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NEW YORK — A blow-by-blow account of an art-world scandal with far-reaching implications, Andrew Shea‘s Portrait of Wally may be too narrowly focused for some viewers, but offers an engaging narrative and high-profile subject that should attract audiences at fests and in specialized theatrical bookings.
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The eponymous painting, by Egon Schiele, was taken from a Jewish art dealer when her gallery was “Aryanized” before World War II. Though the dealer, Lea Bondi Jaray, recovered her gallery after the war, this painting (a personal favorite) was mistakenly turned over to the Austrian National Gallery; in time, Schiele collector Rudolph Leopold acquired it, despite allegedly being well aware of Bondi’s continued attempts at recovery. When the Museum of Modern Art borrowed it for a 1997 exhibition, the canvas became the center of a high-profile custody battle.
Shea’s clear-eyed film offers an enjoyable primer on Schiele — whose sexually graphic works have skyrocketed in value — and his Viennese milieu before digging into an extended account of “Wally”‘s movements. Looking solely at this landmark case, it mostly ignores other high-profile disputes (involving paintings by Schiele’s contemporary Gustav Klimt, ancient Greek pottery, et cetera) that have made headlines in the last decade.
Leopold emerges as a colorful, arrogant villain, though unfortunately the only interview footage we get is from a deposition he gave in preparation for trial. In fact, all the key players standing between “Wally” and Bondi’s heirs refused to cooperate. It would have been fascinating to see MoMA’s Glenn Lowry, for example, justify his passionate arguments against the painting’s return now that the battle is done and the legal landscape for such cases has changed dramatically around the world. (MoMA had argued that they were obligated to return paintings to those who had loaned them, whether ownership was valid or not.)
In the absence of MoMA or NPR, which appears to have let moneyed interests kill its coverage of the affair, we do get the august presence of 60 Minutes reporter Morley Safer, who caustically assesses the ways these institutions kowtow to benefactors before they’re even asked.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, Tribeca Talks
Production Company: P.O.W. Productions
Director: Andrew Shea
Screenwriters: Andrew Shea, David D’Arcy
Producers: Andrew Shea, Barbara Morgan, David D’Arcy
Director of photography: Sam Henriques
Music: Gary Lionelli
Editor: Melissa Shea
Sales: Udy Epstein, 7th Art Releasing
No rating, 90 minutes
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