Margaret Keane Obituary | art

Margaret Keane, who died at the age of 94, was one of the most popular artists in the world. Her images of children, whose wide eyes seemed to express an anxious innocence and vulnerability, were so popular that they were hung in museums and galleries around the world, attracting endless attention and spawning an industry of countless reproductions. At the height of their success, in the mid-1960s, they also sparked a lively debate as to whether this critically denounced work should even be considered art.

However, another controversy she may recall is that her husband, Walter Keane, fraudulently usurped artistic credit while she painted 16 hours a day to meet demand for the work, originally intended as a collective Effort was publicly presented, and only ever signed “Keane”. Margaret’s role was gradually diminished, and her claim to be the actual creator was not decided until more than three decades later, after Walter backed out of a judge-ordered “painting.” This was the story at the heart of Tim Burton’s 2014 film Big Eyes, in which Margaret and Walter were played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz.

Margaret met Walter, a shrewd real estate salesman and amateur painter, at a café in San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach in 1955, and they married that same year. He began selling her work, attracting attention at Hungry I, a popular comedy club, and in 1957 he traveled to sell the paintings in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York, promoting them as his own.

In 1961, he gained widespread attention after donating a painting of children to Unicef ​​and appearing on television’s The Tonight Show; The media loved the story of “the painting of Keane”. But Walter made himself the center of attention, claiming he was the real artist and she was just an amateur. Margaret, initially convinced by his argument that they could sell more paintings if buyers believed he was the artist and eventually fearing he would ruin her life if she told the truth, went along. “I was in this trap,” she later explained, “and I kept getting deeper and deeper into it.”

In 1964 a huge painting of theirs was chosen to hang in the Hall of Education at the New York World’s Fair. The work Tomorrow Forever featured a line of wide-eyed children stretching out to the horizon, like refugees in an empty world. The New York Times art critic John Canaday reviewed it as a “formula painting of … appalling sentimentality” and said that the Keane product “has become synonymous with hackwork.”

Shortly thereafter, the painting was withdrawn from the exhibition because of “tasteless and low standards”. But Andy Warhol summed up the debate when he said: “It has to be good. If it was bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Still, this was the year of Susan Sontag’s famous essay Notes on “Camp,” and Keane’s kitsch style didn’t attempt to “dethrone the serious,” as Sontag wrote. However, the couple made more than $2 million annually (about $19 million today, or £16 million), and Keane had done portraits of celebrities including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Liberace, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. A Keane painting by Caroline and John-John Kennedy hung in the White House.

Margaret Keane talks about her art and her troubled history, which is explored in Tim Burton’s 2014 film Big Eyes

Margaret came through her obsession with eyes as a child when mastoid surgery resulted in hearing loss; She began focusing on people’s eyes to better understand what they were saying. Born in Nashville, she was the daughter of Jessie (née McBurnett) and David Hawkins, an insurance agent.

Her mother encouraged her shy daughter’s artistic talent; At 10, she took art classes at the Watkins Institute in Nashville. After high school, she spent a year at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York, married Frank Ulbrich in 1948 at the age of 21 and had a daughter, Jane. Her early work defined her interests: she decorated children’s clothing and cribs, and made portraits of women, children and pets. “Kids have big eyes,” she said. “They’re the most expressive part of the face, and they kept getting bigger.”

Margaret divorced Ulbrich in 1955 after meeting and marrying Walter.

After her divorce in 1965, Margaret Walter agreed to continue selling and promoting her work. He continued to take most of the credit, and she was silent on the matter. “The whole thing snowballed, and it was too late to say it wasn’t him who painted them,” she said. “I will always regret not being strong enough to stand up for my rights.”

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane and Christopher Waltz as her husband Walter in the film Big Eyes. Photo Credit: Leah Gallo/The Weinstein Company/Allstar

She moved to Hawaii, where she met and married sportswriter Dan McGuire, whom she credited with restoring her confidence. In 1970 she gave an interview in San Francisco in which she claimed the authorship of her pictures. A “paint-off” was set up in Union Square, but Walter never showed up.

In Hawaii, Margaret, who was involved in various New Age activities, became a Jehovah’s Witness; Her beliefs seemed to mirror her description of her “Children in Paradise” paintings. They are what I think the world will be like when God’s will is done.”

McGuire died in 1983. Three years later, Margaret sued Walter and USA Today, who conducted an interview in which he again claimed to be the artist behind her work. A federal court judge in Honolulu ordered another paint job; Margaret put out a wide-eyed painting in 53 minutes, while Walter refused to take part, claiming that he had a sore shoulder.

The jury awarded Margaret $4 million in damages; Walter declared bankruptcy, and although an appeals court upheld the verdict in 1990, they reversed the arbitral award. Walter died in 2000.

In 1992, Margaret moved to San Francisco where she ran her own gallery, Keane Eyes. In recent years she has lived in Napa, California with her daughter Jane. Her designs inspired several children’s book series and the cartoon Powerpuff Girls, whose teacher is Ms Keane.

Burton was a collector of Keane’s work and in 2000 commissioned her to paint a portrait of his then partner Lisa Marie and her Chihuahua. His 2014 film was an affair of the heart that was 11 years in development; It’s easy to see the affinity between Keane’s themes and Burton’s characters, who are often metaphorically wide-eyed and innocent in a dangerous world she doesn’t understand. Margaret had a cameo role as a woman on a park bench in the finished film. In the same year, a book, Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes by Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson helped rekindle interest; In 2018, Keane received a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles Art Show.

She is survived by Jane, five stepchildren from her third marriage, Danny, Maureen, Brian, Colleen and Mary Ann, and eight stepchildren.

Margaret Keane, artist, born September 6, 1927; died June 22, 2022

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