Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : November 9th 2014 Contents B34
Sunday Guardian www.guardian.co.tt November 9, 2014
There s a sweet, small suburban
house in the vineyards of Napa,
northern California. Inside, a family
of devout Jehovah s Witnesses bus-
tles around, offering me a cheese
plate. A Siamese cat weaves in and
out of my legs. Everything is lovely.
Sitting unobtrusively in the corner
is 87-year-old Margaret Keane.
"Would you like some macadamia
nuts?" she asks. She hands me
Jehovah s Witness pamphlets too.
"Jehovah looks after me every day,"
she says. "I really feel it." She is the
last person you d expect to be a par-
ticipant in one of the great art
frauds of the 20th century.
This story begins in Berlin in 1946.
A young American named Walter
Keane was in Europe to learn how to
be a painter. And there he was, staring
heartbroken at the 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."
Fifteen years later and Keane was
an art sensation. The American sub-
urb had just been invented and mil-
lions of people suddenly had a lot of
wall space to fill. Some of them ---
those who wanted their homes to
express upbeat whimsy---opted for
paintings of dogs playing pool or dogs
playing poker. But a great number of
others, who wanted something more
melancholic, went for Walter s sad,
big-eyed children. Some of the chil-
dren held sad, big-eyed poodles in
their arms. Others sat lonely in fields
of flowers. They were dressed as har-
lequins and ballerinas. They just
seemed so innocent and searching.
Walter himself was not a melan-
cholic man. According to his biog-
raphers, Adam Parfrey and Cletus
Nelson, he was a drinker and a lover
---of women and of himself. This, for
instance, is how he describes his first
meeting with Margaret, the woman
now sitting opposite me in Napa. It s
from his 1983 memoir, The World of
Keane: "I love your paintings," she
told me. "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
"No," I said. "Never touch any of
This conversation apparently took
place at an outdoor art exhibition in
San Francisco in 1955. Walter was still
an unknown artist. He wouldn t
become a phenomenon for another
few years. Later that night, his mem-
oir continues, Margaret told him:
"You are the greatest lover in the
world." They married.
Margaret s memory of their first
meeting is quite different.
The centre of Walter s universe in
the mid-1950s was a San Francisco
beatnik club, The Hungry i. While
comedians such as Lenny Bruce and
Bill Cosby performed onstage, out at
the front, Walter sold his big-eyed-
children paintings. One night Mar-
garet decided to go to the club with
"He had me sitting in a corner,"
she tells me, "and he was over there,
talking, selling paintings, when some-
body walked over to me and said: Do
you paint too? And I suddenly
thought---just horrible shock--- Is he
taking credit for my paintings? "
He was. He had been telling his
patrons a giant lie. Margaret was the
painter of the big eyes---every one of
them. Walter might well have seen
sad children in postwar Berlin, but
he hadn t painted them, because he
couldn t paint to save his life.
Margaret was furious. Back home
she confronted him. She told him to
stop. But something unexpected hap-
pened instead. During the decade
that followed, Margaret would nod
in respectful admiration as Walter
told interviewers that he was the best
painter of eyes since El Greco. She
said nothing. Why did she go along
with it? What was happening inside
the Keane marriage?
CONTINUES ON PAGE B43
the extraordinary story of an epic art fraud Margaret Keane at home in Napa,
California. For years, she painted
portraits of big-eyed children for
which her husband took the credit.
PHOTO: ROBERT GUMPERT
FOR THE GUARDIAN
Amy Adam plays Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's film Big Eyes. PHOTOGRAPH: THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
In the 1960s, Walter Keane was feted
for his sentimental portraits that sold by
the million. But in fact, his wife Margaret
was the artist, working in virtual slavery
to maintain his success. She tells her story,
now the subject of a Tim Burton biopic.
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