It’s impossible to impress upon contemporary first-world citizens the unyielding terror and bottomless awfulness that characterized the lives of the prisoners of the Holocaust, that epic and prolonged atrocity that eclipses the scale of most people’s most unmentionable nightmares. We can read the books and articles and see the documentaries and movies and walk away understandably drained and repelled for perhaps the remainder of the evening, but the enormity of the destruction and loss perpetrated those few years is simply unfathomable.
Perhaps ironically, one can often glean a better sense of the macro of something by boiling its essence down to one quantifiable micro, and director Andrew Shea accomplishes just this with Portrait of Wally. The documentary mostly follows the complicated legal entanglements that ensued when a family claimed that a legendary painting displayed at the Museum of Modern Art was stolen from an heir, but in larger terms it’s also very clearly concerned with addressing the cultural scars that were inflicted by a global tragedy. Or, simply: Watching people bicker over a painting that was probably stolen by the Nazis 60 years ago establishes to a viewer the tolls of the Holocaust with, strangely, more immediacy than disturbing photos of Jewish people lined up for the trains heading to the concentration camps. The latter is surreal in its ghastliness, while the former is evocative of more everyday concerns of familial squabbling and garden-variety exploitation of the have nots by the haves. And when you understand that the Holocaust was defined not just by the bloodshed, but also by concerns over relative white-collar banalities such as property management, then the violence, embodied by those black-and-white photos we’ve all seen, also becomes more immediate, as it’s brought into a world that we understand isn’t fossilized by comfy hindsight.
Portrait of Wally doesn’t belabor these sorts of connections; the filmmakers concern themselves with the text, recognizing that it’s powerful and vivid enough for you to sort out the subtext for yourself. The film opens with a brief primer on the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, who lived the classic artist’s life defined by quite a bit of painting and drawing, quite a few women, and an early death before reaching 30. We’re told that Schiele largely existed on the fringe of the Viennese art world in the early 1900s, but that he was worshipped by young admirers who were drawn to his beautiful, macabre, often bluntly sexual paintings. And Shea, wisely, doesn’t rush us through this opening. We’re allowed to drink these paintings in so that we may understand the longing and allure that drives the remainder of the film.
It certainly isn’t difficult to see why people would be preoccupied with Schiele’s work, which often features imagery that links sex and death in disconcertingly frank fashions. But the titular painting is, compared with the rest of the work we see, an uncharacteristically straightforward tribute to a fleeting lover, created as a companion piece to a self-portrait. These two paintings are the imprisoned lovers that haunt Portrait of Wally.
Shea establishes that Austria in the 1920s and early 1930s was experiencing a cultural/social boom similar to the American Jazz Age, until the Nazis crashed the party and immediately turned the Jews into pariahs. In 1939, the titular painting was seized from gallery owner Lea Bondi’s personal collection by a Nazi art dealer—and Bondi, who knew Schiele personally, would spend her life trying to get it back.
Like thousands of other works of art obtained by the Nazis, the painting was eventually gathered by the American armed forces at the end of the war and returned to the Viennese government, which was comprised of Nazi sympathizers. It eventually wound up in a museum in Vienna, and eventually became a part of the Leopold Museum’s prized and elaborate collection of Schiele paintings. In 1997, the fight to return the painting to the Bondi family resumed when the Leopold collection was on display in the Museum of Modern Art.
What follows from there is a convoluted sequence of wheeling and dealing that involves extremely connected people in Vienna, New York City, and the American government. There are a number of conflicts of interest, particularly involving Ronald Lauder, the MoMA chairman who’s also a Schiele collector, friend of Leopold, as well as, ironically, the founder of the Commission of Art Recovery. However, Lauder wouldn’t appear to want this piece properly recovered.
Shea and co-writer David D’Arcy handle the density of material with a brevity and finesse that’s frankly staggering. (This film admittedly represents a bit of revenge for D’Arcy, once an NPR reporter who was dismissed for murky reasons involving the controversy surrounding the painting’s ownership.) The editing is pared and lively and Shea never gratuitously lingers on any of the interviewees for the sake of emotional exploitation.
And, yes, there’s a resolution of sorts that Shea and D’Arcy sort of see as a happy ending, but it will probably stick in most viewers’ throats. The conclusion is a testament to the fact that authentic justice is probably only attainable by accident (an exhibit premiere near the end is daringly equated to the Viennese citizens’ complicity with the Nazis). Yet Portrait of Wally is so haunting because the Leopolds, who eventually just bought the problem away, aren’t resolvable as convenient baddies. Leopold’s wife is seen triumphantly posing with Schiele’s painting at the end, and while she clearly partially sees this resolution as having won an elaborate pissing contest, you also see her sadness as well as an emotion that looks an awful lot like pride in a work that she, in every fiber, believes to truly be hers. Portrait of Wally, a testament to art’s baffling ability to somehow encapsulate everything and nothing of life at once, deserves to be one of the docs that breaks into the American pop consciousness this year.