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."
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.
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.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
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 everywhere. Paintings and posters of waifs, often in rags with unkempt hair, brought the charming, smooth-talking artist fame and fortune despite widespread disdain from the critics. Then, years later, it emerged that the art was actually the work of Walter's wife, Margaret. She painted in secret, behind closed doors. He publicly claimed them 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 the part of artist Margaret Keane. They joined us from our New York studio. Welcome.
TIM BURTON: Thank you for having us.
AMY ADAMS: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, nice to have you. Let me start with you, Tim Burton. Would you mind starting by describing the phenomenon of Keane's big-eyed waifs?
BURTON: I remember it very well because it was, like, in everyone's living room. You'd see it in dentists' offices. And, you know, even as a child I thought, this is quite strange, you know? It's like they had a mixture of being kind of sad and slightly disturbing all at the same time. And I was also intrigued by the fact that it was such a popular phenomenon. It was like suburban art. I mean, 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.
MONTAGNE: What was the appeal?
BURTON: That's the interesting question because 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 just was a sign of the times.
MONTAGNE: (Laughter) I'm wondering if you're one of the weird, mutant children.
MONTAGNE: And another sign of the times is how it came to be that Margaret Keane allowed her husband to take credit for her paintings. Here's a clip from the movie soon after he's begun to sell them under his name for big bucks.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG EYES")
CHRISTOPH WALTZ: (As Walter Keane) We made $5,000. And it wasn't even for one of your good ones.
ADAMS: (As Margaret Keane) Don't you mean one of your good ones?
WALTZ: (As Walter Keane) No, no, no, no. All right, our - one of our good ones.
ADAMS: (As Margaret Keane) What about honesty?
WALTZ: (As Walter Keane) Ah, come on. The painting says Keane. I'm Keane. You're a Keane. From now on, we're one and the same.
MONTAGNE: That, of course, Christoph Waltz playing Walter Keane. Amy Adams, why did she allow herself to be wrought into this deception with her husband basically making her work his own?
ADAMS: Well, he had been doing it unbeknownst to her. And by the time she found out, she kind of felt backed into a corner.
MONTAGNE: Well, one of the things that's interesting is he basically said to her nobody would buy the art of a woman.
ADAMS: Absolutely. He's the personality, and she understood that, you know? She's very aware of that fact. And she still gives credit to Walter today, that perhaps people wouldn't know my art if he wasn't the one selling it.
MONTAGNE: Tim Burton, you open the film with something Andy Warhol actually did say to LIFE Magazine back in the early 1960s when this had all taken off. And I'll quote it. He said, "I think that what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it." Do you think Andy Warhol was serious?
BURTON: You could argue both ways 'cause you could also say, you know, a lot of people are drawn to bad tastes. So you know - but I do think it's an interesting question, you know? And I agree. I've been involved with that myself, where you get terrible reviews on something. And then - but a lot of people like it and, you know? Or then the opposite, where some critics love it, and everybody hates it. So I've experienced that thing many, many times.
MONTAGNE: Though for the Keanes, fandom and fury hit critical mass when an epic painting of scores of big-eyed children was chosen to exhibit at the 1964 New York World's Fair. That honor was soon extinguished by a scathing denunciation by a powerful art critic. In the film, Walter Keane clashes with the critic at a reception.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG EYES")
TERENCE STAMP: (As John Canaday) Art should elevate, not pander.
WALTZ: (As Walter Keane, yelling). You have no idea. Why does somebody become a critic? Because he cannot create.
STAMP: (As John Canaday) Oh, dear, that moldy chestnut...
WALTZ: (As Walter Keane, yelling) Don't interrupt. You don't know what it's like to put your emotions out there, naked for the whole world to see.
STAMP: (As John Canaday) What emotions? It's synthetic hackwork. Your masterpiece has an infinity of Keanes, which makes it an infinity of kitsch.
MONTAGNE: And, of course, this moment is particularly weird because remember, Walter Keane put neither emotions nor paint on canvas.
BURTON: I always felt it must have been strange for Margaret. Getting 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 yeah, he was at that point quite delusional. So that had to be so strange for her.
MONTAGNE: But Amy Adams, she, Margaret, at least in this film - and you've met her - and she didn't ever seem to be hurt by the criticism because she seemed to have a sense of who she was as an artist. And that wasn't shaken by what people were saying.
ADAMS: No, I don't believe it was. She still paints the big eyes. She has not paid any attention to that evaluation. I don't think she ever painted for public approval. She painted because it's in her soul.
MONTAGNE: So you don't see it as the critics would have. You don't see it as kitsch.
ADAMS: Well, why can't kitsch be art?
BURTON: Yeah, I mean...
ADAMS: Like, it's interpretation.
BURTON: I grew up in Burbank. And kitsch is art to...
BURTON: You know, it is art to me. I mean, you know, I love - you know, I've got a collection of Japanese toy monsters. But I consider those art, you know, because they're beautifully designed. And there's something that attracts you to it. I mean, you know, when you look at Keanes' work, Margaret's work, I mean, it has all of those mixtures of, you know, mystery, sort of enigmatic... People describe - that's the way they describe the "Mona Lisa." I mean, you wouldn't compare - but you can describe things as - for me, it's something I respond to. So it's a form of art that, yeah - I would call it that.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
BURTON: Well, thank you. Thank you.
ADAMS: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: That was Amy Adams, who stars, and director Tim Burton talking about their film "Big Eyes," which will be out on Christmas Day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.