Tim Burton's Big Eyes hits the screens
The enigmatic movie director Tim Burton is best known for his larger than life cinematic style, his interest in the surreal, the macabre and the stupendous lending itself perfectly to an exaggerated, fantastical vision of the world that exists behind the smokes and mirrors of civilisation.
However, for his latest effort Big Eyes, Burton has decided to strip away his motif-like decorative aesthetic, opting instead for a much more modest effort. It is as the director is acting in the capacity of a mere guide, letting the fascinating true story of Margaret Keane and her tumultuous relationship with Walter Keane tell itself.
As an example of contrast, his most recent flick was 2012’s tongue-twisting 3D, black and white stop-motion comedy horror Frankenweenie, which is part parody, part homage to the 1931 film Frankenstein, itself based on Mary Shelley’s book of the same name.
Nevertheless, the real life narrative that informs Big Eyes fits in with Burton’s interest in the absurd, which arguably has some base in Albert Camus’ philosophy of the same name, the premise being the myth of meaning.
That in itself gives some background to the relationship between Margaret and Walter, two artists who fell in love with one another only for the weight of existence, of being in the now, of legacies to follow, to sour their relationship irrevocably. The fallout between the two was larger than life.
Their story began in 1955, when they met one another for the first time at an art exhibition. Though they both remember the occasion differently, Margaret acknowledges that Walter was charming. One thing led to another and for the first two years they were very happy.
This was until one evening when Margaret realised Walter was taking credit for her melancholic paintings of children with, well, big eyes. Prints of these paintings would resonate with the expanding American middle classes and in turn make Walter rich and Margaret comfortable – she never saw any of the money but benefitted from the big house, the servants and the swimming pool in the back yard.
Speaking to the writer Jon Ronson recently in a Guardian interview, she explained how she struggled to convince him to stop, how he persuaded her to keep up the pretence, how she felt trapped. And so, unbeknownst to the world, Margaret toiled away quietly, while PR-savvy Walter enjoyed the fortunes of fame. The eyes therefore are full of her pathos.
“Back home he tried to explain it away,” she remembered. “He said: ‘We need the money. People are more likely to buy a painting if they think they’re talking to the artist. People don’t want to think I can’t paint and need to have my wife paint. People already think I painted the big eyes and if I suddenly say it was you, it’ll be confusing and people will start suing us.’ He was telling me all these horrible problems.”
After a decade together, Margaret felt incapable of maintaining the ruse of a successful marriage and divorced Walter. However, somewhat paradoxically, she continued to paint on his behalf. It was perhaps harder to cut this chord, but, after executing 20 plus post-Walter paintings, that too had reached its limit.
She told a reporter as much, only for Walter to respond with vitriol. It was her word against his. Margaret found some sort of peace with religion, becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. While much happier, there was the small matter of righting Walter’s wrongs. This she couldn’t escape from. She sued him.
True to the absurdity of this particular case, and of life and justice and the American Dream, the judge decided on a ‘paint-off’, tasking both Margaret and Walter to paint an archetypal a picture of a child with big eyes. In other words, ‘show me the truth of your claim’.
Margaret rose to the challenge, taking all but 53 minutes to demonstrate that her assertion was more than credible. Water buckled, making the excuse that his shoulder was sore. Needless to say, the court found in her favour, awarding her a nominal $4 million (approximately £2.5 million). Walter had spent it all in drunken debauchery.
Walter passed away in 2000. Margaret, now 87, lives in Napa, California. She continues to paint, although her work is now characterised by an upbeat mood. The eyes are still there, but the children seem happier. She used to be interested in understanding why there is so much sadness in the world.
However, after emerging out of her own tragedy, her outlook changed. She decided to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses. Life is absurd, full of sorrow, but you’d be surprised at how many happy endings there can be.
Cadogan Tate specialises in delivering tailored fine art storage solutions.