I'm sure you fellow retronauts are aware of the large-eyed kids (cats, dogs, clowns, guitarists, ballerinas, etc) paintings craze from the mid 1960's- early 70's. How could you miss 'em? I've been in many the thrift store with a morose/mod waif staring out at me from a five-and-ten store frame in the home decor section, daring me to take it home and deal with its self-esteem issues. With the death of Thomas Kinkade earlier this week, I was reminded of the "low brow" art struggle that arguably began with artists Margaret and Walter Keane, a husband and wife artistic duo that were supposedly co-creators of the style that dominated pine paneled rec rooms across the country for two decades. Doing a little googling on the subject, I was surprised to find out that a Tim Burton produced movie with Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds is currently in production, called, aptly enough, Big Eyes. What in the world were they going to make a whole movie about, I wondered? Could the Keane story be that controversial? In a nutshell, yes.
Walter Keane's eyes with one of his subject's eyes
What I didn't know about the Keanes was the level of d-r-a-m-a concerning the little be-sweatered, ocularly over-endowed urchins and who, exactly, was responsible for their production. Check out the dispute section of Walter's wikipedia page, where it sounds like an amicable enough divorce between the Keanes in the mid 60's turned acidic after Walter started making grand statements in the press about his place in the artistic canon. Margaret responded by saying she hadn't collaborated with her then-husband on the paintings after all, but was solely responsible for their artistic output, and ohhhhh the media hoopla that accompanied them apples.
In the early 1980's, Walter lost the rights to the big eyed kids in court when Margaret apparently painted an example piece in the court room during the lawsuit in a People's Court worthy "paint-off", and Walter was unable to produce anything owing to his "sore arm". Sounds fishy, right? Obviously an open and shut case of the male dominated, patriarchal society of the mid century robbing a woman of her artistic voice, and a historical wrong being righted in the mean time with the just restoration of her name as the sole author of these paintings.
Or was it? Photographs from the height of their popularity show the Keanes happily painting side by side, in two similar, but definitely distinct artistic styles. Which begs the question....
....who really painted the first "big eyed" painting?
Let's look at an article from the Youngstown Vindicator (great newspaper name, by the way!) from December of 1961.
Movie star and great-girl-crush of mine, Natalie Wood, poses above with poodle and two Keanes... let the controversy begin! The one on the left was painted by Margaret, and the one on the right was painted by Walter. Which one looks more like the prototypical big-eyed painting, hers or his? In my mind, the answer is a resounding "HIS", but let's see what the reporter had to say about the difference between the portraits:
While I honestly prefer Margaret's portrait to Walter's, I think it's clear which is more "wide-eyed". Below, another "working together" session with the Keanes. Look closely and compare their canvases.
Look at the quote: "Walter specializes in wistful children with large, dark eyes. Margaret does soulful young women...somewhat reminiscent of Modigliani." I don't think anyone would mistake the wet-cat-in-the-gutter-with-saucer-shaped-eyes for a Modigliani, and yet how closely does Walter's work resemble what we think of when we think of that school of kitsch art?
Last, but not least, another glimpse of the delectable Miss Wood at her swimming pool with the artist couple feverishly painting the portraits we saw in the earlier picture with the poodle. Assuming Margaret didn't really paint BOTH pictures and just stage the whole scene as being a husband-wife art team, is it really fair to say Walter wasn't the originator? I wasn't able to track down much more outside of some Life magazine articles I've linked to at the bottom of this post.
I guess we'll have to see the movie to find out!
I'm not sure where I stand on the whole issue of the Keane art style in the first place. While I admire their kitschiness and applaud that "out there" style, I don't think I like them nearly as much as I like similar knock-offs (like the Eve painting I mentioned in this post). I actually passed up on the opportunity to buy an over-the-couch sized print of the girl in the bottom right hand corner of the pictures I posted at the very top of this article, crouched on what looks like a lunar platform...partially because it was faded, partially because it was outrageously priced, partially because I just didn't like it enough. But I can't lie to you, the controversy angle actually makes me more interested in the whole business.
What do you think? Do you have any Keane or Kean knockoffs in your homestead? Are you gaga over the google eyes or are you kind of on the fence about their creepy cuteness?
- Margaret Keane: My Story about her becoming a Jehovah's Witness (...?)
- Information about the Reese Witherspoon movie (2012)
- 1965 Life article "HE painted 'em!"
- 1970 Life article "SHE painted 'em!"
- Website on big eyed paintings + memorabilia, including the knockoffs I like
- Another blog about Keane, including scans from a exhibit catalog and a family portrait they did of Jerry Lewis's clan, in with Jerry himself in a Pierrot-like costume (I can't make this stuff up)
Til next time!