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It’s A Big-Eyed World Of Keane! February 16, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, Books.
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A recent book hunting safari into assorted thrift stores yielded some more added weight to the eventual pile they’ll find my body under after no one has heard from me in several weeks.

“First, we noticed the smell….”

“Yes, even worse than the usual one.”

“My God! This is the largest porn collection I’ve ever seen! And it looks like he’s even choked on part of it…”

And so on.

Anyway, one of the books I came across is the turns-out-to-be-sorta-rare The World Of Keane by Walter Keane. This book from 1983 pretty much offers us Walter’s side of the story in the Keane controversy, which I suppose makes it a fairly interesting example of amazingly elaborate self-denial since it was fairly obvious after a court battle that his wife Margaret Keane was the true creator of all those big-eyed waif paintings we’ve all come to know, love, and shake our collective heads over.

Long story short: Margaret, who had divorced Walter in 1965 because of his claim to creating the paintings, sued him in a Hawaii court in 1986 over the money at stake, and the judge ordered them both to paint a big-eyed kitten to see who the real artist was. Margaret slapped one onto the canvas in less than an hour and Walter claimed he had a sore shoulder and couldn’t paint. An earlier 1970 “paint-off” produced similar results, with Margaret painting in public and Walter a no-show. So, she won recognition and Walter went to his grave right after Christmas 2000 still claiming to be the real artist.

I’ve jumped around in parts of the book, which is written mostly as autobiography, but I skipped ahead to Walter’s version of the battle over the waif painting authorship, and it reminded me somewhat of the tail-end of Lenny Bruce’s autobiography How To Talk Dirty & Influence People, except instead of degenerating into trial transcripts, it degenerates into rant about a trial gone bad.

It’s odd reading little chunks of the book while believing Margaret’s side of it all – sections on how he created the paintings, sections on the process from sketches to finished product… all the while with me marveling at the amazing level of self-delusion being put forth by someone taking credit for someone else’s work. I guess I can put it alongside any material I feel like gathering on the classical pianist Joyce Hatto, although I’m sure there are connoisseurs out there who’d argue that Hatto (via her husband, actually) was claiming ownership of material of greater artistic value than paintings of starvin’ Marvin with big bug eyes.

Perhaps one day I’ll manage to slog through the entirety of The World Of Keane (and perhaps my eyes will resemble his wife’s paintings…. call me “The Weeping Waif Jew,” perhaps, but only if I manage to lose some weight). In the meantime, I’ll keep it around for kitschy laughs. I could do worse for the dollar it cost me.

The pic up top? Jerry Lewis and his family, painted by Margaret Keane. I’d like to see him wear that harlequin outfit at the telethon one of these years.


1. A hit and run reader! - November 20, 2008

I had a copy of that book as well. Once I did the research I was flabbergasted to see that that snake took credit for her work and skill. I might not be the biggest fan of that style, but for crying out loud, at least have the grace to be a little honest in life!
Her website is pretty cool and I’m glad she’s getting the success and kudos in life she always deserved.

2. Jim Berkin - November 20, 2008

I first learned about it in the comic “Griffith Observatory” written by Bill Griffith of Zippy The Pinhead fame. He wrote a strip about the “Keane Controversy” and how she had successfully challenged Walter in court to paint on the spot, proving that she was the actual artist.

I had assumed this had humbled him, but when I came across the book, I could see that he remained in denial to the end.

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