Thursday, December 4, 2014



Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, Christoph Walz as Walter Keane, Terence Stamp as John Canaday.

The “big eyes” phenomenon began in the late 1950s, when a number of paintings of little girls attracted popular attention due to their depictions of preternaturally big eyes. One Walter Keane racked in millions during the next decade, despite a thrashing from the New York Times critic, John Canaday (whose columns spanned the years 1959-1973), who declared, rightly enough, that they “pandered to the lowest common denominator of the American public.” To which Walter Keane stoutly declared, “And wasn’t this country founded on that?”

If the Keane paintings were frauds perpetrated on the public, so was their artist. It was not Walter but his wife, Margaret, who painted them. Out of fear that the public would not buy paintings by a woman—Georgia O’Keefe notwithstanding—Walter reasoned he should be recognized as the artist.

As one irony after another accumulates, it turns out that Walter himself was not an artist in any sense of the word. Fast-talking huckster, yes (is that a kind of American artist?); it was he who concocted the inspiration for these forlorn waifs was his contacts in post-war Europe with homeless children. That, along with the blessings of none other than Andy Warhol, was all the public needed to buy into these works. Poster reproductions of the paintings, and postcard reproductions of the reproductions, sold by the millions. Meanwhile, the paintings his wife had thought to be his—of Parisian streets—were themselves thefts of paintings by somebody else.

Walter’s ruse is maintained for almost a decade. Weary of keeping her secret, even from her daughter, Margaret tries to paint under her own name a series of tepid variations on the “Keane” paintings. Weak copies of her own “originals.” Finally, weary of it all, she leaves her husband, relocates to Hawaii, and confesses her true authorship of the “Keane” paintings on a Honolulu radio station. The press goes wild. There’s a trial. Margaret proves herself in a kind of “dueling painters” contest, in which she and Walter execute paintings in court. She comes up with another big-eyes waif; and he comes up only with an empty canvas.

SPOILER ALERT: Walter dies bitter and penniless, stoutly claiming to the end his authorship. Margaret continues on, painting to the end, eventually opening a gallery to the end.

Add Big Eyes to a recent spate of movies that contest the true authorship of famous paintings. Whereas several releases this year, Tim’s Vermeer and Art and Craft, dealt with world masterpieces by Vermeer, Picasso, and other world artists, Big Eyes is content to deal with the Keane paintings—dismal and vapid portraits by any standard. And so here is Tim Burton himself, content with this mildly satirical take on yet another con of the public. But is the “con” really on us, i.e., that we pay up to watch a feature-length movie about nothing more (or less) than a mediocre public stunt? We have to accept that we are a part of that public to which those paintings pander. Thus, as Walter Keane avers, we represent that lowest public taste that this country was founded on. Hooray for Hollywood.

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