Big Eyes has been hailed as Tim Burton’s best film in years. On this project he has shied away from his usual CGI effects, singing, and Halloweeny make up. Instead, this film focuses on what is often the basis for great cinema: an incredible, and true, story. Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret Keane, an American artist who painted images of children with huge, soul baring, doe-like eyes. In the 60s, during the fruition of her work’s success, her pieces were sold under the name of her husband at the time, Walter Keane, until 1970 when she announced to the world that she was the craftsman behind the famous images.
Considered kitsch by art critics, Keane’s paintings were a common fixture in American households of the 60’s. The images of her waifs feature largely in the film, and, when I look at them formally, frankly they leave a lot to be desired other than their cutesy/Tim Burton-esque charm. The handling and colouring remind me of the cheap paintings flogged on Bayswater road, and the characteristic ‘big eyes’ are reminiscent of manga comics and the power puff girls (the animator of which has admitted basing his cartoons on Keane’s waifs). Furthermore, when I look at the images as a painter, I feel no envy nor curiosity regarding technique or any other painterly aspects. To me these qualities are almost irrelevant; so many 20th century painting’s interest and prestige have very little to do with the marks made on canvas.
Amy Adams plays a quietly brave Margaret Keane, who at the very beginning of the film walks out on her first husband, long before, as the narrator explains, it ‘became the fashionable thing to do’. The narrator almost immediately explains how limited a woman’s options were in the early 50s, ‘the 50’s were a grand time- if you were a man’, introducing a theme that has now come to encompass Keane’s paintings: gender politics in the mid-20th century.
Margaret then marries Walter Keane (played by Christopher Waltz- who smashes it as per), a savvy salesman/hustler/con-man, who is trying to sell tatty paintings of Parisian streets when he notices the interest his wife’s artwork garners. He sells her pieces under his name, and convinces Margaret to play along by saying ‘sadly people don’t buy lady art’. Without Walter Keane the famous big eyed waifs would not be the familiar kitschy images they are today.
An enterprising salesman, Walter embraced the post-war capitalist America he was living in. He used the media to elevate his status; by donating paintings to celebrities and institutions he created great photo opportunities for the papers. His self-generated buzz (words often used to describe $198millon artist Damien Hirst’s popularity) was so effective that people would snatch posters and pamphlets from his gallery if originals were beyond budget. Keane’s solution? Charge them for the posters. Not only did this make him a rich man, it ensured Margaret’s work was available to the masses, and, with a nod to 50’s stereotypes, Keane’s vulnerable children were very popular with the housewives of Middle America. Keane was the nuclear family’s Warhol (apologies).
Regardless of whether one ‘likes’ Keane’s paintings, or even views them as art at all, does not distract from all that they represent. These paintings are emblems of a story that, in its entirety, encompasses the changes that gender politics, and the art world, underwent during the 20th century. As one of the first artist’s to capitalise on the mass production of their images, Walter/Margaret set the precedent for many artists to come. They are an early example of 20th century ‘rockstar’ artists, whose persona contributes largely to the popularity of their art. A persona which will have grown after the release of this film.
Margaret Keane was a woman who walked out on two controlling husbands, successfully raised a daughter alone, made a living using her talent, and then finally got credit for it. During the artist’s life span, divorce and single parenting has become largely accepted by society, it’s widely acknowledged that talent has zero to do with gender, and women are now recognised by the art market- although more progress could be made on this front. To conclude the film ends with the court case between Margaret and Walter Keane, where the judge orders them to both paint a ‘big-eyes’ in the court room. Walter refuses to do so. The female protagonist triumphs, at a craft which, throughout the centuries, has been dominated by the opposite sex. Keane’s images, rejuvenated by this film, symbolise all these developments.
Back to the very start of the movie, with a quote by Andy Warhol: ‘I think what Walter Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it’. Burton’s film seems to accept Warhol’s view, which embraces the decline/hostility towards craftsmanship and artistry. There has been speculation about this common view being why Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner has largely been snubbed this award season unlike Big Eyes (Amy Adams has just won a Golden Globe). In a modern world within which we are obsessed with equality, are we wary of genius and talent? Do we worship the mediocre? Or perhaps the lack of craftsmanship/artistry is really just part of artistic evolution and we should all move with the times? This film brings these questions to mind; rather impressive for a comedy which did not make me laugh out loud once.
BogeArt; Isabella Bornholt