Article by Vince Mancini
Tim Burton’s Big Eyes tells the story of artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter, the latter of whom who, so the story goes, took credit for her paintings of saucer-eyed children and became a kitsch art celebrity. At least, that’s the version we get in the movie, which may be somewhat affected by the fact that Margaret is still alive to tell her story, whereas Walter died in 2000.
I went to official website listed on my screening invite, bigeyesmovie.com, and instead of finding a movie site, saw instead a series of spoilery “myths” supposedly perpetuated by the film beneath a mission statement of sorts:
Despite our best efforts, the Keane Family has been unsuccessful in opening a dialogue with the creators of the film “Big Eyes”. All of our communications to date have gone unanswered. We are here to dispel the myths perpetuated by the media.
Turns out the invite misprinted the official site (bigeyesfilm.com) and sent me to one run by Susan Hale Keane, Walter’s daughter from a previous marriage. She may not like the movie, but she must be thrilled about her choice of URL.
You can read her verbose press release below, but the gist of it is, she says, unlike the way it’s portrayed in the film, her father was the “ideas man” behind the paintings, who came up with the concept before he’d even met Margaret, even if Margaret did do the bulk of the actual painting. Of course, the most damning evidence against Walter, that he pleaded a shoulder injury during a court case when a judge asked both Keanes to paint a Big Eye to settle the case, is corroborated by news accounts.
1947, I am Susan Keane, daughter of Barbara and Walter Keane.
Following the traumatic death of my brother Stanley, and a highly successful joint venture in real estate, throughout the late 40s and early 50s, my parents and I lived in post WW2 Europe, while maintaining a home in Berkeley, California, designed by Julia Morgan, built in 1906.
During that time, my mother, in pursuit of a PhD, studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, fashion design with couturiers including Edwar Sene, and Universität Heidelberg, while my father studied painting at École des Beaux-Arts and L’Académie de la Grand Chaumière in Paris.
Initially speaking an amalgamation of 5 languages, I learned to draw and paint alongside my father from an early age.
During 1949, in the ballroom of our Berkeley mansion “Elmwood House”, I watched my parents create, “Susie Keane’s Puppeteens”, “big eyed” wooden puppets, hand painted by Walter, with clothing designed and sewn by Barbara. Adorned in an ornately illustrated box, accompanied by a book and language record set, these sold in San Francisco, New York and London, at high end department and toy stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, I Magnin and FAO Schwartz, as seen in this 1951 edition of UK’s House & Garden magazine.
In 1950 my mother Barbara became department head of dress design at UC Berkeley, while Walter painted full time. I observed my father’s friendship with Berkeley painter Robert Watson to be a profound influence on both my own and Walter’s evolving style, as he shifted his early focus from street scenes and nudes, to ominous ethereal imagery of exaggerated perspective.
After my parents filed for divorce in 1953, my father and I met Peggy (Margaret Doris Hawkins Ulbrich), during an exhibition of Walter’s paintings.
At that time, Mrs Ulbrich, a former New York baby furniture factory worker, made her living painting names on neckties, in cooperation with her husband Frank, supplemented by quick realistic portrait sketches of passers by at street fairs. None of her work to date had “big eyes”.
Soon, Mrs Ulbrich moved in with my father, and he took her on as his “Eliza Doolittle” and artistic apprentice.
Later, Mrs Ulbrich filed for a divorce from her husband Frank, and swiftly married my father in 1955. Her daughter Jane moved in, and she and Margaret learned to paint under my father’s tutelage. I witnessed the evolution of their artistic process.
Walter encouraged Margaret to develop a style beyond realism, educating and immersing her in the works of old masters for inspiration. She was a slim brunette, wearing a blonde wig. Her initial art consisted of idealized self portraits of slender ladies exclusively featuring small almond shaped eyes, like her own.
My father would often impart to us, his vast knowledge of color, perspective, texture, artistic techniques, art history, etc, repeatedly impressing upon us, the vital impact of “the eyes”. His guidance made a strong impression on me as my own work evolved.
My father was an avid photographer, using a cutting edge Hasselblad. A very large opaque projector was purchased for Margaret, set up in a dark room adjoined to the sunny painting studio. With this tool, a highly detailed image could be projected on canvas from a photograph. A skilled illustrator, Margaret was able to trace a portrait in 15 minutes. This projection method has frequently been utilised in art forgery, as it facilitates replication of fine brush strokes.
