Big Eyes and the Big Mystery Surrounding The Movement

   First Love 2   ambrosia

“The Stray” Margaret Keane $195, “First Love” Kane $29, “Pity Kitty” Gig $45

Even if you haven’t seen the recent movie “Big Eyes” I’m sure this style is something you recognize, sentimental figures, exaggerated style, with enormous eyes. Since they were mass produced throughout the 60’s and 70’s they are common thrift store stock.

The “big eyes” style emerged in the 1960’s and was/is most heavily associated with Margaret/Walter Keane. If you haven’t seen the movie “Big Eyes” or don’t know the story behind the couple that turned sad eyed kids into a national phenomenon check out this article from Huffington Post.

To make a long and fascinating story extremely short, at a time when massed produced products (especially art) was a brand new concept Walter Keane sold millions of prints, paintings and postcards of his wife’s work under his name. Art critics of the time blasted the movement as being particularly low-brow, kitschy, amateur work. However, the millions earned by the Keanes and the continued popularity of the big eyed waifs indicate that not all people shared the critics assessment of the style.

I find the fact that the best known painter of the “big eyes” movement’s identity was a matter of contention extremely fitting. Initially when I found “First Love” featured above, I thought it was a Keane print. However, the authentic signature is big block letters (look at “The Stray”). My print’s actually signed “Margaret Kane” in a flowing script. This began my attempts to research Kane. What I found though is that it’s hard, bordering on impossible to find information on any of the other artists who were also doing the “big eye” style during this era. I’m sure some of this was intentional on the part of the artists, an attempt to cash in on the commercial success of the Keanes with look like work. The print “First Love” is undoubtedly an example of this. No one making a print of sentimental, large eyed children and signing it Margaret Kane could pretend not to be trying to jump on the money bandwagon. However, there were other artists doing a similar style under their own name, check out the blog Big Sad Eyes for a partial list with examples.

Perhaps some of the problem finding detailed info on other artists is the inherent anonymity of mass produced products. There is for instance an immense amount of specific information on individual clocks produced before the 1950’s due to the high level of skill needed to produce them. Someone documented the origins and particulars of such specialized and high valued products. By the time clocks were produced in the millions by machines and unskilled factory workers, they were a disposable product no one bother to keep records of. The same way with the big eyed kids, so many were produced as low cost, low quality art for the masses no effort was made to keep detailed records of something so disposable.

What do you think? I find the big eyed waifs far more haunting and creepy than sentimental. Would you hang a Keane or Gig in your home? Or do you think they are as kitschy as the critics always said?

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  1. Anne says:

    I remember them from the 60’s and 70’s- thought they were kitschy junk then and still do. But it’s an interesting post.

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