It’s not a very large painting, not much more than a square foot of oil on canvas. But Egon Schiele’s portrait of his beloved mistress Walburga Neuzil shook the art world in ways that the Austrian painter could never have imagined. This earthquake had almost nothing to do with the quality of the painting, “Portrait of Wally,” and everything to do with the sinister intersection of the sometimes shadowy world of art dealers and the black hole that was the Shoah.
That’s the story that Andrew Shea tells in his new documentary film, “Portrait of Wally,” which opens on May 11. It’s a long and meandering story that begins with Schiele’s passionate affair with Neuzil and winds its way through Vienna in the Anschluss, London and New York, several of the world’s most prestigious museums and some of New York’s finest courtrooms. It pitted the entire New York museum community against a lone Holocaust survivor and, ultimately, reshaped the way that art stolen by the Nazis has been handled.
Lea Bondi, a Viennese art gallery owner and a Jew, was an early champion of Schiele, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919. She had a particularly warm spot for his portrait of Neuzil; it was her own property, displayed in her apartment, not in the gallery, and it was emphatically not for sale. But when the Nazis came to power, it caught the eye of one of their hirelings who simply claimed it for his own collection. As Hildegarde Bachert, a friend and colleague of Bondi’s, says bluntly, “You couldn’t negotiate with the Nazis.”
The painting would not resurface until 1997, when it turned up at the Museum of Modern Art, on loan from the eccentric and obsessive Schiele collector Rudolf Leopold; it was one of the crown jewels of his Leopold Museum. Bondi’s heirs were flabbergasted and asked MoMA to hold the painting until its ownership could be established. The museum refused, prodded by its chairman, Ronald Lauder. Despite his role as founder of the Commission for Art Recovery, Lauder urged MoMA to return the painting to Leopold, and the rest of the New York museum community concurred, including The Jewish Museum. In stepped Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau with a subpoena, and thus began a 13-year-long court battle.
It’s a complicated story with tons of historical heft, romance and drama. It raises dark questions about the conduct of some of Europe’s most respected art collectors and curators, and larger questions about the ethics of museum exhibition and the nature of great art as property. Shea, who tells this story concisely and well, can be forgiven for stinting on those larger philosophical issues to focus on the only slightly less global historical-moral ones.
He is blessed with a great cast of characters. Lea Bondi herself was a tough, smart lady with a strong will that she seems to have passed on to her nieces and nephews. (She had no children.) They, in turn, are smart, funny and articulate. Leopold and his wife are oleaginous, clever and evasive. The lawyers include a bevy of old hands at hardball, including Morgenthau and Michael Mukasey, former attorney general under George W. Bush.
“Portrait of Wally” is a bit like a swift dash through a great museum just before closing time. There are places you wish you could linger but the schedule doesn’t permit. It would be nice to know more about the subterfuges by which Leopold acquired some of his fabulous collection, and it would be amusing to hear the Austrian officials who seem to have underwritten his museum explain their behavior at length, but in 90 minutes the best you can hope for is a quick glimpse of some masterworks — of jurisprudence as well as art. It’s a surprisingly jaunty film, given the prizes at stake, and an energetic retelling of a tale well worth hearing. One suspects that the full story must be told in a book. But for now, “Portrait of Wally,” the film, will have to do.