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The Eye-Opening Saga Of Walter And Margaret Keane, Now On Screen

It's a story almost too strange to be true: Throughout much of the 1960s and '70s, the wistful, wide-eyed children of painter Walter Keane were absolutely everywhere.

Paintings and posters of the big-eyed waifs, often in rags, their hair unkempt, brought fame and fortune to the charming, smooth-talking artist — along with widespread critical disdain.

But years later, it emerged that the art was actually the work of Walter's wife, Margaret Keane. She painted in secret, behind closed doors, and he publicly claimed the work as his own.

Director Tim Burton has taken the Keanes' strange partnership as the subject of his new film Big Eyes, and Amy Adams plays Margaret Keane. Burton tells NPR's Renee Montagne that he remembers seeing Keane paintings everywhere as a child. "They had a mixture of kind of sad and emotional and slightly disturbing, all at the same time. ... People didn't have Picassos or Matisses hanging on the wall, they had Keanes, and so it was something that was staring at you all the time."

Interview Highlights

Director Tim Burton with his vintage Margaret Keane paintings.
Leah Gallo / The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company
Director Tim Burton with his vintage Margaret Keane paintings.

Burton on the appeal of the Big Eyes paintings

Growing up in that era, the sort of late '50s, early '60s, was a real transitionary time in the sense of the culture. And I always thought about Margaret and Walter as this dysfunctional couple creating these sort of weird mutant children, which seemed very much like the way I grew up, so maybe it was just a sign of the times.

Adams on Margaret Keane and her husband's deception

He had been doing it unbeknownst to her, and by the time she found out, she kind of felt backed into a corner.

He basically said, "I have to be the artist. I'm the guy." He's the personality, and she understood that ... and she still gives credit to Walter today, that perhaps people wouldn't know [her] art if he wasn't the one selling it.

"I don't think she ever painted for public approval. She painted because it's in her soul."

On the Keanes' scathing critical reception, and a scene of Walter arguing with an art critic

Burton: I always felt it must have been strange for Margaret; being criticized was like a double whammy.

Adams: Well, and also, seeing the absolute delusion at that point of her husband — not only taking credit for the work, but the emotional and creative process, and sort of the artistic burden of creating these children ... so that had to be so strange for her.

I don't think she ever painted for public approval. She painted because it's in her soul.

Burton on kitsch as art

I grew up in Burbank, and kitsch is art, you know, it is art to me. ... When you look at Keane's work, Margaret's work, it has all those mixtures of mystery, sort of enigmatic — people describe, that's the way they describe the Mona Lisa! I mean, you wouldn't compare this, but you can describe things as, for me, this is something I respond to. So it's a form of art.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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