The art of theft on a global scale
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, August 3, 2012
Returning property pilfered from Jews during World War II should be a moral no-brainer, yet with the tale of a single painting, the documentary “Portrait of Wally” makes the disheartening case that rarely is the act of restitution so straightforward.
Filmmaker Andrew Shea has deftly painted the surprisingly political saga of an artwork wrenched from a Jewish gallerist by the Nazis, and what amounted to a 70-year struggle to reclaim it, even as it hung publicly in major museums.
In 1939, Viennese gallerist Lea Bondi Jaray was visited at her home by Nazi art dealer Friedrich Welz, who demanded not only the contents of her gallery, but a small painting that had been among Jaray’s personal effects for decades: Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally,” an unusually incandescent 1912 portrait of the artist’s young lover, Walburga “Wally” Neuzil. Schiele, a prolific painter of raw human forms, had already become one of Austria’s most important artists (and remains so today).
Bitterly aware of the repercussions of crossing the Nazis, Jaray relented and left for London the next day. After the war, she petitioned to have “Wally” and works from her gallery returned. But for Jaray, the injustices were only beginning.
When, after the war, Jaray’s painting turned up (rather suspiciously) in the Austrian National Gallery, she turned to Rudolf Leopold, an avid collector of Schiele, for assistance; instead, he negotiated to win the piece for his own collection.
The story of the relatively small painting might never have come to light had Leopold not attempted to cement his art-world imprimatur by loaning his Schiele collection for a traveling exhibition. Days before the closure of the show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1997, a New York Times piece exposed the sketchy provenance of the “Portrait of Wally” and Leopold’s alarming collection practices. Several players, including Jaray’s relatives and several New York pols, called for “Portrait of Wally” -- valued at the time at about $2 million -- to be removed from the show and returned to the family (Jaray died in 1969). The piece was confiscated by the federal government and stored as a more than decade-long battle raged over its ownership.
Shea and reporter David D’Arcy -- who covered the uproar for NPR and is credited as a co-writer of the film -- have managed to make their story as slick and compelling as an Alex Gibney film, thanks to the breadth of interviews and a bevy of documents supporting Jaray’s rights.
Although the film at times moves through the evidence at an impossibly fast clip, the response of MoMa will doubtlessly resonate. Shea, in fact, reserves most of his grenades to lob at other major art institutions, including Austria’s Belvedere museum, home of the national gallery, questioning the apparently hypocritical motives for standing in the way of the return of artworks.
Yes, “Wally” is returned, but that’s hardly a spoiler; it’s still hugely insightful to watch this art crime play out.
Contains no objectionable language, although images of Egon Schiele's paintings frequently feature nudity and suggestive poses.