By Clare Horan and Remy Savell-McKean
Some of you may have heard the name; Walter Keane, or you may have not. However, I can assure you that his influence can be seen throughout popular artistic work and his success can be measured in both his commercial rewards and popularity. His work has inspired many and his art form both shocked and intrigued many critics of the L.A art scene in the 60’s. Something else you may not know about Walter Keane was that he is a notorious plagiarist, a fraud. His wife, Margaret Keane was the genius and producer of his revolutionary art form and he took sole credit for all of the paintings she had created. Margaret Keane’s artworks hung in countless galleries and copies sold by the thousands with his signature stamped on every single one. It is extraordinary that one of the most recognisable artists from the 60’s had not the faintest idea of how to hold a paintbrush.
The truth is that Walter Keane was nothing but a threatening, fraudulent, and manipulative husband. When Margaret Keane confronted him, he patronisingly explained that they needed the money and it would confuse everyone by changing the narrative and she feared for her life. So, while Walter lived the high life, cheating on her and drowning in millions of fraudulent dollars, Margaret was locked away, curtains closed and painted 16 hours a day. In 1970, on a radio broadcast, Margaret announced that she was the real artist of the big eye paintings. Then in 1986, she sued Walter and USA Today for an article claiming Walter as the real artist. During the Federal Court case, the judge ordered Walter and Margaret to compose a Big-eyed painting, Walter refused because of “sore shoulder”, poor him. Whereas, Margaret finished her painting in 53 minutes proving that the paintings were hers and was rewarded $4 million dollars in damages. Walter frequently stated for the many years of his lies that the “eyes are the windows of the soul”, well the eyes are wide open, the curtains were now drawn, and the truth was inevitable.
Margaret’s iconic eyes can be interpreted in many ways and behold a flourish of emotions that can easily overwhelm or intrigue the viewer. Some see her artworks as a depiction of her solemn reality with even her realising later in life that “Those sad children were really my own deep feelings that I couldn’t express in any other way”. Her artworks unlock a sense of mystery and draws in the audience with the eyes of her subject. This can be seen in one of her most famous works “The Stray” (1962). It depicts what is often showcased in her art, the image of a child. Keane intentionally leaves the faces of her works expressionless to showcase the eyes as the main centrepiece, often dulling or subduing the background or other features of the piece. The overall emptiness of her paintings strengthens the gaze she uses in this artwork to confront the audience’s emotions and harnesses the sense of restrained haunting sadness that one can see through the painting. With her minimisation of narrative in this, the artwork successfully forces the viewers to interpret the message, not through the contextual elements of the composition, but the sole contributor of meaning, the eyes.
Margaret Keane at 93 years of age has experienced the many hardships of being a woman in a patriarchal society but she has also experienced the triumphs of being one of the most internationally celebrated artists. She has impacted a whole other generation of artists and the big eyes has become the inspiration for many TV shows and toys like the famous Powderpuff Girls with a character named after Margaret Keane. One of her many achievements was the 2014 Tim Burton biographical film, ‘Big Eyes’, starring Amy Adams. The film won many awards including the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, therefore her story has been spread across the world inspiring and influencing even more artists and women.
This is just one out of many cases where women’s art has been stolen or credited to male artists. This is not new, and it is still prevalent in society to this day. Stories like this exist in all corners of the workforce. Women’s work has been neglected, overlooked, plagiarised and we still don’t know half of their names. There have been many talented souls that have been forgotten or disregarded throughout history and we urge you to research and support female artists to strengthen and encourage the breaking through of the glass ceiling.