Film Review: Portrait of Wally

Fascinating and frighteningly revelatory documentary about a P.O.W. that happens to be a painting.

Her icy-blue gaze stares out from the canvas, as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa. Younger than da Vinci’s famous sitter by centuries, she seems to have seen nearly as much in her time. She is Wally, the subject of a portrait by Egon Schiele. His painting, the most fought-over work of art of our time, is the focus of this compelling documentary by Andrew Shea.

Painted in 1911 by the great Viennese artist, the portrait was originally bought by art dealer Lea Bondi. Confiscated by the Nazis during World War II, it subsequently became part of Vienna’s Belvedere Museum when it was purchased from the heirs of Dr. Heinrich Reiger. Like Bondi, he had been forced to relinquish his art collection, but due to a supposed clerical error, the Portrait of Wally was mixed in with Reiger’s collection. Bondi tried to recover her property and enlisted the aid of art collector Rudolph Leopold. Unbeknownst to her, Leopold secretly purchased the painting for himself in 1954. In 1994, Leopold's art collection was purchased by the Austrian government for $500 million in order to create the Leopold Museum. He was named director for life until his death in 2010.

All of this malfeasance may never have come to light had it not been for a New York Times article written after Bondi’s relatives attended a Schiele retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997 and saw the painting they had long thought had been lost forever. When New York County District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau subpoenaed the Portrait of Wally along with another Schiele painting, this opened up a byzantine international case in which the greed and questionable tactics of not only Leopold and the Austrian government, but of MoMA and seemingly the entire American art museum world, came to light.

Shea has done a terrific, incisive job uncovering the ever-twisting facts of the case, starting with his striking evocation of the artistic climate at the time when the picture was painted, which was largely dominated by the very Jews who would be mercilessly persecuted not long afterwards. A battery of articulate and passionate art lawyers and international art-recovery experts appear, as well as big media names like Morgenthau and Morley Safer. (Tellingly not available for interview is Ronald Lauder, the then-head of MoMA and Leopold crony who founded not only the Commission of Art Recovery but also the Neue Galerie, which focuses on German and Viennese art.) Also absent is National Public Radio, which bears culpability in the matter for its firing of reporter David D’Arcy (this film’s co-writer) for his coverage of the case, after pressure from MoMA and other vested interests. Safer states, somewhat ineffectually, that there are no actual villains here. The actions of the pompous Leopold, who not only rewrote art history books to cover up his theft but indulged in queasy restoration and conservation tactics on his questionably amassed masterpieces, make one beg to differ.

“They accused us of greed, but it was the principle that we were fighting for,” declares a Bondi relative. She goes on to express a certain sadness over the eventual, bitterly ironic outcome of the case. In 2010, after a court ruling, the Bondi estate accepted $19 million as restitution and Portrait of Wally was returned to the Leopold Museum, where it now hangs alongside an equally iconic Schiele self-portrait. We see the festivities at the museum—“Welcome back, Wally!”—and hear Leopold’s complacent, triumphant widow condescendingly cite the names of the Jewish artists who, along with Schiele, once made Vienna the glory that it is. We also hear the words of a relative of Bondi, who expresses his disgust at hearing her plea for tolerance.

One major flaw: In an unnecessary effort to whip up more drama for this already highly dramatic subject, Shea has employed a distracting, banal music score which is at times so thunderous it drowns out the important words of his interviewees.