(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: PORTRAIT OF WALLY relates the story of one of the 20th century's most controversial conflicts over the ownership of a piece of art. Egon Schiele's portrait of his mistress was stolen/confiscated by the Nazi "authorities" during the Holocaust. The painting subsequently fell into the hands of a private Austrian museum. The former owner, now living in New York, saw it on display while it was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art. This opened the issue of who now owned the stolen painting and what restitution to the former owner had to be made. Andrew Shea has filmed a compelling documentary of a story involving property rights, war restitution, art, anti-Semitism, the future of art museums, and political power. The story is surprisingly complex even for the field of art. The film is a dramatic exposé of a stunningly sleazy art world rife with theft and bigotry from people, some of whom are prominent people. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

In 1912 the painter Egon Schiele painted two paintings, one of himself and one of his mistress Valerie Neuzil, affectionately known as Wally. The painting was eventually sold and owned by Austrian and Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi. When Nazi Germany annexed Austria the Nazis confiscated Bondi's art gallery. Bondi had hoped to retain "Portrait of Wally"--not actually part of her gallery but hung in her apartment. Bondi had hoped to keep the painting, but it soon became clear that any such effort would have been tantamount to pointless suicide. Bondi fled Europe with her life but leaving her art holdings behind.

In the confusion at the end of the war the painting went to the Austrian government and though an oil painting is was claimed to be a drawing that was part of another collection of Schiele's art. That collection went to the Austrian National Gallery. Bondi wanted to reclaim her property in 1946 and asked Rudolph Leopold for assistance in making her claim. Leopold approached the National Gallery, warned them they might soon lose "Portrait of Wally" anyway, and convinced them to trade it for some paintings from Leopold's collection. Leopold now claimed the painting was his and refused to give it up to Bondi. Bondi tried to retrieve the painting until her death in 1969. Meanwhile the Austrian government bought 5400 works from Leopold's collection, including "Portrait of Wally", and created the Leopold Museum with Rudolph Leopold director for life. The Leopold Museum claimed the painting came from the other collection of Schiele art. In late 1997 and early 1998 the painting was lent to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. There it was seen by Bondi's survivors and they started legal proceedings to try to get back their property while it was still in the United States.

The complications of the case went on and on. A United States federal judge ruled that the painting could not be considered "stolen" because the American military had returned it to the Austrian government in 1945. The Justice Department had the judge reverse that ruling since the military did not have the power to make the painting non-stolen. The MOMA claimed that by contract it was bound to return the painting to the Leopold Museum. Other American museums entered the debate on the side of the Austrian government, claiming that not returning the painting would have a tragic cooling effect on the system of museums lending and borrowing artifacts between museums. And there were many more complications.

Writers Andrew Shea and David D'Arcy and director Shea have assembled the complex story and present it with on-screen interviews explaining the entire enthralling controversy in detail and what is perhaps its final resolution.

For those who think that a documentary made largely of interviews is dry and monotonous, PORTRAIT OF WALLY is a bombshell. A complex legal controversy is made enthralling and not infrequently shocking. Treachery, hypocrisy, bigotry, and outright theft are brought into daylight by the story of this one painting. The film is a history lesson and a thriller. I rate PORTRAIT OF WALLY a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1919017/

What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/portrait_of_wally/

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper