Artist Egon Schiele reflects on his talent in Portrait Of Wally.
PORTRAIT OF WALLY (Andrew Shea). Screens Wednesday (January 9) at 6:30 and 9:15 pm and January 10 at 6:45 pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. See listing. Rating: NNNN
There is a painting by Egon Schiele of his mistress, Valerie Neuzil, that once hung on a wall in the home of Lea Bondi, a Jewish gallery owner in Vienna. The Nazis confiscated it in 1939, and though Bondi recovered much of her collection after the Second World War, this painting went to the Austrian National Gallery. And then things got complicated.
The journey of the painting, and the Bondi family's efforts to reclaim it, are the meaty subject of Andrew Shea's engrossing documentary Portrait Of Wally, this month's featured Doc Soup presentation. The painting isn't just a painting, of course; it's a symbol both of the injustices visited on Europe's Jews during the Holocaust and of the ethical blindness that allowed art collectors to trade in works that were clearly not theirs to buy or sell.
Shea doesn't tart up his story, instead relating events through the direct, uncluttered presentation of talking heads and archival footage, underscored where appropriate by ominous music. This doc wouldn't be out of place on the History Channel, but that's not a slight; a straight-up treatment seems the best way to tackle the complexities of Shea's story.
The through line is the Schiele painting, which spent decades knocking around Europe and North America - even being shown at MoMA in the 90s, well after the matter of its provenance should have been settled - before the Bondi family managed to secure their claim in a textbook example of a pyrrhic victory. But, of course, tens of thousands of other pieces of art remain mired in lawsuits between families trying to retrieve their treasures from other families who believed they were acquiring them from reputable dealers decades after the war.
There's also the issue of a different sort of possession, since Portrait Of Wally is about an artist's painting of his own lover. Can anyone other than Schiele really lay claim to something so intimate?
Well, of course they can. Anything can be acquired, no matter how personal or precious. That's the whole point of the film.