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The Artist Wife in Hiding

November 25, 2014
Sanja Lazic was born in 1990 in Belgrade, Serbia. Her interest in art comes from a very early age and although she didn’t have the talent to pursue it professionally, she enjoys every day working and writing about it. Her favorite urban artists are Interesni Kazki, Saner and Phlegm.

There are numerous examples throughout the history of someone stealing the work of others and crediting it as their own. Great example is the story behind the scientist duo Watson and Crick and the idea of the double helix it is said they stole from Rosalind Franklin, and more recently, Alvin Toffler was credited for years as the sole author of Future Shock, which is now correctly credited as by Alvin & Heidi Toffler. Forgeries in the art world are numerous as well, whether it’s because of the attractiveness of the craft, or the problem of proving the actual truth. These stories have been subjects of movies more than once and this December, the director Tim Burton is presenting us to another one. It is the story of one of the art’s biggest frauds in 20th century that had an epic outcome at the iconic duel two spouses in court fighting to prove their innocence. The couple is, of course, Margaret and Walter Keane, who used his wife’s paintings for almost three decades and sold them for millions as his own. This is the first time after her ex-husband’s death that the artist opened for The Guardian and talked about the everyday torture and exploitation of Walter Keane.

Walter and Margaret Keane work side by side in 1961. Photograph BettmannCorbis
Walter and Margaret Keane work side by side in 1961. Photograph Bettmann/Corbis

First Encounter with Big Eyes

The story begins in Berlin in 1946 when a young American Walter Keane went to Europe to learn how to be a painter. It was his first encounter with the sight that would later become the signature mark of “his” art – big-eyed children fighting over scraps of food in the rubbish. As he would later write: “As if goaded by a kind of frantic despair, I sketched these dirty, ragged little victims of the war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses. Here my life as a painter began in earnest.” Walter’s trip may have not resulted in becoming a painter but, almost a decade later in San Francisco, he met someone who was. It was Margaret. Walter described the encounter in his 1983 memoir, The World of Keane, saying that Margaret used to tell him: “I love your paintings. You are the greatest artist I have ever seen. You are also the most handsome. The children in your paintings are so sad. It hurts my eyes to see them. Your perspective and the sadness you portray in the faces of the children make me want to touch them.”

Margaret Keane - Tomorrow Forever
Margaret Keane – Tomorrow Forever, 1964

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in Big Eyes
Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in Big Eyes

The Real Story Behind the Famous Paintings

However, Margaret’s memory of their first meeting in 1955 was quite different. She admits the undeniable charm Walter had, but the rest of the conversation was completely fictitious, she says. Few years later and several painted images of now iconic big-eyed children, now the married couple went to a San Francisco beatnik club, The Hungry i. This is the first time that Walter took credit for Margaret’s paintings. Not being able to cope with the pressure and because of the lack of money to escape and start her own life, Margaret accepted the game which resulted in enormous popularity and fame of Walter Keane and what the world thought were his paintings. Six years after the unexpected failure of the 1964 Tomorrow Forever, Margaret decided to tell everything to the world. The conflict and the struggle to prove who the real painter is finally resulted in a 1970 federal court where the judge challenged them both to paint a child with big eyes, right there in court, in front of everyone. Margaret painted hers in 53 minutes. Walter said he couldn’t because he had a sore shoulder.

The complete story on the life of Margaret and Walter Keane will be portrayed in the latest Tim Burton movie entitled Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. The movie’s premiere is scheduled for December 25, 2014.

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