Whether or not Margaret Keane’s paintings of children with enormous, saucer-like eyes are any good as art can be debated. What can’t be debated is this. Keane, who was born in 1927 in Kentucky as Peggy Doris Hawkins, should have been an American success story.
In the mid-1950s Keane left her first husband and moved to San Francisco to establish herself as an artist. She started off as a single mother without a penny to her name in an art world that barely acknowledged female painters even existed. By 1964, she had sold thousands, probably tens of thousands of images worth millions of dollars. But Margaret Keane never got to enjoy her celebrity. Instead, her second husband Walter, who marketed her paintings as his own, got fêted, wined, dined, written about, and ultimately very rich off of his wife’s work.
Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams, as Margaret and Christopher Waltz (the Nazi from Inglorious Basterds) and directed by Tim Burton asks why. Why did Margaret Keane not only allow an obvious fraud to take credit for her art, but kept producing it? Why did she lie to her daughter, and ultimately to herself? The most obvious explanation, sexism, is true, but it’s not enough.
In fact, to attribute what happened to Margaret Keane exclusive to sexism is to become Walter Keane.
As a single mother trying to sell her artwork in the misogynistic art world of 1950s, Margaret Keane would have faced discrimination. But why didn’t Walter, a gifted salesman and bullshit artist, encourage her, push her to overcome her obstacles? In fact, the appeal of Margaret Keane’s “big eye” images might have come from the very sexism that kept her out of the art world in the first place. The San Francisco art world of the 1950s and 1960s, as Burton makes clear, was a dull, insufferable place, a bastion of male “privilege” where derivative, uninspired abstract art was elevated above anything that could have had real popular appeal. There was a hunger for paintings that expressed a woman’s perspective, and Keane, an attractive female artist, might have become a big star. It was in Walter’s selfish interest to convince Margaret that, as a woman, she didn’t stand a chance when, in fact, she might have.
But there’s another, more baffling question. If Margaret Keane allowed her husband to bully her into letting him take credit for her paintings, why did Walter want people to think he created the “big eye” images in the first place? Keane’s paintings are obviously from the female perspective. A grown man painting big eyed child after big eyed child looks more like a creepy pedophile than a great artist. Walter Keane was more than a Llewyn Davis. He’s not an untalented mediocrity producing derivative work that, however derivative, at least expresses something about himself. He’s an utter fraud. In fact, he not only robs Margaret, he robs himself. Walter is a gifted salesman. He could have easily established himself as Margaret’s agent and business manager, revelled in his own gift to market an unconventional form of art over the heads of stuffy art critics to the people. Americans admire great salesmen over great artists anyway.
I think Burton is getting at something deeper than a film about sexism. He’s exploring the differences between the idea of creating art and marketing art. Anybody who’s written a novel or a piece of music, created a painting or a piece of sculpture knows that expressing yourself and selling the way you’ve expressed yourself are different, often contradictory skills. To create a work of art you have to be ruthlessly self-critical, to consider its failures your failures, to dig deeper and deeper into yourself until you collapse in front of what you consider an unfinished work. To market your creation, you have to throw the car into reverse, forget about your failings. You have to bullshit yourself into thinking you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. You not only have to lie to other people. You have to lie to yourself. Margaret, as an artist, couldn’t sell what she painted. Walter, as a salesman, couldn’t paint what he sold. Together they become a marketing juggernaut, but destroyed each other in the process.
Amy Adams and Christopher Waltz are perfect as Margaret and Walter Keane.
Adams, a naturalistic actor, can express emotion without saying a word. She manages to build the character of Margaret Keane as a a complex, three-dimensional woman. Margaret Keane is both supremely confident and yet utterly lost. She can churn out painting after painting and still delude herself into thinking she couldn’t possibly take credit for them herself. Her very emotional sincerity allows her to lie to her daughter, to undermine the little girl’s sense of reality, the worst possible form of child abuse.
Christopher Waltz is a German actor playing that most American of American roles, the bullshit artist. The fact that he’s not a native English speaker, that his American accent is fake, a mask he put on for the movie, not only let’s him build the character of Walter Keane. It makes him Walter Keane. Waltz, as an American, is a fraud. He’s a German who’s not only pretending to be an American. He’s a German who becomes an American by the very act of pretending to be an American. We sense the depths underneath his bland, WASPY good looks, the demon lying in wait behind the glib talk, the friendly handshake and the easy smile. When he tries to burn Margaret (and her daughter) out of her studio, it’s terrifying. When he tries to represent himself in front of a clearly sceptical judge, it’s hilarious, and pathetic. Walter not only has a fool for a client. He has a fool for a lawyer.
Final Note: Although Margaret won her suit against Walter in court, the award of 4 million dollars was later revoked.