It has been called “the face that launched a thousand lawsuits”, which from the point of view of many a holocaust survivor would be putting it extremely mildly.
The story of a Nazi-looted painting, Egon Schiele's 'Portrait of Wally,' it is a fast-paced watch for a subject so steeped in research. The aforementioned painting was discovered on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in 1997, triggering a historic court case that pitted the Manhattan District Attorney, the United States Government and the heirs of a Viennese gallery owner against a major Austrian Museum and MoMA. Filmmaker Andrew Shea deftly paints the surprisingly political saga of the infamous artwork after it was wrenched from a Jewish gallerist by the Nazis. We get to follow what amounted to a 70-year struggle to reclaim it, even as it hung publicly in major museums.
So, what is the big deal about the painting, and who IS Wally? Well, the small 1912 painting by the Austrian artist Schiele is perhaps the best-known representation of his model, lover, and co-conspirator, teenage beauty Walburga ‘Wally’ Neuzil. Hailed as a masterpiece, with its enigmatic grin the work has been dubbed the “Viennese Mona Lisa”, and other, more overtly erotic images of Ms. Wally – including “Wally Neuzil in Black Stockings” or “Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees” – have fascinated art lovers for decades.
Her hypnotic eyes and tawny hair are familiar, but the life of the woman who stood by Schiele from 1911 until 1915 remains in large part a mystery. Who really was Wally Neuzil? She was born in August of 1894 in the Lower Austrian town of Tattendorf and her family background was firmly lower-middle class. Her father Josef Neuzil, from a town in what is now the Czech Republic, was a grammar school teacher for a time, a position that, if not well-paid, was at least well-regarded. After his early death, Wally apparently moved with her remaining family to Vienna in 1906 and met Schiele in 1911 at the age of 16. The story goes that she was also Gustav Klimt’s model and perhaps even mistress, leading to even more intrigue around her mysterious gaze.
The story of the relatively small painting might never have come to light had it not been loaned to 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 owner Rudolf Leopold’s alarming collection practices. Several artworld and political players called for the painting - valued at the time at about USD$2 million - to be removed from the show and returned to the heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray, the painting’s original owner. The piece was confiscated by the federal government and stored as a more than decade-long battle raged over its ownership. Tonight’s documentary tells that story in a pacey, uncluttered way, clocking in at just 90 minutes.
The story is compelling, and the fallout of the 13-year legal battle over the painting helped establish important legal precedence regarding art looted from Holocaust victims. One would assume that returning property pilfered from Jews during World War II should be a moral no-brainer, but apparently not.
PORTRAIT OF WALLY premieres Thursday 13th October at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel