"Portrait of Wally"
RTF professor documents 70-year struggle to recover painting stolen by Nazis
In 1939, artist Egon Schiele’s coveted painting “Portrait of Wally” (1912), an image of the Austrian artist’s red-haired mistress Walburga “Wally” Neuzil, was seized by a Nazi and stolen from Lea Bondi, a Viennese gallery owner and Jew.
Almost sixty years later, the painting resurfaced on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, triggering an historic court case lasting 13 years that pitted the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the U.S. government and the heirs of Lea Bondi against the Leopold Museum in Austria and MoMA.
“It’s known as ‘the pivotal case’ in art restitution around the world,” said Andrew Shea, director of “Portrait of Wally” and associate professor in the College of Communication’s Department of Radio-Television-Film. “It became the subject of an international art scandal.”
“Wally” made the surprise resurfacing while on loan from the Leopold Museum in 1997, triggering great interest from the heirs of art dealer Lea Bondi, who didn’t know where the painting had been and asked MoMA to hold the piece in Manhattan. When the museums refused, both criminal and civil investigations ensued, simultaneously bringing great attention to property crimes arising from the Holocaust and skyrocketing the value of Egon Schiele’s work.
“It really shaped the discussion of stolen art and ownership,” said Shea, who has taught at The University of Texas at Austin since 2004. “The 'Portrait of Wally' case is responsible, directly and indirectly, for the restitution of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen art, here in the United States and in Europe.”
The dispute brought to light vast collections in Europe and the U.S. that were suspect and forced museums to reevaluate their inventories for stolen items.
"I was struck by the sense of outrage and loss this painting aroused in so many people – family members, journalists, art dealers, lawyers, investigators, and historians," said Shea. "My hope is that we have succeeded in translating a singularly convoluted story into a compelling and human film that gives voice to the raw emotion of the many people whose lives have been touched by this painting."
The 90-minute film premiered in Austin on Sept. 7 at the Violet Crown Cinema on 434 West 2nd Street and play in more than 20 cities for the duration of its theatrical release. View the nationwide screening list.
Laura Byerley, (512) 471-2182