'Our Children' by Margaret Keane, 1961
Greeting card (blank) featuring the famous artwork (still attributed to Walter Keane on reverse).
5 x 7 Inches
12.7 x 17.8 Centimeters
Offset lithograph on cardstock.
Artwork, dates and printing details on reverse.
ABOUT THE ART
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 94 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.
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.
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.