The Eyes of Margaret Keane
The big-eyed waifs?
They hung in Woolworth’s, next to the velvet Elvi, or maybe it was Walgreen’s, by the clowns.
Wherever, you knew you weren’t in the Louvre. But you probably didn’t know that the man who claimed to have painted the tearful tots didn’t paint them at all.
The artist was his long-suffering wife, who worked behind locked doors while he took the credit and showmanshipped himself to world fame.
She, however, is getting the last laugh. On Sunday, a retrospective of her work, “Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia,” opened at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach.
The story of Margaret and Walter Keane is an intrigue complete with a nasty divorce, a courtroom paint-off and long-awaited vindication.
Then there’s Tim Burton, the movie director.
“I did a portrait of his wife two years ago,” Margaret Keane, 72, said the other day by phone from her home in Sebastopol, north of San Francisco. “She looks like my paintings -- she has big eyse -- and she was holding her little dog, Poppy. The dog was in Tim’s movie ‘Mars Attacks!’ and he just about stole the show.”
A unanimous jury awarded Keane credit for every painted waif 20 years after her 10-year marriage to Walter ended in 1965. She often paired little lost souls with weepy pets during her early ‘60s heyday.
She had a connection to Hollywood through her portraits of Natalie Wood and Kim Novak, but today her work is collected by a clique of hip, entertainment types, including rocker Marilyn Manson and pop star Matthew Sweet.
Four decades ago, Keane paintings were reviled by the art establishment as being about as subtle and original as pornography. But the masses snatched up the paintings, which hung in New York’s United Nations, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, and in the homes of such celebrities as Joan Crawford, Red Skelton, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dinah Shore and Dean Martin. Even Madame Chiang Kai-shek owned one.
The work spurred legions of imitators. In addition to the 35 Keane oil paintings and prints on display at the Laguna museum, the exhibit includes works by ‘60s-era big-eyed imitators such as Igor and Gig (with Gig’s Pity Kitties ceramic figurines), such “Keaneabilia” as ceramic figurines and dolls, and and Keane-influenced pieces by emerging contemporary artists Mark Ryden, Dave Burke, Dani Tull and Lisa Petrucci.
“I’m interested in why someone like Margaret Keane achieves iconic status when Jackson Pollock, who was painting around the same time, does not,” said Laguna museum curator Tyler Stallings. “I also like to look at how commercial success influences artists who initially pursue authentic self-expression, and there’s some of that in Margaret Keane’s crying waifs.”
Pop singer-songwriter Sweet, 35, and his wife, Lisa, loaned several items to the exhibit, including a large Keane oil that’s reproduced on the cover of his latest CD, “In Reverse.”
Sweet, co-writing a book he hopes to title “Big-Eyed Masters,” recently leafed through stacks of yellowed Keane-related clippings at his Mt. Olympus home, where the oversize pupils of humans and beasts gaze from the walls.
“We’ve met other people who have become crazy-rabid about Margaret,” Sweet said.
Keane paintings first surfaced in the late ‘50s in San Francisco’s North Beach area, a boho haven. Walter, an ex-Realtor, consummate huckster and charmer, sold the stuff, simply signed “KEANE,” at the fabled Hungry i nightclub, while Margaret stayed home and toiled.
“I had to keep the paint-room door locked to keep the cleaning woman and my daughter and anyone else from coming in,” said Margaret, who lives with her daughter, Jane. Soft-spoken, almost timid, but not without a sense of humor, the artist grew up in Nashville, where she studied art at the city’s Watkins art institute. She said her work has always featured big eyes.
“I was painting my own deepest inner feelings, and I was searching for answers,” said Keane. “The eyes were asking ‘Why, why is there suffering? What is the purpose of life?’ ”
The sadness in the imagery intensified after she discovered what Walter was up to.
“It had been going on for two years by the time I found out he was telling people he was the artist. And by then, it was hard to change everything. Plus he said he’d learn to paint if I’d teach him, and I wanted to believe him.”
At the time, millions of Keane paintings, prints and plates were being sold in galleries and department stores, too, according to Sweet.
“He could talk to anybody and convince them of anything,” said Margaret.
Even after her divorce, Keane’s dark days weren’t over. A long legal battle over who painted the waifs lay ahead, culminating in a 1985 courtroom paint-off in Honolulu, where both were then living. Walter, however, declined to participate, citing a shoulder injury.
“It took one hour,” Margaret said. “I did the eyes, the nose and the mouth; then during the lunch break I did the hair and the background.”
Margaret was awarded $4 million. Although the judgment was upheld on appeal, the amount was deemed excessive.
“I didn’t want money anyway,” she said. “I just wanted legal victory,” she said.
(Numerous attempts to reach Walter Keane were unsuccessful.)
Today, Margaret Keane, who remarried but is now a widow, paints almost every day and is enjoying the media limelight along with her popular resurgence.
A painting that sold for about $100 in the ‘60s sells for as much as $15,000 today, according to her San Francisco dealer.
And something else has changed. Several years ago she was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. Having found “all the answers I’d been looking for all my life,” as she put it, her paintings became brighter and happier.
“The faces of the children reflect the inner joy and peace I have,” she said. “They still have big eyes, but some of them are even laughing.”
Laguna Art Museum: (949) 494-8971.