Forgery is certainly not a topic neither unheard of or whispered about in the snobbish restricted spaces of the art world. Elymir De Hory, a Hungarian upper class aristocrat, forced to abandon his native country during World War II,created hundreds replicas of works by Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso by the hundreds before he was caught. German Wolfgang Beltracchi allegedly “discovered” a series of postwar pieces by Max Ernst, Georges Braque and André Derain which in reality had been painted by Beltracchi himself.
Tim Burton’s new film Big Eyes is about a different kind of art forgers. Married team Walter and Margaret Keane did not attempt to copy the paintings of the Masters and sell them for millions to gullible art collectors. This majorly forgotten about case of plagiarism was carried out by Walter Keane when he passed his wife Margaret’s paintings of big eyed children as his own. The film begins in 1958, as Margaret Ulbrich walks out on her husband, taking her small daughter with her. An aspiring artist, who has never been able to make a living out of her work, Margaret works in a furniture factory decorating infant beds and cribs to make ends meet. One day,trying to sell her portraits to passersby at a park, she meets another artist, Walter Keane, Walter saw in Margaret potential but not much in the way of ability to market her work, and this is where Walter Keane was a bit of an expert snake charmer. A romance soon begins between Margaret and Walter, and a few months he later he proposes to her, and Margaret readily accepts,in part because her ex-husband is threatening to take away custody of her daughter since she is a single mother in a male dominated patriarchal society, that doesn’t readily approve of divorced or single mothers.
After they marry, Walter manages to rent a space in an obscure corner inside a nightclub to exhibit his and Margaret’s paintings. A woman that is passing by on her way to the powder room, is immediately drawn to one of Margaret’s portraits of the big eyed children, also known as “Waifs”. Walter is dissapointed that she doesn’t show interest in his own paintings of Parisian street scenes, but readily claims authorship of his wife’s paintings. When she finds out by accident. Margaret tells him not to ever do that again, but Walter has other plans. As more people become interested in the paintings and the fame of the Big Eyes grow, Margaret is no longer in control of her art. As Walter continues to pass off her art as his own, she becomes an unwilling accomplice to the lie that she has helped create by remaining silent regarding Walter’s deception. Her life will become a tangled up web of lies that will torment her frequently, while her husband’s populariy and the rumors of his talent continue to grow and influence even the most celebrated authorities in the art world, with the exception of John Canady, the art critic for The New York Times, who finds the waifs vulgar and Keane lacking of any artistic ability, publishes a slamming review of Keane’s cinema sized painting for UNICEF, depicting several of the waifs to be displayed at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair.As a concesquence of Canady’s solid reputation as an art critic, the Keane is pulled from the exhibit, firing WAlter’s rage which he directs towards Margaret, finally prompting her to leave him and move to Hawaii where she decides to start over. Fed up with Walter’s demands that she give up her rights to the paintings in addition of a supply of over 100 paintings in exchange for a divorce, Margaret finally makes the decision to denounce the fraud on a Hawaiian radio show and claim the Big Eyes as her own. The battle begins in the courtroom, where statements of “he said, she said” finally get on the judge’s nerves and decides to settle the case by having them both paint a Big Eye. Walter, finally unable to maintain the lies, claims to have an injured elbow and tells the judge he cannot paint, but Margaret knows that in reality Walter can’t paint. She discovered this one day after scraping off Walter’s signature on one of his paintings, and discovering another artist’s signature underneath. Denying the truth until his death in 2000, Walter Keane died, as the film depicts via a title card in the end, bitter and penniless, while Margaret remarried, eventually moved back to San Francisco, opened a new art gallery, and still paints everyday.
Big Eyes, told with the recognizable dark humor of Tim Burton, is a display of how lies, money, and out of control ambition ruin even the best intentions. The film has been nominated for several awards including the Golden Globes for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Original Song and the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay.