An Unpleasant Close-up – Documentary explores how a painting caused an international incident

'Portrait of Wally/Egon Schiele Seventh Art Releasing photo
‘Portrait of Wally/Egon Schiele
Seventh Art Releasing photo

Portrait of Wally” is less about the man who painted it — Viennese wunderkind Egon Schiele — than it is about the trail of the work’s owners. The fascinating tale is one of betrayal, ownership, and the clash between public cultural institutions and private collections.

Schiele’s sometimes graphic portraits — of mistresses, models and wives — embody the decadence of 1920s Vienna, with plenty of nudity. They embody a battle between voluptuousness and brittleness, indulgent in sexuality but keenly aware of the constantly dying frame carrying this flesh around. It’s the kind of progressive fun upended so easily by the evil of the Nazis.

But “Portrait of Wally” is different. It’s one of a duo of paintings, one of Schiele himself, the other of his mistress, close-up, almost a snapshot taken in oils. But as shown in Andrew Shea’s documentary, it became a battlefield.

The painting was a gift to gallery owner Lea Bondi, who hung it in her home, while other Schieles hung in her gallery. During the Anschluss of 1938, Nazis took everything in the gallery and continued to Bondi’s home, claiming everything on the walls. Bondi escaped to London. After the war, the painting fell into the hands of Rudolph Leopold, art collector and Schiele expert. As the story goes, Bondi told Leopold that the painting was hers, he bartered for it with another Schiele piece, and then kept it.

Bondi died in 1969, but when New York’s Museum of Modern Art hosted a Schiele retrospective in 1997, Bondi’s granddaughter saw the painting and wanted it back.

As “Portrait” demonstrates through a style similar to a police procedural, here’s where things got crazy. The Leopold Museum wanted their piece back. MoMA tried to stay out of it, but the idea of restitution, of objects going back to rightful owner opened up a box of problems that would make all museums wary.

The film does a better job detailing the ins and outs of the case, and to say too much would ruin the narrative thrust of the film. Morley Safer of “60 Minutes” gives some of the best quotes in this talking-heads-heavy doc, taking NPR to task for firing one of its reporters after MoMA lodged a complaint. The reporter, David D’Arcy, is one of the co-creators of the project. But Mr. Safer’s comments are choice: “Museum directors are butlers for the (MoMA) board,” he says, “and they do not defy the wishes of their masters.” This quote is shown over ghastly reception photos of MoMA board members smiling too hard for the camera.

In the second half of the film, Mr. Shea takes on Austria’s rewriting of history, which made them the victims of the Nazis when the mainly Catholic city of Vienna came out to wave swastika flags when Hitler came to town. As one historian insinuates, Viennese Nazis traded uniforms for business suits. So where in this does Rudolph Leopold fit? Is his possessive nature a form of lingering anti-Semitism, or just capitalist greed and/or elitism? Or does he have a grander idea of art and history? The doc provides much to chew over. It also leaves an unpleasant aftertaste once the issue has been “resolved,” with much soiling of institutions. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it buys pretty much everything else, including a legacy.

‘Portrait of Wally’
* * * *
DocumentaryLength: 90 minutes
Rating: none
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pollock Theater, UCSB
Cost: $10/$5
Information: 893-3535 or www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu

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