Big Eyes

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 17, 2015

Big Eyes

Based on true events, Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" recounts the story behind the ubiquitous, mass-marketed doleful waif portraits of the late 1950s and early 60s.

Single mom of a single daughter Margaret (subdued blonde Amy Adams) meets Walter Keane (over-the-top, "menacing while charming" Christoph Waltz) at a San Francisco art fair. They marry their art as well as each other, although Walter was already a serial painting plagiarist (starting with stolen French street scene canvases) when he took credit for his wife's prodigious output of paintings of children with large eyes "like pancakes, big like stale jellybeans."

Walter's fable was that he was inspired by war orphans, lost children whose eyes forever retain their haunting quality. In fact, Margaret employed the leitmotif because she was sad.

Initially, Margaret was complicit with the lie because "nobody likes lady art," and their success allowed them to open a gallery, publish coffee table books and buy a mansion.

In this pre-Warhol, proto-pop-art period, "Jekyll and Hyde" Walter mastered modern art marketing, turning the expensive paintings into cheaply produced posters sold in grocery stores and gas stations, so the work, which some considered "creepy and amateurish," still ended up in many American living rooms and dentists' offices.

"Nobody likes lady art."

Many art critics felt they "needed to protect the public from such atrocities, from this infinity of kitsch" (Terence Stamp deftly plays critical nemesis John Canaday), while Margaret grappled with whether she should assert ownership or not because she did love Walter once, and was also trapped in the traditional, mid-century wifely role of submission.

In "The Making of" Blu-ray feature, Burton likens this film to his "Ed Wood," because of the fine line between art and schlock, as well as in the exploration of oddballs and outsiders. He also states that this fraud was never a grand conspiracy, but a small lie that kept growing.

He adds that Margaret and Walter Keane and their saga are essentially "the Ike and Tina of the art world." She just wanted to take her work and her name back.

"Big Eyes"




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Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at