Thursday, May 10, 2012

Art Wars: Portrait of Wally

Rapacious looters, the National Socialists and their collaborating allies scooped up “spoils” almost indiscriminately.  For years, the work of Egon Schiele was considered hardly worth the trouble of plundering.  Times change.  Last year a Schiele cityscape was auctioned for a sum just north of forty million dollars.  Yet, it was a Viennese gallery owner’s emotional attachment to a portrait of the artist’s mistress that fueled her family’s drive to reclaim it.  Their precedent setting legal battle is documented in Andrew Shea’s Portrait of Wally (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In the case of Schiele, the term “degenerate artist” was not so utterly unfounded.  In fact, he and his mistress Walburga “Wally” Neuzil carried on rather scandalously until he precipitously dropped her.  A portrait of Schiele’s now celebrated model and muse held a special place in the private holdings of his gallerist, Lea Bondi.  Unfortunately, when a well-connected Nazi civilian confiscated her business, he also laid claim to her personal collection, literally pulling paintings off the walls of her home. 

The Bondis successfully immigrated while they still had the chance, but reclaiming their unjustly appropriated property after the war proved to be a Kafkaesque exercise in futility.  Then one day, the late Bondi’s heirs noticed her beloved painting had been loaned to the MoMA as part of a historic Schiele retrospective.  It would become even more historic when the Manhattan DA sided with the Bondis, effectively halting the return of Neuzil’s portrait.  Thus began an epic twelve year legal battle.

There are many fascinating in’s and out’s to this specific case, but it is really part of a far greater story.  To get a fuller sense of the scope and significance of the National Socialist looting campaign, the definitive documentary Rape of Europa should be required viewing.  In contrast, Portrait is less concerned with historical context, instead passing judgment on those it identifies as the villains in this complicated morality tale, most definitely including the venerable MoMA. 

Yes, anyone of good conscience will sympathize with the Bondis and the fact that nobody seriously challenged the facts constituting their claim to ownership is significant.  On the other hand though, it is understandable why the MoMA was a bit reluctant to tell their colleagues at the Leopold Museum they would not be returning the jewel of their collection after all. 

Claims by the MoMA and every other museum in the City, including the Jewish Museum, that this would have a chilling effect on art lending to American institutions were scoffed at in the film and during a special post-screening during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.  However, it was rather off-handedly admitted that Russian museums no longer loan art to their American counterparts after having lost a similar case.  Granted, Russia is not exactly a beacon of enlightened public policy.  In no way does this mean the Museums were right and the Bondis’ advocates were wrong.  The overall picture is just more complex than Shea and co-writer David D’Arcy choose to paint it.

There is a widespread fascination with intrigue in the world of fine art, even amongst those who rarely set foot in a museum or gallery.  Portrait delivers plenty.  It lucidly explains the twists and turns of the legal case, but its propensity for contemporary partisan finger-pointing dilutes its gravitas.  Consistently interesting nonetheless, Portrait of Wally opens tomorrow (5/11) in New York at the Quad Cinema.