Tim Burton’s Big Eyes tells Margaret Keane’s story from her perspective, but someone else close to the controversial conversation say she’s not telling the whole truth.
Margaret was consulted for the script of Big Eyes, and has said how impressed she was with Amy Adams’ portrayal of her, and Christoph Waltz’s devilish performance as her ex-husband Walter. Margaret maintains that she was the true painter of the Big Eyes paintings, and even proved herself in court by painting a Big Eyes painting in about 53 minutes while Walter refused to try on account of a faulty shoulder. This version of the story has been repeated and recounted over and over with the film, and in every review, interview, and article about the film. This is how history is written: the loudest, strongest voice is the one that can cut through the fog of time.
Walter Keane’s daughter, however, isn’t too impressed with this version of the story, and has set up a website to get her side out there. Her site was discovered by an Uproxx writer when he received it on an invite to see the film. Her website is bigeyesmovie.com, the film’s website is bigeyesfilm.com, so it’s an understandable error, but a bit of an embarrassing one.
According to Susan Hale Keane, her father helped teach her former stepmother Margaret how to paint, and while she took to the technical skill of painting very well, she failed to display much originality. Susan also says her father and Margaret collaborated on work quite often, and that her father was keen to give her credit for both work she did on her own, and paintings they worked together on.
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.
According to Susan, who says she is a fine art painter who has closely studied one of Walter’s paintings during a restoration, there are obvious discrepancies in style between Walter’s work and Margaret’s. “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,” she says. “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.”
She also goes so far as to say that her father is not a bully, and that Margaret’s accusations of abuse and death threats are “fictitious.” This claim is a little less sound since it’s impossible to know exactly what goes on between two people in a marriage, especially if you have a particular fondness for one of the parties, but Susan’s claims that her father wasn’t taking advantage of Margaret or forging her works throw a great degree of doubt over the situation. As the Serial podcast taught us this year, knowing the “full truth,” in any situation is an impossible thing. We operate on stories, especially when tales stimulate emotions and bring them bubbling up. Our heads are turned by the spark of our hearts.
Even evidence, which can seem so hard and cold and convincing, can be an illusion. If Margaret learned, studied, and worked from and alongside Walter, and spent decades collaborating on and perfecting the “big eye,” style, then why would it be a surprise that she could recreate this in court? If art can be so easily mimicked, why should mimicking art be at the crux of a $4 million judgment? The judgment awarded was for a defamation lawsuit, and later both Keanes were ordered by a judge to not sue each other for defamation again.
But if Walter was the true creator of the Big Eyes painting, why didn’t he paint in court that day too, just to show that he could do it? His daughter has an answer for that:
It is reasonable to assume that in light of his exceptionally poor physical condition and being comparatively “out of practice”, Walter may also have lacked the confidence to paint beside Margaret in court, following decades of berating by Margaret who relentlessly claimed she “paints eyes better than Walter”. Though the concepts, designs and vision for the art were exclusively his, Walter’s attempts to demonstrate this were overshadowed by Margaret’s remarkable talent for mimicry.
Walter Keane’s nephew has also spoken out against the story depicted in the movie. “When I saw the ads I though ‘this doesn’t look good for my uncle.’ I saw the film a day or two after it was released and it was almost surreal. This was not even the person I knew,” Billy Keane says. “I want people to know that Walter could paint. I know he did paint at least most of the pictures. Also, he was not a violent person. He was the the kindest and gentlest person. Woman adored him.”
Billy never saw his uncle paint because he was in advanced age when he was a kid, so his assertion that Walter painted most of the paintings holds no weight. He said his mother claimed that Walter painted these paintings, but it’s just heresay. None of this means anything in the face of the fact that Walter never showed up to a paint-off.
I haven’t seen the film yet, but this conflicting viewpoint (which I first discovered on artist Mark Ryden’s Facebook page, an artist who seems to be heavily influence by the Big Eyes paintings) has given me a great deal of pause. Mr. Ryden says before he read Susan’s words, he noticed huge changes in the Big Eyes paintings before and after their divorce which cannot be attributed to her happier mood and state of mind after finding religion, (as she claims.) “There are atmospheric pallet knife effects and painterly backgrounds that never again appear in her work after their divorce,” Ryden noted. “Post- divorce, the color pallet changes and there is a shift of mood from sad to happy, which has been attributed to her religious faith, but the differences are more profound than that. The earlier paintings have a haunting quality, a tension, a kind of dark soulfulness that never shows up again. These early compositions are less “controlled” than her later paintings.” Sure, Susan is a biased source who probably doesn’t have all the information, but the point about the different styles, down to textural details seems incredibly important. Still, it seems incredibly suspect that Walter did not paint “big eyes” style paintings after his divorce from Margaret. Margaret did go on to paint children with big eyes, but their striking, dark quality was gone. It wasn’t just the darkness that is gone in these paintings, but a kind of depth. However, artists do change over the years, and often completely change style and tone.
Can we ever trust anyone to tell a straight story, or are we all painting our life through a veil of our own delusions of self importance and beliefs in our own exceptional talents and suffering?