María Evangelina Vázquez, who wrote this wonderful piece on Blake’s Poetry a few months ago, is back. As is becoming a habit, she brings something completely new to the Classically Educated table: a thoughtful review of a modern film. In keeping with our tradition, however, she deals with the subject from a different angles, which tie many isolated incidents together – and provoke thoughtful reflection. If you enjoy this piece, and can read Spanish there is a repository of her articles here.
Big eyes stare back at us. It’s like in Las Meninas by Velázquez; we ask ourselves: are we looking at the characters on the painting or are they looking at us? It is true that very often those things we cannot see directly, those that are hidden, are the most important ones. We have the iceberg theory by Hemingway which supports this idea. And now we have Big Eyes, the film by Tim Burton, based on a true story. In this movie we get to know the life of Margaret Keane: the real artist behind the paintings that were attributed to her husband, Walter, for around ten years.
It is not the first time that a woman is shadowed by a man who takes credit for her work; that is what happened to French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who began writing as ghost writer for her husband. Other women such as the well known Brontë sisters used male pen names when signing their first texts; and even in our times, J.K. Rowling signed her books with her initials so that the audience would think the author was a man.
While some may still have to conceal their identity, others are often tempted to show themselves off more than they should. Social networks encourage us to share images of our private lives with others. What’s the limit, where do we draw the line? Our eyes are often overstimulated and we see so many things that a great part of these images go unnoticed and we cannot always decide what is relevant and what is accessory. It’s like in “The Purloined Letter” by E.A. Poe: the most obvious place for the letter is overlooked. We have an appetite to see more and more. And although we cannot possibly process all the information available, we look for images everywhere and try to make sense of what we see. We often don’t pay attention to images that we should see or that could interest us if we only gave them the chance to show themselves. On the other hand, we usually end up paying more attention to those images that are easy to digest, or that the media offer us with just one click.
The movie Big Eyes focuses precisely on what we see, what we want or are allowed to see, what we decide to show to others, how we mask ourselves because we don’t have the strength to assume who we truly are, or because society just makes it complicated for us to do so. Margaret is a talented artist who paints enormous, expressive eyes. These eyes are way out of proportion but they are what make her characters so special, and they become her trademark, like Modigliani’s long necks (in Argentina we have paintings by Lino Enea Spilimbergo, which also emphasize the eyes).
Is it not a remarkable paradox that the artist who painted those huge eyes couldn’t be seen? Keane’s eyes remind me of John Steinbeck’s gigantic pearl, one that was so big that it could not be sold; a promising rarity that, however, could not find its place in the market. That’s what happened to Margaret’s paintings until the art market found a place for her. It has long been proven throughout human history that commercial success does not imply quality in art (and I should say in any other area), and that the lack of it does not imply poor quality of work either. The most significant example for what I’m saying is Vincent Van Gogh. He has bestowed great gifts on our eyes; nevertheless during his life he was quite invisible to those in charge of selecting masterpieces.
It is true that Margaret struggled and suffered psychological abuse for many years until she could stand up to her husband, to society, but she finally got the recognition she was looking for. We should ask ourselves: how many more Margarets are out there? Invisible all their lives… Sometimes just one look is enough to save them.