Telling the Story of Portrait of Wally

Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally (1912). Courtesy of The Leopold Museum

The history Egon Schiele’s 1912 oil painting Portrait of Wally is one that seems too incredible to be true. Purchased by Jewish art collector Lea Bondi in the years before World War II, the painting was stolen by a Nazi art dealer and later turned up at the Austrian National Gallery, where it had been purchased as part of another Schiele aficionado’s collection. Encountering legal hurdle after legal hurdle, Bondi enlisted the help of fellow Schiele collector Rudolf Leopold to help get her beloved painting back—only to have him buy it for himself. When in 1997 the Leopold Museum loaned their Schiele collection to the Museum of Modern Art, a New York City art dealer tipped off a reporter to a potential story: One of paintings MOMA was exhibiting, they said, was Nazi art loot. It belonged to Lea Bondi, by then deceased, who had spent her entire life post-WWII trying to get Portrait of Wally returned to her. Might be worth a look.

Indeed it was. A subpoena was issued to keep Portrait of Wally from returning to Vienna… and thus began a legal battle the lasted for over a decade. Museum officials. Prestigious cultural institutions like MOMA and NPR. The Department of Homeland Security. All found themselves involved in the controversy that would shake the art world and ultimately have a huge impact on restitution laws in the United States and Europe.

But in his documentary Portrait of Wally, director Andrew Shea focuses not on the legal aspects of this frankly quite complicated case but on its personal element. “The emotional heart of this film (and of the story of Portrait of Wally) is the family struggle,” writes Shea, who succeeded in bringing the extraordinary efforts of Bondi and her family to get the painting returned to them to the forefront of his intellectually stimulating—but still emotionally compelling—film.

In advance of the film’s premiere at New York City’s Quad Cinema today, May 11th, Shea took the time to chat with MovieMaker about how a film professor with a law background but no extensive knowledge of the art world came to complete such a film as Portrait of Wally.

Rebecca Pahle (MM): You’ve said that you didn’t have in-depth knowledge of the art world before you embarked on making this film. What was your process for getting to know all the facets of such a complicated subject as the Portrait of Wally restitution case? Did you spend a lot of time researching before production started? 

Andrew Shea (AS): I did a great deal of research into the story of Portrait of Wally prior to the start of production in January, 2008. I researched Schiele and his relationship with Walburga Neuzil (“Wally”), his mistress and frequent subject. I learned as much as I could about the Viennese art dealer Lea Bondi and the tortured history of her stolen painting. I studied the court filings and rulings from the New York State criminal case, which started in 1998, and the United States forfeiture case, which was still ongoing when we began planning this film in the summer of 2007. My legal training (I went to law school in the early ’80s but have never practiced law) was useful here.

But all that research didn’t prepare me for the raw emotion I encountered when I began interviewing people about this story. As I dug deeper I was struck by the sense of outrage and loss this painting aroused in so many people: The family of Lea Bondi, determined to reclaim the stolen portrait she had failed to recover in her lifetime; the Manhattan District Attorney who sent shock waves through the international art world and enraged many of New York’s most prominent cultural organizations when he issued a subpoena and launched a criminal investigation following the surprise resurfacing of Portrait of Wally; the New York art dealer who tipped off a reporter about the painting during the opening of the Schiele exhibition at MoMA; the Senior Special Agent at the Department of Homeland Security who vowed not to retire until the fight was over; the art theft investigator who unearthed the post-war subterfuge and confusion that ultimately landed the painting in the hands of a young, obsessed Schiele collector; the museum official who testified before Congress that the seizure of Portrait of Wally could have a crippling effect on the ability of American museums to borrow works of art; the Assistant United States Attorney who took the case to the eve of trial; and the legendary Schiele collector who bartered for Portrait of Wally in the early 1950s and fought to the end of his life to bring it home to Vienna.

This outpouring of passion convinced me to take on a project that I knew would take years to complete.

MM: I’m really curious about the editing process for this film, if only because I’d imagine there are a number of “sub-plots” and involved parties that ended up not being included. How much footage did you shoot? How involved were you in the editing process? 

AS: I’ve been working with my editor since we met at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in the early 1990s. Portrait of Wally is our third film together. It happens that my editor, Melissa Shea, is also my wife. We try to keep our professional relationship separate from our married life, but we are not always successful. We were consumed with the editing of this film, to the point that it sometimes threatened to take over our family life. Our 9-year-old daughter, Sadie, basically knows the film by heart.

At one time or another during the editorial process (which lasted nearly four years) we worked on a number of sections, or “beats,” that did not make the final cut. For example, we developed a beat on the legal maneuvering in the New York State case and MoMA’s failure to file an application for federal immunity from seizure. We had an extensive beat on the so-called “Schiele effect”—the impact of the Portrait of Wally case on restitution laws and cases here in the United States and in Europe. We also had a long section on Schiele himself, with a focus on his imprisonment on a trumped up charge of corrupting the morals of minors and the subsequent deepening of his bond with Wally. These are only examples. We worked on many approaches and developed every possible thread and subplot.

As we began to do small, targeted test screenings one distinct thread of criticism emerged: Everyone wanted more focus on Lea Bondi and her family’s struggles. People wanted less of the legal issues, more of the family struggle. These comments, coming from nearly everyone who saw a cut of the film, reinforced for me that the emotional heart of this film (and of the story of Portrait of Wally) is the family struggle. And in the months following the test screenings we hit upon a structure that I think finally solved the film.  

We shot approximately 125 hours of our own high-definition footage and combed through several hundred hours of archival footage.

MM: All the features you’ve done up to this point have been narrative. Were there any difficulties or challenges in working with the documentary format that you didn’t expect?

AS: Portrait of Wally is my first documentary, but I have been a director, writer, producer and editor in film, theatre and television for nearly thirty years. I think of myself as a storyteller, and the principles that guide my creative decision-making apply equally in fiction and documentary work. My eight years in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach directing and production, gave me added confidence. Several of my colleagues and many of my graduate students are documentary filmmakers. I have had the chance to observe them throughout production and post-production on their films, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect when I embarked on this project. That said, nothing could really prepare me for the intensity of the editorial process. It took several years of relentless experimentation to discover the final structure of the film.

MM: Is there anything you’d like to add?

AS: 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 Schiele’s tender portrait of his mistress.

Please see the film!

Portrait of Wally opens today, May 11th, at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan. To keep up with future festival and theatrical engagements, visit www.7thart.com/films/Portrait-of-Wally. More on the film and the Portrait of Wally art restitution case itself can be found at portraitofwally.com.

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