Directed by Andrew Shea. STC. 90 min. Jan. 9–10 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
It’s one of the richer ironies in filmmaker Andrew Shea’s compelling play-by-play about the battle over an Egon Schiele painting that the initials of the contested work’s title are P.O.W. Originally completed in 1912 and one of several paintings to showcase the wan beauty of the Viennese master’s teenaged lover Valerie “Wally” