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Eying a Legacy: Margaret Keane's Paintings, Made Famous in Tim Burton's Big Eyes, Are Enjoying a Local Resurgence 

Wednesday, Jan 7 2015
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Even as Americans were buying her "Big Eyes" art from coast to coast in the 1960s, even as Andy Warhol was praising her canvases as "terrific," and even as Margaret Keane was becoming wealthy from her paintings, she was enduring a torrent of threats from her husband, Walter, who said he'd kill her if she revealed their secret: Margaret — not Walter — was drawing the saucer-eyed art that had become a pop culture sensation. Nobody else, not even Margaret Keane's young daughter, knew the truth, and the secrecy and the emotional abuse were enacting a heavy toll. "Mostly it was a nightmare," Margaret tells me about that time in her life.

That nightmare is chronicled in Tim Burton's movie Big Eyes, which opened on Christmas Day and is bringing Margaret Keane's story — and the story of the "Big Eyes" paintings — to new audiences. Anyone around in the early '60s, especially in the Bay Area, where the Keanes lived and ran an art gallery in North Beach, knew the "Big Eyes" art, which was championed on TV talk shows and promoted in supermarkets — becoming some of the first American art to be marketed and mass-produced far beyond traditional museums. Walter was a smooth-talking showman with a glistening smile. Margaret was a shy, insecure artist who often stumbled around strangers. From the beginning of their marriage, Margaret gave in to her husband's insistence that the paintings would sell better with his name attached to them, not hers. As the years went by, Margaret tried to back out of the arrangement, but her husband physically threatened her and her daughter.

Her paintings frequently depicted girls and young women, "waifs" they were called, who looked like orphans waiting to be adopted, as in The First Grail from 1962, where a barefoot girl with tearing, longing eyes stands in the passageway of a hardened urban space. Margaret, who's now 87 and lives in Napa, says those paintings reflected her own turmoil — and that the art-buying public responded to both her painting style and its underlying message.

"I was really searching for answers," she says. "I had a spiritual hunger. [I was drawing] my deepest feelings, like 'Why are we here?' And, 'Where is God?' And 'Why is there so much suffering in the world?' And I think that it touched other people's hearts. They were wondering the same thing, too."

But highbrow art critics were wondering how the work could even be called "art." In 1961, The New York Times' Brian O'Doherty called the artist's doe-eyed style "a pathetic gimmick." And in a 1964 NYT art column, critic John Canaday derided the paintings, saying they were of "such appalling sentimentality" that they've "become synonymous among critics with the very definition of tasteless hack work." Even today some Big Eyes reviewers have taken shots at her canvases, with The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern calling her paintings "lifeless" and "ghastly."

It's true that none of the United States' greatest museums — neither the Metropolitan, Smithsonian, Whitney, MOMA, or de Young — owns a Keane painting, but smaller museums have paid tribute to her. The Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara has a Keane work in its permanent collection. In 2000, the Laguna Art Museum in Southern California held a five-month retrospective called "Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia," in which curator Tyler Stallings said Margaret had reached an "iconic status" that Jackson Pollock never had.

And her work continues to sell well. At the Keane Eyes Gallery on Larkin Street, right across from Ghirardelli Square, tourists and Keane fans pour in to purchase the prints, cards, and original work that's on display. Many who walk in ask for the work of "Walter Keane" — a confusion that Margaret first sought to address in 1970, when, after separating from Walter and having a religious conversion, she told a radio interviewer that the "Big Eyes" paintings were all hers. In 1984, she sued her ex-husband for slander after he told USA Today that Margaret had been claiming he was dead and had been lying about the paintings' origins. In a 1986 ruling in federal court, a judge said it was, indeed, Margaret who'd painted the best-selling canvases.

To the day he died in 2000, Walter Keane — notwithstanding the court ruling and the overwhelming evidence that he had lied about his artistic abilities — insisted he was the artist behind the work, and insisted his former wife was delusional and vengeful. Big Eyes dramatizes those fabrications, as does a new nonfiction book, Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes, which presents Walter as an alcoholic opportunist who recognized Margaret's talents and saw her as the ideal meal ticket for his ambitions as an artist and celebrity. For a spell, Walter achieved the latter, becoming friends with Jack Kerouac, William Saroyan, Kim Novak, and other well-known figures, and appearing on national TV shows like The Jack Paar Tonight Show.

The movie by Burton, who's a longtime collector of Margaret Keane's work, is a cinematic coda to her career. She comes off as ultimately heroic — an introvert from Tennessee with a formal painting background (studying at the Watkins Art Institute in Nashville) who emerges from her acquiescence to claim her work before it is too late. She runs away from Walter's grasp. She starts over in Hawaii. She confesses publicly to her own duplicity. At the end of the Big Eyes screening I saw on Christmas Day, the audience applauded for Margaret Keane.

"I think the movie is fantastic," she says. "I knew it was going to be good when I heard Tim Burton was going to direct it. But it has just exceeded all of my expectations. It's just fantastic."

The movie has sparked new interest in her art, and respect from artgoers who say the work is worthy of artistic praise, too. "I appreciate the work so much more now," says Lisa Campbell, a radio anchor who I met on Christmas Eve as she bought Keane's work at Keane Eyes Gallery. "I'm also fascinated with the story of a woman concealing her talent for the sake of a generation, for the safety of selling it. It's a story about triumph for a woman. It's not just a story about the art."

Margaret Keane still paints every day, still paints girls and women with big eyes — except now the girls and women don't look like they need adopting. Long ago, her painting style evolved from the exact template that originally made her work famous. The painting that crystallizes Margaret's new life is Abounding Joy from 2013, which has a young, smiling girl hanging onto a branch in a garden full of sunflowers. The painting has a Hallmark-like feel to it, but there's no mistaking its joie de vivre.

"Well," she says, "my painting is much happier, which reflects my current thinking. There's still sadness in the world, so I sometimes paint sad ones, too."

Reflecting on her early years as an artist, she says that even the horrors of her marriage to Walter, who treated her like a hostage, helped her become a better artist. "I think definitely it did," she says, "because of the old saying, 'Practice makes perfect.' I was forced to paint to keep up with the demand. That helped. And also, I went through a lot of suffering. And painting was a way of expressing it, and surviving. So I think it definitely helped my paintings."

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Jonathan Curiel

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