Watching this video interview with KQED media channel you’d never suspect that the gentle 87-year-old artist Margaret Keane was at the centre of one of the biggest art scams of the twentieth century. But Tim Burton’s latest film, Big Eyes, which premieres in Africa today and will be screened tonight at The Labia Theatre as part of Design Indaba FilmFest 2015, canvasses the private story of Margaret and her husband, Walter, to reveal this true-life deception.
In the late 1950s Walter began taking the credit for her "big-eyed" portraits, selling them at a nightclub as his own. Margaret claims that she argued with him at first, even tried to teach him to paint, but was eventually persuaded to let him steal her work.
The sentimental portraits rose in popularity in the 1960s, with Walter basking in the fame while he kept his wife in virtual slavery, locked in a room painting for up to 16 hours a day. He threatened to have her killed if she told anyone the truth.
“It was practically non-stop, just painting constantly. It was an impossible situation… and I wasn’t very strong,” says Margaret.
From all accounts, Walter was a narcissistic womaniser, having affairs in the very house where he kept his wife a painting prisoner, and claiming in his memoir that she said to him: “You are the greatest artist I have ever seen. You are also the most handsome. The children in your paintings are so sad. It hurts my eyes to see them. Your perspective and the sadness you portray in the faces of the children make me want to touch them.”
When the case eventually reached the courts, the judge challenged both Margaret and Walter to paint a picture right there in the courtroom.
Margaret says she was excited to hear Burton, who owns a few of her paintings, was directing a film about her life. It is apparently such a true telling of the story that watching it was traumatic for Margaret, who credits actors Christophe Waltz and Amy Adams for playing her husband and her past self so persuasively.
After their divorce, Margaret moved to Hawaii and continued to paint. The colours in her paintings became brighter and more cheerful. “I still sometimes paint sad, because there’s a lot of sadness in this world.”
Margaret Keane cameos in Burton’s biographical drama as an old lady on a park bench. Look out for her!