Thursday, May 10, 2012

Andrew Shea's PORTRAIT OF WALLY: an art theft that spawned yet more thieving

Combining some of the history of The Rape of Europa with the mystery and investigative skills of The Art of the Steal, the new art documentary directed by Andrew Shea and titled PORTRAIT OF WALLY concentrates on but a single piece of art -- the portrait of the title, painted by Egon Schiele in 1912 of his mistress, Walburga "Wally" Neuzil -- and its long and tortuous history involving steal after steal after steal.

Willi Korte, the researcher and investigator who co-founded the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, calls the final steal involved here, and the one concentrated on by the filmmaker, "The case out of all art restitution cases that has shaped the discussion for the forthcoming years." How we get to that case involves the original steal by a Nazi named Friedrich Welz in 1939 from the Jewish Viennese art gallery owner, Lea Bondi, to whom the painting of Wally originally belonged.

When, in 1997, "Wally" suddenly surfaced, on loan from the Leopold Museum in Austria to New York's Museum of Modern Art, the heirs of Lea Bondi asked MoMA to hold the painting in New York. MoMA refused and a court case was begun that lasted 13 years. It's that case, how it was handled -- along with who was involved -- and its final resolution that make up the meat of the movie. And a full meal it is.

We see and hear a wide range of people, from newscaster/journalist Morley Safer to New York City D.A. Robert Morgenthau, art historians to museum honchos, art collectors to Bondi family members. Filmmaker Shea, shown at left, is not one to raise his voice: The documentary seems quite evenhanded and fair. But Shea also allows everyone to voice his or her opinion, and some of these are surprising in their condemnation of powerful institutions such as MoMA and National Public Radio and then-political figures like Alphonse D'Amato. The section involving radio journalist/critic David D'Arcy -- who also co-produced the documentary -- and his shoddy treatment by the cowardly NPR is eye/ear-opening.

The evidence amassed against the museum consortium here in the U.S. and NPR, as well as against Austria's Leopold Museum and its "founder" Rudolf Leopold is daunting. Little wonder that most of the real villains of the piece -- MoMA, Ronald Lauder, Alphonse D'Amato and NPR -- declined to be interviewed, while everyone else proved more than willing.

By sticking with this single painting, its history and the history of all those who circled around it, the movie proves an intelligent and surprising foray into the world of high-end art -- and a more vital and immediate experience than even The Rape of Europa. And by allowing us to see that the museum responsible for a fascinating show like Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (a documentary about which will open here next month) is also responsible for an unnecessary 13-year-long court battle in which that museum was morally and legally bankrupt (well: nobody's perfect), the film does us all a service.

Portrait of Wally, 90 minutes, from Seventh Art Releasing, opens this Friday, May 11, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. To view upcoming playdates, theatrically and festival-wise, click here, and then scroll down the left hand side of the screen that opens up until you reach Calendar Events. Eventually, too, the film should make it to DVD.

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