One of the year’s most perfectly placed cameos may not belong to a person, but rather a painting in “Big Eyes” since it’s difficult to imagine a more ideal scene to feature an appearance the first Keane painting Matthew Sweet ever bought. Prominently featured in the film’s trailer, the untitled work (seen above, just to the right of Amy Adams) shows up just when an inquisitive French woman asks who’s responsible for the paintings that line a San Francisco nightclub, shortly after the enterprising Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) has lined the walls with the work of his wife Margaret (Adams). Just as the fictional Walter tells the potential patron back during the 1960s when the film is set, the real one told Sweet 30 years later that the painting was of his own creation.
“This image he brought to me was signed 1985,” recalls Sweet, who met Walter during the mid-1990s. “I knew Margaret’s work really well by then, so I looked at it and [wondered], ‘Okay, this is a real Margaret painting,’ so what is he doing with it and why is it signed 1985?”
The mere act of meeting Walter was the culmination of one mystery for Sweet, who had gone so far as to place classified ads to collect anything associated with Keane, whose popularity soared after Walter had the forethought to mass produce her protruding pupil portraiture. However, as the singer-songwriter behind such seminal albums “Girlfriend” and “100% Fun” demurely notes, “I was working a whole lot during the ‘90s, so I didn’t have that much time to devote to it.”
Still, the only place Sweet may have spent more time than on top of the alt rock and college radio charts was searching for Keanes and countless imitators of the artist in flea markets, thrift stores and eventually eBay auctions. With his wife, Sweet has amassed a treasure trove from the Big Eye era, ranging from original oil paintings to business cards that were once handed out by Walter and in the process, learned the remarkable and often ridiculous tale of the Keanes’ prosperous yet tempestuous partnership that deprived Margaret of the credit she so richly deserved.
For years, Sweet believed it was a story destined for the big screen – in fact, he might’ve felt he was actually in one when he confirmed Walter’s malfeasance by scraping his signature off a canvas and discovered it was hiding Maragret’s, a revelation that came only after Sweet tracked down a packet of photographs that Walter took in Hong Kong cataloging his inventory after he and Margaret split in 1964. Now, a film finally has been made, reuniting director Tim Burton with “Ed Wood” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for a tale just as wild as the one of the crossdressing ’50s cult auteur, so much so that the writing duo had to tone things down slightly to make it believable.
While Sweet was still waiting to unwrap this long in the works Christmas gift, now living in Nebraska, he took the time to talk about consulting on the film, his continuing fascination with Margaret Keane and her contemporaries and the ways it has crossed over with his own work.
I bought a pair of black-and-white prints that were framed under glass at a thrift store in Los Angeles, probably in about ’94, and over time, I would look at these paintings, which at the time seemed really out there to me. They struck my fancy because they reminded me of Japanese animation, and this was the Americana version in my mind of these big-eyed alien characters I was into from Japan. That interested me a lot and I started thinking what is the origin of this stuff and where are the original paintings? At the time and even now, [except for] Margaret’s gallery in San Francisco, there really was no gallery that had a Keane painting in it. It was something you had to hunt for.
My wife and I started trying to find them and you have to remember also there was no internet, so it was this really mysterious thing. As we looked around thrift stores, we collected all these prints and we started to notice there were prints from all these other artists that were of the same time, so we started watching out for their original oil paintings as well. Eventually, eBay got into our lives and we were able to search harder, though we really had our best luck living in California and going to Rose Bowl-type [flea markets] every minute we could. We never found an original Keane at a flea market. Those all came out of the woodwork from ads we placed at the back of newspapers and things like that, so we became obsessed.
At one point, I was on tour and I went to Margaret’s gallery in San Francisco. This was very early on in our search for paintings and they had a couple of old paintings there, but they were on sale for huge amounts of money and immediately [we could tell] Margaret did all the paintings, but [we still were] at the point [where] we still thought there are the Walters, there are the Margarets and they’re different. And we had a book by Walter where he claimed she was a liar and he really did paint and all these things, so at the beginning, we didn’t know who to believe. We only knew just looking at the art and what people said, so we explored for a long time what was going on.
At this point, we’re like “God, what a great story” and we’d tell anyone who would listen, “This would make a great movie.” We went on collecting and then around 2000-2001, Lisa Marie, who was Tim Burton’s girlfriend [at the time], was interested in another one of our artists from the Big Eye era, Igor Pantuhoff, an interesting Russian fellow who painted very ethereal fashion girls, but he had very much his own thing. She and Tim ended up coming over to our house and we talked a lot about Keane and showed him some of the artifacts. Of course, Tim knew all about Keane from before then, and this is still maybe three years before [Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski] wrote a script, so I would want it to happen, but I’m not a filmmaker. I didn’t do anything really, except for think this could be really cool.
I knew Larry all along, and lo and behold, about 2004, I guess they must’ve come across the thing in the Encyclopedia of Weird and went “Hey, this could be good.” Larry knew I had Keane paintings, so [he and Scott] just came to us and said “We’re going to write a movie.” We told them what we knew, but they were able to do so much research beyond us, so it was fun for us because we got to piggyback to learn more about them ourselves. They wrote a script, which we read, and it was really wonderful how it tried to give Margaret her due.
