Egon Schiele, the great Austrian expressionist painter, died at the tender age of 28, but in his short life he managed to engender as much controversy as nearly any artist before or since. Called a pornographer by many, Schiele was infamous in Vienna for his unapologetically sexual portraits of nude women. So it’s remarkable that the painting that has proved most controversial in Schiele’s oeuvre is also one of his most modest.
Schiele painted “Portrait of Wally” in 1912. In it, the artist’s mistress and muse, Valerie “Wally” Neuzil, is clothed nearly to her chin in a garment resembling a long-sleeve puritan gown, complete with a white Bertha collar. Aside from her face and neck, no skin is visible. There’s nothing overtly sexual about the painting. But in 1939 the painting was taken from its owner—a Jewish gallery owner named Lea Bondi—by an Austrian Nazi named Friedrich Welz as part of the Aryanization program that went into effect after the German/Austrian Anschluss in 1938, setting off a 70-year saga of injustice, betrayal, inhumanity and greed that no amount of nudity or sexual suggestiveness could hope to compete with.
In his new documentary, Portrait of Wally, filmmaker Andrew Shea turns the painting’s sordid history into an investigation into the role of morality in the creation and presentation of art. Shea, a professor in UT-Austin’s Department of Radio-Television-Film, documents what one of the film’s interviewees calls the “injustice upon injustice upon injustice” that defined Lea Bondi’s life from the moment Friedrich Welz walked into her home until her death in the late 1970s.
Following World War II, Bondi returned from exile in London and petitioned Vienna’s new restitution courts to return the paintings that had been taken from her during the war. After seven years, she had received everything that had been taken from her gallery, but “Portrait of Wally” had been in her private collection, and had been restituted to the Austrian National Gallery after officials mistakenly determined it had been part of the collection of Dr. Heinrich Rieger, another Jewish art collector, who had died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
To help get “Portrait of Wally” back, Bondi contacted art collector Rudolph Leopold. Leopold agreed to help, but in 1954 he purchased the painting for himself. By 1972, Bondi’s name was no longer listed on the painting’s provenance, and when the Austrian government purchased the Leopold collection for $500 million in 1994, “Portrait of Wally” was one of its prizes. In October 1997, the painting was sent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of a celebrated exhibition of works from the Leopold Museum. It remained in New York until January 1998, when it was subpoenaed by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, taken off display, and confiscated as stolen Nazi loot. Soon, the painting was in a place no great work of art should ever be: a crate in a warehouse in Queens.
For the next 12 years, “Portrait of Wally” caused uproar in the New York and international art worlds. On one side were those who believe that no piece of art stolen by Nazis should be returned to anyone but its rightful owner. On the other were those who worried that if American museums started picking and choosing which paintings they returned to lenders, no lender would ever again send art to the U.S. What started as a single case of murky provenance became the subject of a great debate: Do the “demands” of art—to be shown and seen regardless of context, ownership, even morality—trump a society’s responsibility to right historical wrongs? As that debate dragged into its second decade, jobs were lost, lifelong friendships were destroyed, and reputations were ruined.
And all the while, “Portrait of Wally” sat locked in its crate.
By the time the “Portrait of Wally” affair was resolved in 2010, and both the Bondi and Leopold estates were satisfied enough that proper restitution had been made, it had dragged some of the greatest cultural institutions in the United States—from MOMA to the Jewish Museum of New York to National Public Radio—into a mire of greed and cowardice. Shea’s film is part detective story, part true-crime thriller, and part humanist agitprop in its quest to understand and set right one of the millions of injustices born of one of history’s greatest injustices. It’s an injustice made worse by seemingly decent men and women who, in their desire to do right by art, forgot about their decency. In this one battle in the longstanding war between art and morality, something like justice eventually won the day, but not before tarnishing the collective reputation of the New York art world—and far too late to be of any benefit to Lea Bondi.