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Margaret Keane says she told 'Big Eyes' truth on spur of the moment

The artist hadn't planned to publicly reveal the truth about her big-eyed paintings in a 1970 interview; it just sort of happened.
By Danielle Haynes Follow @DanielleHaynes1 Contact the Author   |   Dec. 25, 2014 at 7:30 AM
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NAPA, Calif., Dec. 25 (UPI) -- The moment that revealed one of the biggest art frauds of the 20th century wasn't planned in advance, artist Margaret Keane, the subject of the new Tim Burton movie Big Eyes told UPI.

Five years after Margaret divorced her husband, Walter Keane -- the man who for 10 years took credit for her haunting and wildly popular big-eyed paintings -- she decided she was done living a lie.

For all of the 1960s, she lived in the shadows, at times shut away, churning out painting after painting with her husband's name on them. The artworks featured mostly children with disproportionately large eyes.

They were sad. They were lonely. They sometimes had tears running down their faces.

Walter, who previously worked as a real estate agent, met Margaret while he was peddling European street scenes he said he painted at the San Francisco Art Festival. Ever the salesman, Walter had convinced Margaret her paintings would sell better if buyers believe he created them.

A year after divorcing Walter, Margaret married her third husband, Dan McGuire, who was a sports journalist for UPI and other publications in California and Hawaii.

It was during those first few years of marriage to McGuire that Margaret came to a decision about how she wanted to live her life.

"I made the decision that if anyone asked me [about the paintings] from that point, I was going to tell the truth," she said.

McGuire "told me not to be afraid. He really was a good support and helped me get the courage to do it."

And though she hadn't planned to publicly reveal the truth about the big-eyed paintings in a 1970 radio interview, it just sort of happened.

Margaret was being interviewed on a San Francisco radio talk show about her art show at the Cory Art Gallery in San Francisco. Walter wasn't supposed to be the topic of that particular interview, but the radio host brought him up.

Margaret says she doesn't remember the name of the radio station nor that of the host, but she remembers what happened.

"It was controversial-type show where he tried to needle the people," Margaret said of the host. "I didn't know it was that kind of show or I wouldn't have gone on it."

"He said, 'I hear you have an assembly line and that somebody paints the nose and somebody else does the eyes,' " Margaret recalled.

At that moment, her decision to stop the lie was put to the test.

"No, there was no assembly line," she responded. "I did them all, I was the assembly line."

"And that really shocked him."

Margaret, who lived in Honolulu at the time, also told a UPI reporter the truth during that same trip to San Francisco for her art show.

"I signed the paintings 'Keane,' my married name," she told the reporter. "When I asked [Walter] why he said he was the painter, he said the buyers always wanted to pay more if they met the painter.

"After we started to make it, it didn't make any difference. All I got out of it was a larger house to keep. And I always did the faces and the eyes and he might touch up the background."

Margaret said she tried to teach Walter to paint, but he couldn't.

She didn't leave or tell people the truth for all those years because she was afraid of Walter.

"He told me so many times -- like brainwashed me -- that if I ever told anybody he'd have me knocked off," she told UPI last week. "I really thought he would.

"Not until he died did I really feel that I wasn't going to be knocked off. I don't like to hear people die but it was a relief that I didn't have that fear anymore," she said of his 2000 death.

Margaret said she eventually had enough and left Walter in 1965, though she continued to paint the big-eyed paintings for him for five years after their divorce.

"People keep asking me, and I decided to tell the truth," Margaret said in the 1970 interview of her choice to continue to paint for Walter even after the split.

During her 1970 interview with UPI, Keane called on her ex-husband to publicly prove he was the artist behind the big-eyed paintings -- he adamantly denied Margaret's claims until his death.

"Give us both paint and brush and canvas and turn us loose in Union Square at high noon, and we'll see who can paint eyes," she said. "I'd like that."

Walter never showed. But Margaret got her showdown in 1986, when she sued him for $3 million for slander. Walter told a freelance reporter for USA Today in 1984 that Margaret only claimed she was the painter of the big eyes because she thought he was dead.

During the trial, the two were asked to paint one of the iconic pictures. Margaret did so with success, but Walter declined, saying he had a shoulder injury.

More than four decades after the reveal, Margaret says she still gets people coming to her Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco, adamant that she's not the artist.

"People would come in the gallery and argue and say, 'No, Walter did these things,' " even as recently as two months ago, she said

Talk of Burton's Big Eyes movie, though, has changed that.

Margaret says more people seem to be aware she's the artist these days.

She had the opportunity to have her story told on the big screen multiple times before, but it wasn't until she met with writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who brought their version to her, that she felt comfortable enough with the idea.

Adding Burton into the mix sealed the deal.

Margaret had seen Edward Scissorhands and thought it was "fantastic." She had met Burton before "and I really like him as a person."

She said she was curious about how Burton would approach making the movie "with his little touches and twists."

Ultimately, she is happy with Big Eyes, though her initial reaction to seeing the movie was one of shock.

"I was just not prepared for the emotional reaction I had," Margaret said. "It was overwhelming. It was the worst part of my life. It was very traumatic and after a couple of days I began to realize how great it was because it had such an effect on me and also on my daughter."

She was especially impressed with the performance by Amy Adams, who played Margaret in the film.

"I'm in awe of her ability and talent," Margaret said. "She portrayed exactly the way I was feeling. I don't know how she can do it without even saying a word ... just a gesture."

Though Margaret doesn't have problem with the story of her life being out there for the whole world to see -- she truly does live by the motto to never tell a lie -- she wants her art to stand on its own merit.

She still paints the big-eyed waifs, but they're happier these days with portraits of smiling children, animals in gorgeous, sometimes fantastical settings. She wants her story to be a cautionary tale.

"I certainly don't want people to focus on terrible mistakes I made allowing Walter and enabling him to take all the credit. I hope that when they do think about that part of it it will help inspire some people to have the courage to do what's right and keep a good conscious.

"I just hope that people who see this movie will realize that even a little white lie can lead to unbelievable things."

Big Eyes, which also stars Christoph Waltz as Walter, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman and Danny Huston, opens in theaters Christmas Day.

Both Adams and Waltz have been nominated for Golden Globe acting awards for their roles.

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