Andrew Shea’s documentary Portrait of Wally recounts the tortured history and maelstrom of legal complications surrounding the titular canvas -- a likeness of Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s mistress, Valerie Neuzil, that Schiele painted in 1912. The film relays how Jewish art collector Lea Bondi -- the work’s original owner -- lost the artwork at the hands of a Nazi officer. Through a long and complicated series of events, it then landed in the collection of the Austrian National Gallery; upon learning this, Bondi naively (and ill-advisedly) trusted Austrian art collector Rudolf Leopold to reobtain it for her. He did indeed manage to wangle it out of the Gallery’s collection, but then neglected to return it to Bondi, and instead made it part of his collection at his own Leopold Gallery. Years later -- in the mid-to-late 1990s, almost 30 years after Bondi’s death -- Rudolf Leopold loaned the canvas to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, for a temporary Schiele exhibition, but a December 1997 New York Times story soon broke the entire history of the canvas, prompting the Bondi family to contact the U.S. District Attorney’s office in an attempt to reclaim the item. The government then issued a subpoena which barred the return of the item to Austria until its proper ownership could be judicially validated. This, in turn, ignited a firestorm of controversy from numerous parties in the U.S. and abroad.
Shea tells the complicated central story cleanly and efficiently, with seamless integration of historical archival footage, but he achieves sublimity in two different respects. On a conceptual level, Shea ties the history of the painting to broader concerns -- issues, for example, involving restitution of Nazi artwork and stricter policies governing art loans to U.S. galleries. In touching on these broader debates, the writer-director manages to carefully sidestep the movie’s one huge potential pitfall -- the risk of making the central issue of a multimillion-dollar painting’s ownership seem trivial and inconsequential. This strategy seems voluntary, but another of the movie’s assets may have been a compulsory move on Shea’s part -- the inherent legal risks that doubtless encouraged him to curtail attacks on the Leopolds, representatives of MOMA, and others. Perhaps Shea realized that making clean-cut defamatory statements about, for instance, Rudolf Leopold and/or the MOMA administration could land him in hot water, but that resistance works to the film’s advantage: it makes things slightly murky and non-definitive and ironically encourages us to jump to particularly negative conclusions about several of the parties scheming to prevent the U.S. government from getting its hands on the artwork and ensure its safe return to Vienna, effectively keeping it out of the hands of the Bondis. In a hilarious final intertitle, the movie discloses the fact that representatives of MOMA and others refused to participate (Shea might as well be saying, “No Thanks to the Following…”) and as much as one can understand those refusals, these parties actually hurt themselves by not allowing their representatives to balance out the film with counter-arguments.
As Shea’s film approaches its conclusion, a wonderful and unexpected sense of empathy suddenly materializes. We instinctively conclude that even though a U.S. judge made her final decision out of respect for the Bondi family, the U.S. courts completely missed the relevance of the case by focusing entirely on money and missing the deeper principles at stake. Then, seconds later, Lea Bondi’s charming elderly niece turns up to articulate that point note for note. It’s arguably the film’s greatest moment -- where we not only realize that Shea has his finger on the audience’s pulse in terms of tone, but that, in 90 minutes, he has managed to bring us into complete and total sympathy with -- and understanding of -- the Bondi family and the issues at the heart of this case. It would be difficult to imagine a more fitting or satisfactory measure of this film’s success, and the glowing recognition we feel in the denouement reinforces our sense that the whole documentary would make Lea Bondi unduly proud.
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