It’s the rare film about art that warrants the warning label “bombshell,” but “Portrait of Wally” isn’t just about stolen art: It’s about cultural skulduggery, political sleaze, institutional hypocrisy and the virtues of persistence. Turning over rocks in and around the New York art world, helmer Andrew Shea finds a lot of ugly stuff while chronicling what amounts to a 60-year hostage drama centered around the Egon Schiele oil painting that gives the film its title. Docu may have a tough time breaking out of its art niche, but will scandalize auds who take the plunge.
In 1912, Schiele painted a portrait of his lover, Walburga Neuzil. Stolen from Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi by Nazis in 1939, turned over to Austrian authorities in the ’50s, and then exhibited by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1997, it became the center of a lawsuit that rocked the foundations of the art world: How could they function, museum officials tried to argue, if stolen art was going to be seized by American authorities?
One of the clues to “Portrait of Wally,” the film, is the list of people who refused to talk to Shea about “Portrait of Wally,” the painting. His nonwitnesses include Ron Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder fortune and chairman of MoMA, a champion of returning stolen art, at least until the Bondi case; MoMA director Glenn Lowry, who was forced to argue the virtues of an institution retaining stolen property; and former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, who had been passionately in favor of seizing the painting, until someone decided he wasn’t.
The painting was loaned to MoMA for its 1997 Schiele show by the Leopold Museum, founded by Schiele authority Rudolph Leopold, who died in 2010. Seen in videotaped depositions, the elderly Leopold has neither the temperament nor the evidence to explain how he acquired the painting or why it shouldn’t be returned to the Bondi heirs.
But others do — most convincingly, those with no vested interest in the case or its conclusion. As explained by Sharon Cohen Levin, a member of the asset forfeiture unit in the Southern District of New York, or former Homeland Security agent Bonnie Goldblatt, the Austrians who took possession of the painting after its recovery by American servicemen almost certainly knew what it was; their efforts to disguise it as another work were transparently fatuous; and Leopold, in his book on Schiele, fudged the details of the work’s provenance to erase Bondi from the historical record. None of it is pretty, and all of it seems well substantiated.
Perhaps even more dazzling than the painting’s odyssey is the political tap dance that occurred as a result. The hue and cry that erupts among America’s major art institutions is deafening; the assault on Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, who subpoenaed the painting, is blistering. When erstwhile NPR reporter David D’Arcy reported on the case in 2004 (D’Arcy serves as a producer, writer and interview subject on the film), he was accused of shoddy journalism, and even though the allegations were unfounded, NPR issued a correction. (As author and museum consultant Tom L. Freudenheim adds, “They never issued a correction of the correction.”) That institutional backscratching existed is more than implied.
As murky as the case is, its complications are made clear here, as are the lingering resentments among many of the parties and experts interviewed. Morley Safer, the “60 Minutes” correspondent who has made modern art his beat, is among the more caustic of Shea’s subjects, describing museum directors as little more than butlers for their executive boards. One certainly wishes parties on the other side of the case had been as frank.
Shea doesn’t quite know where to end his film, which goes on for approximately three-and-a-half acts. Once Leopold dies and the painting’s fate is determined, “Portrait of Wally” starts to drag, and in a protracted sequence featuring Leopold’s widow, Elizabeth, trying to seize the higher moral ground, it seems almost snide. Production values are generally good, though, notably Melissa Shea’s editing and Gary Lionelli’s music.