Andrew Shea’s blistering new documentary, Portrait of Wally, untangles the complicated historical, legal and moral threads surrounding Egon Schiele’s painting “Portrait of Wally” (1912), which pitted the art world against heirs of the painting’s pre-World War II owners and the US government. In 1997, the haunting “Portrait of Wally” was among the works shown in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna.
Rudolph Leopold, an Austrian ophthalmologist, had accumulated a staggering number of Schiele pieces in his lifetime — but not always honestly, as the documentary Portrait of Wally forcefully argues. The painting originally belonged to a Viennese art dealer named Lea Bondi, but in 1939 Friedrich Welz, a member of the Nazi Party, confiscated it from her private collection. By mistake, the painting was restituted to the Belvedere Museum in Austria after World War II as part of another dealer’s collection. In 1954, Bondi asked Leopold, a known Schiele collector, to help her track down the painting. Instead, he bartered with the museum for it and made it his own.
When heirs of Bondi noticed “Portrait of Wally” in the 1997 MoMA show, they beseeched the museum not to return the painting until its provenance could be determined, but the MoMA declined, citing contractual obligations to the Leopold Museum. Manhattan District Attorney, Robert Morganthau, stepped in and subpoenaed the painting. That was just the start of the legal morass (involving the State Court of Appeals and US Attorney’s Office) that would keep the painting in a warehouse until 2010, when a settlement was reached among the Leopold Museum, the Bondi heirs and the US government.
Per the decision, the painting would be returned to the Leopold Museum, and the heirs of Lea Bondi (about 50 surviving family members) would receive $19 million as restitution. In addition, the painting would be loaned to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York for a three-week stay before continuing on to Austria.
Portrait of Wally takes several people and institutions to task on the handling of the painting, including Leopold, for using “dirty tricks” to obtain the pieces he was after, the Belvedere Museum, for not following up on the clearly erroneous documentation that attributed the painting’s ownership to someone else, and MoMA, for making the slippery-slope argument that not returning the painting to Leopold would “seriously effect the future of art loans in this country.” It’s worth noting that MoMA was invited to participate in this film but chose not to.
Shea shows how the arts community privileged its own future over seeking justice for victims of Nazi intimidation and theft. He accomplishes this primarily through interviews with experts and participants in the case, including a Holocaust Art Restitution Project researcher, a former agent from the Department of Homeland Security, art gallery owners, the reporter from The New York Times who wrote extensively about the story and district attorneys in New York. Lea Bondi died in 1969 (Leopold in 2010), but Shea makes Bondi’s presence felt through photos and her handwritten letters. A few of her surviving family members appear in the film to speak passionately and poignantly on her behalf.
David D’Arcy, a reporter who covered the controversy for NPR, also appears in an interview. MoMA complained about his 2004 broadcast about the case, and in the documentary, D’Arcy suggests that NPR caved to MoMA pressure, first by printing a “correction” to his report that was factually inaccurate, and second by firing him. In addition to being an interviewee in the film, D’Arcy is also a co-producer and co-screenwriter of Portrait of Wally. When I attended a screening at Quad Cinema, D’Arcy introduced the event and remained afterward for a Q & A session. Under these circumstances, D’Arcy’s complete involvement in the film was made clear, as was his personal and professional stakes in the story. Had I watched the film without his present, which most viewers will certainly do, I don’t know if I would have connected his name as an onscreen interviewee with his credit as a co-creator behind the film. The more transparent his involvement on both sides of the camera is made, the better.
Shea intersperses these interviews with newspaper clippings, legal documents and chilling archival footage of the Nazis entering Vienna as well as US Armed Forces sorting Nazi loot after the war. They all help to provide a historical context for the case.
The editing of the film is fast-paced, and the urgent film score adds suspense to the unfolding story. Shea also films a few of Schiele’s most famous paintings that, even by today’s standards, are startling in their rawness, beauty and stylistic distinctiveness.
At the Leopold Museum’s celebration welcoming back “Portrait of Wally,” Leopold’s widow appears flush with pride. With the painting once again hanging next to its intended “mate” (a self-portrait of Schiele with a matching floral detail), Mrs. Leopold rejoices over the aesthetic completion. As characterized by this documentary, her purview of “Portrait of Wally”’s return seems quite narrow: Her main concern is preserving her husband’s curatorial legacy, though she does speak about the importance of cultural “tolerance” (an heir of Bondi critiques her condescending choice of words). As part of the settlement, a placard that explains the painting’s fraught history must always appear next to “Wally,” lest viewers forget from whence it came.
Portrait of Wally was playing at the Quad Cinema in New York until May 17. It will travel to Toronto, Chicago and Berlin, among other cities.