Where's 'Wally'?

'Portrait of Wally’ Follows Tangled Trail of Schiele Painting

7th Art releasing

By Tom L. Freudenheim

Published May 11, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Sometime in the mid-1990s I was asked by a Jewish arts organization to arrange an art trip to Europe — preferably to look at modern and contemporary art. I immediately suggested that we visit German art museums, since there are so many of them and they have been so active in those fields of collecting and exhibiting. “No! Not German museums!” was the immediate reply. “Our members would never agree to take a trip to Germany!” “Okay,” I said, “how about Vienna, Budapest and Prague?” They loved that idea, so we went ahead with plans for the tour, which ultimately also included Krakow (as a kind of pendant to Prague) and the requisite visit to Auschwitz. When we finally arrived in Vienna, I asked the tour members why they seemed so comfortable there, and why they didn’t seem to think of it as a place with World War II and Holocaust echoes. They remained scarily silent.

Memories of that experience came rushing back to me as I watched the remarkable new 90-minute film “Portrait of Wally,” which tells the shaggy-dog story of the eponymous 1912 Egon Schiele painting of his mistress, Walburga (“Wally”) Neuzil. Deftly directed by Andrew Shea, it’s a tale that I mistakenly assumed would be entirely familiar. After all, I well remember reading the December 1997 New York Times story by Judith Dobrzynski, breaking what turned out to be a major story about the painting’s murky history. And I thought I had followed all the subsequent newspaper accounts of the controversy surrounding Robert Morgenthau, New York’s district attorney at the time, seizing the painting from the Museum of Modern Art, where it had been part of a 1997 exhibition of Schiele’s work from Vienna’s Leopold Museum.

The work, which the Nazis stole in 1939 from the personal collection of a prominent Viennese Jewish art dealer, Lea Bondi Jaray, had morphed from a painting into a cause célèbre. Following a 13-year dispute, Jaray’s heirs were eventually paid a considerable sum by the Leopold Museum; the work was briefly displayed at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, and presumably it can now be seen regularly back in Vienna.

But those facts seem like minor players in a film that carefully reviews the complex history of the painting. The film unfolds episodically. And, episode by episode, “Portrait of Wally” talks to the people behind its convoluted journey: its theft by an Austrian Nazi art dealer, Friedrich Welz; its postwar whereabouts; the chicanery as an Austrian national museum (Belvedere) traded it to noted collector Rudolf Leopold for his museum; and, finally, Jaray’s own attempts to recover the work prior to her death, in 1969.

As if to reinforce the entanglements of the plot, Jaray had even asked Leopold for his expertise in recovering her painting, not knowing of his involvement in its relocation. The carefully paced film is part whodunit complete with fascinating sleuthing, and part morality tale, including appearances by an array of experts in the field of Nazi art loot recovery, along with legal experts and journalists. It even led to the allegedly unjust dismissal of NPR arts reporter David D’Arcy (a co-producer of the film), following apparent pressure from funders on NPR’s management.

Full disclosure: I make a brief cameo appearance in the film, but other museum colleagues of mine apparently didn’t want to take a public stand on the issue. Art collectors and museums don’t come off looking very good here. After all, even New York’s Jewish Museum joined other major museums in filing an amicus brief on behalf of MoMA’s claim that “Portrait of Wally” ought to be returned to the Leopold Museum, from which it was on loan, prior to any settlement of an ownership dispute. Museum folks were concerned that international loan exhibitions would be curtailed; after all, aren’t museum exhibitions more important than justice?

Other Jewish players here include MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, as well as noted collector Ronald Lauder, then chairman of MoMA and also chair of the World Jewish Restitution Organization’s Committee on Art Restitution. Unfortunately both declined to be interviewed for the film. While not the subject of this story, Lauder’s record-breaking, $135 million purchase of Gustav Klimt’s spectacular 1907 “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” (now on view at the Neue Galerie) was probably made possible because of the groundbreaking work done in reclaiming the Nazi-stolen (some might conclude twice-stolen!) Schiele painting.

If ever a World War II story was successfully subjected to spin control, it was the Austrians’ redefinition of themselves as victims of Nazism rather than as the welcoming collaborators they actually were following the Anschluss, or annexation, of Austria in 1938. I remain mystified as to why all those Jews who “wouldn’t set foot in Germany” fell for that myth and regularly delight in stuffing themselves with the delicacies purveyed at Vienna’s historic Demel shop. Shea’s film doesn’t go there, but the director has the smarts to have the astute young Jewish-Viennese art historian and Nazi-stolen-art researcher Sophie Lillie remind us on camera that her fellow Austrians generally remain in denial.

As the case was ultimately settled, Jaray’s heirs received substantial payment for the painting (said to be around $19 million, divided among a large number of heirs, since she had no children). But this isn’t a film with a happy ending. We are left with the reminder of how tone deaf at least some Austrians still are when we watch Leopold’s widow (Leopold died in 2010, just prior to the settlement of the case) unveil the painting after its return to the Leopold Museum.

She begins with embarrassingly trite remarks about “famous” Austrian Jews such as Freud, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein, etc. She follows this by saying, “I hope ‘Portrait of Wally’ will be the symbol for tolerance, respect and cooperation.” Jaray’s great-nephew, André Bondi, then adroitly reminds us on camera that “tolerance has an aura of condescension about it.” This riveting film tells a story that is more than anything about the intolerance, disrespect and lack of cooperation that held Schiele’s painting hostage not just for the 13 years of its imprisonment in New York, but also for the 71 years since its theft by Welz. And if there’s any suggestion here that things have changed, it’s mostly to remind us of how grudgingly change occurs — when it does. This is not a heartwarming story, but it’s an astonishing and informative film.

Tom L. Freudenheim is an art historian and retired museum director.

“Portrait of Wally” opens May 11 at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.