“Portrait of Wally,” a Tribeca Film Festival entry, is a Holocaust art theft documentary that plays like a serpentine thriller. It was initiated by David D’Arcy, who co-wrote the film with the director Andrew Shea and co-produced it with Shea and Barbara Morgan. Since the 73-year-drama surrounding the painting’s ownership eventually cost D’Arcy his reporter’s job at National Public Radio, he also appears as one of the film’s talking heads. D’Arcy, it should be added, writes a film blog for ARTINFO.
The movie traces the torturous journey of Egon Schiele’s candid 1912 expressionist portrait of his red-headed, blue-eyed girlfriend, Walburga Neuzil. Bought by Schiele from the Jewish Viennese gallery owner Lea Bondi, and kept by her in her home, the painting was stolen by a Nazi art expert, Friedrich Welz, following the Anschluss. Felz also confiscated and “aryanized” Bondi’s gallery. She herself fled to London.
Bondi died at 93 in 1969, having spent thirty years trying in vain to get the painting back. She had put her trust in the obsessive Schiele collector Rudolf Leopold, who in 1954 bartered one of his thousands of canvases, an unremarkable painting of a boy, to acquire “Portrait of Wally” from the Belvedere Museum, the Austrian National Gallery. “She said don’t let it disappear,” says former New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau in the film. “But it disappeared into his ownership.”
How had “Portrait of Wally” ended up at the Belvedere? The painting had been seized from Welz by US forces in Vienna after the war and delivered in 1947 to the Austrian Federal Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments along with paintings Welz had stolen from the Jewish art collector Heinrich Rieger, who was murdered with his family in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
In 1950, the Rieger heirs sold their artworks to the Belvedere and “Portrait of Wally,” erroneously listed as a drawing of Schiele’s wife, went as part of the consignment. The movie, which meshes talking-heads interviews with remarkable period footage, speculates that the director of the museum must have known that “Portrait of Wally” had been incorrectly listed and that it had a false provenance.
In 1994, Leopold, for forty years the painting’s wrongful owner, transferred it to the Leopold Museum, which loaned it to the Museum of Modern Art for its 1997 Schiele exhibition. The lateHenry Bondi, of Princeton, New Jersey, filed a claim that the painting belonged to his aunt’s estate and asked MoMA to hold it in New York.
Wary of the damage that could be done to the international loaning of art, MoMA and the Leopold Museum denied the claim and the Bondi family’s ownership, causing Morgenthau, the hero of the hour, to subpoena and impound “Wally,” preventing it from leaving the US. D’Arcy’s contract with NPR was crudely terminated when it was deemed, wrongly on the evidence presented in the film, that he had not sought MoMA’s input when he reported on the conflict for the media organization.
“The U.S. vs. Portrait of Wally” lasted 13 years, and was eventually settled out of court in 2010, by when Leopold was dead. If you don’t know the outcome, I won’t divulge it here, suffice to say that not all members of the Bondi family were satisfied and that it’s hard to watch Leopold’s widow basking in reflected glory at the end of the film. This follows a dramatic scene in which “Wally” is removed – almost “Rosebud”-style – from a government storage vault in Queens, which echoes images of GIs disinterring Old Masters from Nazi vaults after the war.
The Leopold family’s acquisitiveness reeks throughout. In fact, the Austrian nation, shown welcoming Hitler into Vienna in 1938 footage, emerges horribly from the film, though Shea balances this material by showing conscientious contemporary Austrians protesting their country’s Nazi past.
As a footnote, “Portrait of Wally” describes, in titles, the fates of Schiele and Neuzil – victims of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1917 and 1918, respectively. The extraordinary intimacy of Schiele’s painting of the woman he loved and abandoned (so he could marry someone better off, apparently) is undiminished, but no one can deny that first the Nazis and then some of art’s international powerbrokers trampled on it.
The lasting benefit of “Wally” case, however, is that is has facilitated the increased restitution of works that the Nazis stole from Jewish families during the Holocaust and which had landed in European and American museums. Lea Bondi’s long campaign to get her beloved Schiele back was the starting point.
“Portrait of Wally” will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28 at a special Tribeca Talks screening and panel, and open theatrically on May 11 at New York’s Quad Cinema, with a national release to follow.