In 1912, Egon Schiele painted a portrait of a favorite model, Valerie “Wally” Neuzil. The painting’s most striking elements are its subject’s large gray-blue eyes, bee-stung lips, and canted pose. It’s a work that, once seen, isn’t easily forgotten — nor, once possessed, easily given up.
The painting came into the possession of Lea Bondi, a Viennese art dealer who was Jewish. Then Nazi Germany annexed Austria, in 1938. The next year, a Nazi art dealer extorted the painting from Bondi, who acquiesced out of fear of not being allowed to flee to London.
After the war, the painting turned up in the Austrian National Gallery. It was listed as having come from the estate of an Austrian Jewish collector who had died in a concentration camp. Bondi asked Rudolf Leopold, an Austrian collector and leading authority on Schiele, to help her retrieve the painting from the gallery. Instead, it ended up in Leopold’s collection. The Austrian government eventually bought his holdings and created a museum to display them — with Leopold appointed as director for life.
Bondi died in 1969, her efforts at restitution unsuccessful. Her family continued to seek return of the painting. So long as it remained in Austria, however, it stayed out of reach, thanks to a technicality: that Austrian National Gallery incorrect listing of its provenance, which allowed Leopold to claim he’d been unaware of the painting’s having been stolen by the Nazis. That that listing had clearly been in error, an error Leopold must have recognized because of his dealings with Bondi, counted little against Leopold’s eminence in the art world — and the enormous rise in the market value of Schiele’s paintings.
Then in 1997 the painting came to New York as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Just as the show was about to close, the Manhattan district attorney’s office subpoenaed it (and another Schiele painting), thus preventing its return to Austria. When a federal court ruled that the DA’s office didn’t have proper jurisdiction, the US Customs Service seized the painting. A decade of legal wrangling ensued. All the while, the painting remained in a government warehouse in New York.
Finally, after a federal judge ruled that the issue of the painting’s ownership should go to a jury trial, the Leopold Foundation agreed to an out-of-court settlement. It paid Bondi’s heirs $19 million for the painting.
This is the story that “Portrait of Wally” has to tell, and its rich, complex material touches on law, morality, museum practice, and character study. (Leopold is a cipher, or was: He died a month before the settlement was reached.) But the material’s not so rich and complex that the documentary doesn’t feel padded at 90 minutes.
Three-dozen talking heads do the work of explanation and description (there’s no voice-over). That’s about a dozen too many. This would be true even if several weren’t peripheral and/or redundant. What exactly is “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer doing here?
Director Andrew Shea works overtime to keep the screen busy. With interviewees, he’ll cut from frontal views to profile views. You’d think Schiele was a Cubist. Reference to letters Bondi wrote lead to shots of a woman’s fingers pecking at a typewriter. Video or film clips from archival sources are presented as if on a television screen, with a wooden console framing them. This would be distracting enough, even if Shea used it consistently (he doesn’t) or restricted it to broadcast footage. Seeing clips from Leopold’s trial deposition is a real bonus. Putting that TV console around them just looks silly.
What’s most vexing about “Portrait of Wally” is its lack of nuance. MoMA is painted as a villain for not supporting the Bondi family claim. Yet the museum’s argument, that this specific case could seriously limit future art loans from foreign lenders, wasn’t unreasonable — and from an institutional point of view one of no small importance. An injustice was done Bondi and her heirs. Part of the fascination of the story is how that injustice ramified, and not all of the ramifications are black and white. Some of them are as gray (if not as clear) as Wally’s eyes.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.