Though her initial paintings were primitive, Margaret demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for mimicry, and quickly learned to paint with exceptional precision.
While her execution was flawless, Margaret never showed any aptitude for originality, and her main body of work consisted of Modigliani pastiches blended with other borrowed influences, supplemented by a series of commissioned photorealistic portraits.
My father, beginning with his established bar scene series, occasionally engaged her new found skills to assist him on paintings entirely of his own concept, design and creative authorship. He openly publicised her contributions to his works, proudly promoting her name. Their artist/assistant relationship was never a secret during the years they worked together, their early collaborative works signed “Margaret and Walter KEANE” and MW KEANE, with independent works signed W KEANE and KEANE, M Keane and MDH Keane.
Margaret used very soft sable brushes, along with a sable fan brush to blend her colours. This results in a very thin layer of paint (no texture) which takes only few days to dry. From early on, it was disclosed to the press that Margaret added supplementary brush strokes to the figures of some of Walter’s paintings.
Over time, she adopted his “big eye” motif, gradually incorporating it into her own Modigliani-style work.
As a professional fine oil painter, intimately familiar with the historic body of work for both artists, and a first hand witness to the creation and evolution of these works, I am uniquely qualified to offer an artistic analysis of the autonomous and collaborative elements of the works of Margaret McGuire and Walter Keane. I also had the opportunity to examine Walter’s work in great detail while performing an archival restoration of “Alone” in the late 80s.
Much of Walter’s work predominantly features rough textured brush strokes and imperfections, often using a palette knife, a conscious and deliberate use of contrasting cool and warm colour scheme, exaggerated perspective that stretches on to infinity, sparse asymmetrical balanced composition with clean silhouettes emphasizing negative space, the background frames the subject and draws the viewer’s eye using leading lines, use of strong shadow and highlight.
Margaret’s work features smooth blended precision brush strokes, a rainbow of primary colors, flat two dimensional backgrounds, crowded symmetrical composition, the subjects are homogenous with the background, the dense background interrupts competes and merges with the overlapping subjects, monotone lighting, understated or void of shadows.
Walter’s work is also structurally and stylistically distinct from Margaret’s later homages attempting to approximate his art.
More importantly however, it is vital to mention that Walter was not a violent man, nor a bully. If anything, he was the most joyful and gentle person I’ve known. Margaret’s depiction of death threats, discord and abuse are entirely fictitious. Though, I have no doubt my father’s philandering was a high price for her to pay for fame and affluence.
Towards the end of Walter and Margaret’s marriage, my father met Joan on a United Airlines flight to New York.
Upon learning of his courtship, a woman scorned, Margaret promptly moved to Hawaii in 1964 with married father of 10, publicist/reporter Dan McGuire. The next year, 1965, Walter and Margaret divorced. Following Dan’s divorce, Margaret remarried in 1966.
In 1969 Walter married Joan. I had been exceptionally close to my father up to that point. I heard little from him thereafter. Their daughter Chantal was born in 1970, followed by the birth of their son Sascha in 1973. My heartbreak over this abrupt transition led to our estrangement, which lasted the majority of his remaining years. I can only imagine Margaret’s false claims stem from a similar bitter heartbreak, financial distress, or both.
Regardless of their personal differences, compelling each to later discredit the other, Walter, was indeed the one to initially conceive and create “big eye” art, long before he met Margaret. First and foremost, he was an ideas man. From his crude beginnings, Margaret’s blossoming technical skills contributed to an evolved quality that celebrated his vision, and together they manifested a result which commercially exceeded a level of success greater than what either artist was able to achieve on their own, before or since.
Though uncelebrated, Walter had a diverse body of work that expanded well beyond the confines of his “waif” theme.
I don’t doubt the film took some liberties, and in fact it does seem almost comically one-sided. But it’s hard for me to get past the fact that Walter couldn’t paint a big eye, or even attempt one when asked, if he had indeed been the first to “conceive and create” big eye art. Also, I tend to be inherently mistrustful of anyone who tells me the name of the architect of her childhood home and how many languages she speaks apropos of nothing, but that’s just me.