have been the kind of snob to dismiss Margaret Keane’s paintings, though I might have detected something in the sorrowful eyes, etc.

      Anyone who says, “all artists steal” or “great artists steal” is the victim of bogus ideology. I’ve analyzed this quote and where it comes from in great detail. The original quote comes from T.S. Eliot, and he means that great artists fully understand and incorporate inspirational sources into a new and wholly unique work of art. He absolutely did not mean plagiarism or wholesale appropriation. Great artists innovate. That’s the very simple and obvious truth.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The courtroom paint-off was my favorite part of the movie. On the surface it sound like something someone made up, but it’s really true. Husband was such a cad…


  4. That was a very thoughtful and well-written article.

    I’d seen some of Keane’s paintings before but never knew her name. I strongly relate to what you said about how you initially dismissed her art as sappy kitsch, but see some value in it now. Now I’m just grateful to see artwork that truly represents a unique vision, with no care given to what is considered popular or acceptable, and with at least some technical skill to back it up. I would be so stupid as to say that Keane is almost a cute Beksinski. Her doll girls have a distinctiveness and psychological depth that you will not see in any of the big-eyed girl art on social media.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks. And I agree with your assessment, which you put so well, ” Her doll girls have a distinctiveness and psychological depth that you will not see in any of the big-eyed girl art on social media.” Margaret Keane also made some of her best work over 50 years ago, and by hand with physical mediums. In her later years she did some really nice work around adult women, and by me it’s on par with her early work. Perhaps less overtly emotional, but with a lot more technical ability.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I enjoy looking at her later work as well; she even did some pretty animal portraits. She definitely improved technically, while keeping her unique flair. Her work has just about everything that one misses if they just look at what’s popular in the art world now (online or offline), even if the subject matter is common.


  5. 👏👏👏 Terrific post! It’s been a while since I saw that movie, will have to watch it again. I remember how some people were snarky about and dismissive of her work in the 60’s but certainly knew nothing of her life, her husband’s cruel behavior. Sometimes I wonder what she would’ve created over the years if she’d never met him. But maybe we would never have known.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her late work is more developed. But, yes, if she had met different people, she might have gotten out of the kitsch thing earlier. She had really a lot of potential. But, as it is, she transcended her medium and associated limitations of content. Maybe that’s even better. It shows that no matter who we are, and what are circumstances are, if we are honest and persevere our “soul” will shine through.


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