If I’ve got my timeline right, you actually started working on a book around the time Larry and Scott started working on the screenplay, right? Did one actually inform the other?
The book was never completed. Basically, it was never laid out and it doesn’t concern just Keane, but it’s the stories of artists [from the Big Eye era] who were actually artists in their own right. There was also a guy who copied every real person with other new names and they made prints of those. But there was an artist named Maio, who did these life-size oil paintings of Harlequin girls and just sold hundreds of thousands of prints of them. Then there was a guy named Ozz Franca, who the Aaron Brothers got as their own Big-Eyed guy. The Aaron Brothers were actually a pair of brothers who started selling original paintings after World War II up until the ’70s or ‘80s and they were selling Ozz Francas to Frank Sinatra at the same time [Walter] Keane was selling paintings to Red Skeleton. We actually have a Keane painting that belonged to Red Skeleton and him and Walter were buddies to some extent.
But the information is out there. Margaret’s gallery has known since 1985 when she won all the rights [to the paintings] and the story of Walter and Margaret was also covered in an essay by a guy named Adam Parfrey, which I think may have been republished as a book. He and a friend had met Walter down at the beach of Orange County, so they got a look firsthand at his kind of madness. That’s actually how we found Walter – friends of Lisa’s as teenagers were approached by Walter on the beach, and [he charmed them by saying] “I’ll give you a postcard for a dance” and “a book for a kiss” or something. He’d be like, “I’m the world famous artist Walter Keane” – he never let go of the madness that it was him. When I met him, he told me how he worked for the CIA in England and they gave him a secret camera that he could look through the walls and see Buckingham Palace and Princess Margaret naked. I imagine he may have been just as crazy [when he was married to Margaret], but it was just a crazier time and it worked a little bit.
When I went to see the film, Christoph Waltz actually said after the screening that he read about 20 pages of Walter’s autobiography and he couldn’t use any of it because it was just too out there.
Yeah, I read that autobiography of Walter’s before I was told by the gallery that Margaret painted [the first painting we bought of hers], so I had this skewed view of this guy. I knew he was super crazy, but I needed to know for myself what the truth was behind it. Once we knew, we started to absorb the body of her work and there’s an incredible amount under her own name from that era and the movie sort of depicts it like she invents her women as an alternative to Walter’s stuff, but in reality, she was doing that from pretty early on. It wasn’t like suddenly there were these other Keane paintings. There were always kind of both. But I think dramatically that wasn’t as easy to make pop.
I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten to know her, but I’ve gotten to understand her very well. We met her once during an exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum [in 2000] called “Keane and Keaneobilia.” We had a couple of our big Keane paintings in that exhibit as well as a couple of the other artists and Margaret came down for the opening. We got to meet her and and she was very sweet. [Afterwards], we had sent her notes a couple times through the [Margaret Keane] gallery and she’s like “Oh, that photograph of that cat you sent me is taped up on my easel.”
Your 1999 album “In Reverse” actually had a Keane painting on the cover. Was it a commission?
No, that’s a painting that my wife and I own. It’s really a major painting and it’s incredibly beautiful in person. It was painted in 1963, so right at the height of the Keane masterpieces like “Tomorrow Forever,” with a million children that’s supposed to be Walter’s masterpiece. We own “Escape,” which is the cover of Margaret’s hardcover book also from right around that era. But we worked with the gallery to get the rights for it, so it was really exciting to be able to use it on an album and have the artwork out there. It’s not the most typical Keane in terms of the kind people who had prints [would know her from], but it’s an incredibly complex and interesting one. She had [initially] donated it to whatever the big art museum was in Nashville because she had grown up in Tennessee, but they sold a bunch of art in the late ‘90s and we found it on eBay.
We always felt very fortunate to get to own it because it’s really, really beautiful and one of the things about all this art that people don’t really understand is that there were these real artists. If you see a real Keane painting in person, it’s not something someone could just whip up. She’s a very talented artist and they are very fine. You won’t find the forgery of a Keane that looks anything like a real Keane painting. We’ve always really been looking forward to the MDH stuff coming out into the world more because a lot of it is her best stuff, and I think we’ll get to see that market develop and a little more respect come to her for how iconic the art was for its time. Regardless of the blurry lines of what’s commerce and all those things, this woman was an artist. Walter was the commerce guy. And I think Margaret’s story is an important one from a certain time in American history.
Like her paintings, your music would seem to also walk that fine line of having a great pop sensibility while being worthy of serious artistic consideration. Do you actually feel a kinship with her in that way?
I think so. I often wonder what it was [that drew me to her]. I think it’s a combination of things. During my career when it was really happening in a busy way for me, it was hard for me to decompress and have something besides music. Up until that point, music was my hobby, but I was doing it just so much of the time. And the Big Eye paintings and Keane was a little bit of an urban archeology project. It was just something very interesting that I wanted to get to the bottom of. But on the other hand, I did think of making music, and still do, as a personal thing and as I learned about Margaret, I felt there is a kinship between anyone who’s an artist where they can make their art alone and a kinship you feel to the place where the art comes from. Her art is so clearly emotionally charged that in some kind of weird way [even] before we knew the full story, you knew something was going on.