Thursday, November 27, 2014

Big Eyes: The Business Of Art And The Pre-Feminist Stuck-Home Syndrome

Setting the stage for mid-20th century female oppression playing out prior to the women's movement -  as well as in the media  - in Tim Burton's Big Eyes, is Danny Huston's voiceover narrator doing the late San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan, and subversively cutting to the chase. And all at the same time delivering perhaps the best movie line of the year: "I make things up for a living - I'm a reporter."

Which could not be more to the point, in deciphering through quite metaphorically candid Big Eyes, a financially compulsive US consumer society harboring a dark side just beneath the giddy, deplorable, culturally embedded deceptive commercialism dominating everything. And connected in this case, to domestic violence primarily psychological in nature visited upon the populist artist Margaret Keane. Who was pressured by mid-20th century white middle class limitations placed on women, to essentially collaborate as a component of domestic security and well-being, in her own oppression. And actually, pretty much nothing new, if one considers throughout human history the many women like George Eliot who took male names to have equal access to the privilege of creativity and public recognition. Along with that well known, sadly often repeated rhetorical question historically speaking, why are there no women artists?

Amy Adams projects an alternately subtle and stinging emotional and ethical ambivalence as Margaret Keane, deferring to her arrogant con-man mate Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), when he assures her that attributing her popular paintings to him instead, is a prudent business move that will substantially enrich their coffers. Which it does.

But this Faustian deception as ambivalent accomplice, driven by her own insecurities as a woman and yearning for a safe haven in a female-demeaning and dismissive world at the time, ironically further entrenches her own invisibility as an artist and human being. And admirably, Burton doesn't simplify the gender based conflict here by opposing a stereotypical female victim with her male victimizer. But rather probes all the self-critical ambiguous issues in between, in crafting a kind of canvas of his own pitting stifled rebellion against embarrassing expediency.

Big Eyes can also claim distinction for probing a less traditionally scrutinized component of domestic violence against women that leaves no physical scars, but destroys countless lives as well - mental and emotional abuse and domination. And perhaps best described in this case, as the Stay-Home Syndrome. And deferring to a husband as dictatorial decision maker, however self-destructive. Though in two instances that might be referred to as sorrowfully sequelized though ultimately triumphant in real life as well, Margaret is seen fleeing two unseemly spouses down the nearest highway - destination scary single motherhood - with her paintings and her child in the back seat in tow.

Then there's possibly Burton's own very personal exploration here, of the business of art. In other words, Walter Keane as symbolic of Hollywood, and the movie industry that aggressively shoves aside any notion of art - when not exploiting and taking credit for it - in the parasitic pursuit of profit. And if this was in fact on Burton's mind as troubling creative subtext, all power to him.


  1. I really like that last paragraph how the reviewer interpreted what Burton may really be attacking. Very thought-provoking review. Might be one of the best on this film.

  2. I agree. One of the few reviews to take on what's almost right with this disappointing movie.

  3. Despite our best efforts, the Keane Family has been unsuccessful in opening a dialogue with the creators of the film "Big Eyes". All of our communications to date have gone unanswered. We are here to dispel the myths perpetuated by the media.


    Saturday, 20 December 2014

    Press Release: Official Statement by Susan Hale Keane, Daughter of Walter Stanley Keane

    Born in 1947, I am Susan Keane, daughter of Barbara and Walter Keane.

    Following the traumatic death of my brother Stanley, and a highly successful joint venture in real estate, throughout the late 40s and early 50s, my parents and I lived in post WW2 Europe, while maintaining a home in Berkeley, California, designed by Julia Morgan, built in 1906.

    During that time, my mother, in pursuit of a PhD, studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, fashion design with couturiers including Edwar Sene, and Universität Heidelberg, while my father studied painting at École des Beaux-Arts and L'Académie de la Grand Chaumière in Paris.

    Initially speaking an amalgamation of 5 languages, I learned to draw and paint alongside my father from an early age.

    During 1949, in the ballroom of our Berkeley mansion "Elmwood House", I watched my parents create, "Susie Keane's Puppeteens", "big eyed" wooden puppets, hand painted by Walter, with clothing designed and sewn by Barbara. Adorned in an ornately illustrated box, accompanied by a book and language record set, these sold in San Francisco, New York and London, at high end department and toy stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, I Magnin and FAO Schwartz, as seen in this 1951 edition of UK's House & Garden magazine.

    In 1950 my mother Barbara became department head of dress design at UC Berkeley, while Walter painted full time. I observed my father's friendship with Berkeley painter Robert Watson to be a profound influence on both my own and Walter's evolving style, as he shifted his early focus from street scenes and nudes, to ominous ethereal imagery of exaggerated perspective.

    After my parents filed for divorce in 1953, my father and I met Peggy (Margaret Doris Hawkins Ulbrich), during an exhibition of Walter's paintings.

    At that time, Mrs Ulbrich, a former New York baby furniture factory worker, made her living painting names on neckties, in cooperation with her husband Frank, supplemented by quick realistic portrait sketches of passers by at street fairs. None of her work to date had "big eyes".

    Soon, Mrs Ulbrich moved in with my father, and he took her on as his "Eliza Doolittle" and artistic apprentice.

    Later, Mrs Ulbrich filed for a divorce from her husband Frank, and swiftly married my father in 1955. Her daughter Jane moved in, and she and Margaret learned to paint under my father's tutelage. I witnessed the evolution of their artistic process...

    Continued on

  4. For anyone able to conduct a forensic analysis of the works of Walter Keane and Margaret McGuire:

    In addition to an artistic analysis, Susan Keane has provided a highly detailed account of the materials, tools and techniques used by Walter and Margaret, witnessed by Susan throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Although for brevity sake, we have not currently included this information, Susan has also given many examples of how these methods contrast with her own.

    "I believe my choice of examples is accurate. While artists do change their media, paints, pallets, etc over the years, as they desire, most artists stick to a formatted plan of paints, brushes, etc..." - Susan Keane

    Susan's description can be viewed via an in-progress documentary at