"Portrait of Wally," a documentary directed by Andrew Shea about the Nazi theft of a painting by Egon Schiele, is a fascinating if somewhat convoluted film. It's playing at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, in Seattle.
She gazes out from the canvas, head coquettishly tilted at an angle; her eyes the color of a summer sky, her hair a soft yet assertive red. She is Wally, the mistress of Austrian painter Egon Schiele, and the painting is the 1912 “Portrait of Wally,” an affectionate portrait meant to hang side-by-side with a corresponding work depicting Schiele himself. But, as we learn from Andrew Shea’s intriguing documentary of the same name, “Wally,” the painting, sat alone for many years, the center of a legal battle between the art world and the Jewish family from whom the painting was stolen.
Like many works of art, “Portrait of Wally” was seized by Nazis (from Vienna art dealer Lea Bondi, who had hung the painting not in her gallery but her home). After the war, it found its way to Vienna’s Belvedere Museum (due to an apparent clerical error that listed the painting among a separate Schiele collection) and was then bought by Schiele collector Rudolph Leopold. Though Bondi, and later, her heirs tried to assert ownership of “Wally,” the painting remained at the Leopold Museum until it was sent to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a 1997 exhibit. More than half a century after the war, suddenly “Wally” was in the news: MoMA, asked by Bondi’s heirs to hold on to the painting until its ownership could be investigated, refused. A district attorney issued a subpoena forbidding the museum to return the painting to Austria, and thus launched a 13-year criminal investigation, as Wally smiled serenely from a crate locked away.
It’s a fascinating story, even as Shea’s film sometimes tells it in a slightly convoluted way. You leave the film haunted by the blurry black-and-white footage of a peaceful, stylish prewar Vienna; and by the words, used by one of the film’s narrators, speaking of works looted by Nazis and never returned to their owners: “They had an interest,” he says of the art world, “in closing their eyes.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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