Chapter 50. The Case of Margaret Keanes Big-Eyed Boys
The 2014 movie Big Eyes, about Walter and Margaret Keane, increased awareness of Margarets paintings of children with unusually large eyes. Her big-eyed waifs became hugely popular in the 1960s, though it was her husband who took credit for the work for over a decade.
At one point in the movie, when Walter is being interviewed about the inspiration for his work, he claims that when he was in Paris, he was inspired to paint the lost children of war-ravaged Europe children who were displaced, abandoned and left to wander. While this was not Margarets inspiration the movie suggests her interest was simply in portraying the soulfulness of the eyes her big-eyed subjects became inextricably associated with the psychological and emotional impacts suffered by children in war.
The unsigned images above share some obvious similarities with Margaret Keanes work. They were probably painted about 1967 by itinerant artists employed by Suh Kwang Products Limited, specifically to sell to American combat personnel, usually in Vietnam or Korea, to send to their relatives back home. Each image was approved by the soldier and often included personal information, such as the soldiers name, squad and regimental emblem. Sometimes a personal message from the soldier would be written on the back.
Interesting to note is that these images were, like Keanes renderings of children, designed to evoke sympathy, sadness and despondency. The military images are interpretations of soldiers as frightened and lonely boys far from home. They have the appearance of aid to impoverished children advertising posters. But these soldier boys are not innocent bystanders; rather, they aspire to be participants, physically and ideologically engaged in war.
The artists of these images deliberately attempted to undermine the sense of American power and military supremacy by depicting each subject as a lonely and frightened boy seeking release from his torment.
These works may be read as a veiled propaganda effort by the enemy to expose the futility of American military involvement in these wars. The pieces seem designed to stir a public call to bring these combatants back to the US. The purpose of the images as postcards from the front or wishing I wasnt here scenarios also contributes to their stature as documents of visual subterfuge.
Contemporary advertising campaigns use a similar strategy of depicting small children, usually with large, soulful eyes, as a means to raise money, knowing such images will foster feelings of empathy, sympathy, remorse and pity.
Next: The Case of the Ambiguity of Authenticity