Tim Burton’s latest film Big Eyes tells a fairly simple story, but it asks a million questions. The heroine is Margaret Keane, the woman responsible for the big-eyed waif paintings that became fantastically successful in the 1960s. Success comes to her, as it does to many, through a series of happy accidents. An art show in the bathroom hallway of a nightclub attracts the attention of a drunken woman; Keane’s husband has a fight with the nightclub owner, which becomes the subject of gossip columnists. One thing leads to another, and at first just the right amount of right people like her art. Through another (willful) misunderstanding, Keane’s husband starts to take credit for her work.
The money pours in, more and more people like the art, and now almost too many people, and all the wrong people for the art to be taken seriously any more. And still she paints, and her husband takes credit for her work. He’s charming and personable and understands money; he becomes very nearly a celebrity while Margaret remains in the shadows, painting all day. Movie stars and presidents commission portraits in the Keane style and Andy Warhol proclaims, “I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
Which is where all the questions begin, questions artists and critics and art-lovers have been asking for centuries. Why do we make art? Whom do we make it for? The public, the glory of god, a patron, ourselves? If nobody likes your art is it any good? If too many people like your art can you be taken seriously any more? If the wrong kind of people, the regular people, like your art, is it still valuable? Is art still art in the age of mechanical reproduction? Can you be a serious artist and a celebrity? Is it ever possible to balance commercial, critical and popular success? The film raises questions about authorship and ownership. It raises questions about the role of women not just in the art world but in life, in a world in which not all that much has changed in the way that a women’s work is valued and recognized, or that her voice is heard.
Although it revolves around an indelible icon of kitsch, Big Eyes actually felt like one of the least kitschy of Burton’s films. It felt more human, and more grounded in reality. And I think the reason for this is Margaret Keane herself. In Burton’s portrait of her she paints because she needs to, because she enjoys it, and because it feels like something she should do every day. She paints these big-eyed children because she loves them and cares for them, and because “eyes are the windows to the soul.” Which is a cliché, but which also happens to be true on some level. She’s completely uncalculating and unassuming, she’s disarmingly honest.
She’s still alive, and still painting every day. And I think she reduces all of the questions that the movie raises to one simple answer: she paints, and she paints what she paints, because she has to.