“Their lives were in the balance,” asserts Hildegarde Bachert, “There wasn’t any negotiating with Nazis. God knows I know, you couldn’t negotiate with Nazis. You were lucky if they didn’t shoot you on the spot.” Bachert, the co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne, is remembering how the painting, Portrait of Wally (1911), was taken from its owner, Lea Bondi. She and her husband kept Wally at home, reports Sharon Cohen Levin, it was “like her child, she had discovered [the artist, Egon] Schiele early.” Still, you can’t negotiate with Nazis.
But… it may be that you can negotiate with those who benefited from Nazi crimes. Or perhaps you must, because such benefits include wealth and influence -– not to mention influential friends. Such is the circumstance pondered by Quad Cinema, offers a series of talking heads to show how these wranglings potentially affect the ways that museums, collectors and owners of art do business. Whatever might happen in future, however, the film underlines that the Wally case made this much very clear: rich people look out for themselves and bully others.
The saga of the painting begins with a bit of bullying, with that Nazi taking the painting from the art dealer Lea Bondi in 1938. It was her own, private property, not part of any of the many museum and gallery collections the Nazis also confiscated that year. After the war, Bondi sought to recover the painting, which by then had been recovered by Allied troops and sent off to Vienna’s Belvedere Museum, owned by the heirs of Dr. Heinrich Reiger. In an effort to recover the painting, Bondi asked for help from the rather self-loving collector Rudolf Leopold. In turn, he bought the painting for himself in 1954, never admitting to her what he had done. When the Austrian government purchased his collection in order to start the Leopold Museum, he was named director for life.
All this background plotting unfolds gradually in Portrait of Wally, structured sometimes like a melodrama and other times like a crime story. The post-war crimes were first revealed by the New York Times’ Judith Dobrzynski, in 1997, on the occasion of an exhibit of Schiele pieces from the Leopold Museum, at the Museum of Modern Art. On seeing the painting they had thought lost, Bondi’s heirs determined to continue her efforts to recover it, armed with letters that showed Leopold knew what he was doing when he essentially stole the painting (or knew that it was looted art when he took possession), then used it to help make his own name as a revered—if famously eccentric and sometimes terrifying—collector of Schiele paintings in particular. New York County District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau subpoenaed the painting, along with another Schiele painting whose ownership was in dispute.
To track the 13 years of legal battles that followed, Portrait of Wally offers a series of authorities, family members, and the occasional random-seeming interviewee, such as Sonja Buch, attending a 2009 Austrian protest against fascism. “We in Austria are very good in denying the problems,” she says as the film plays a waltz behind her. “We don’t have honesty to just admit how our welfare was created, so we don’t have right to be in a good mood, so I really hate it, on that position, to be Austrian.” Her comment reminds you that the question of provenance—at least as Leopold is able to frame it in his own public appearances, on TV talk shows and in other interviews—has to do with national identity on top of individual reputations.
Within this framework, the film notes especially MoMA’s troubling position, as stated by director Glenn Lowry at the time, namely, that institutions are not responsible for the moral or legal provenance of works brought to them, and so cannot be drawn into “taking sides” if a question comes up. This evasion provokes several commentators, including Morley Safer, who followed the story for CBS. “You have to remember that museum directors are really the butlers for the board,” Morley shakes his head, “and a good butler does not defy the wishes—even if he doesn’t know the wishes, what he presumes to be the wishes—of his masters.”
The film adopts Safer’s framing of the conflict according to questions of class and classism, and considers other culprits whose efforts to appease wealthy owners, donors, and board members (it happens that MoMA’s board chairman, Ronald Lauder, was also a Schiele collector, who knew Leopold), as these efforts ignore ethical concerns in favor of political or, more often, financial concerns. Thus, after David D’Arcy does a story of NPR that challenges MoMA’s position and NPR capitulates to the museum’s complaints (and D’Arcy is fired), Safer is righteously outraged: “NPR should be ashamed of itself,” he says, straight-up.
After many years, the legal case is eventually resolved, in a way that allows the wealthy participants to save face: the Leopold Museum purchases the painting from the Bondi heirs for $19 million, at which point Elisabeth Leopold (her husband died in 2010) makes a good show of her husband’s generosity and asserts the need for “tolerance,” a point that rankles Andre Bondi, Lea’s great-nephew. On the occasion of the painting’s on-loan display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Marc Masurovsky, historian and cofounder of the Holocaust Restitution Project, observes, “It’s ironic to see all the parties here because it’s a very odd type of love fest.” And yet, you realize, looking at wealthy people dressed up and posing for photos with the painting and each other, the resolution is less odd than foreseeable.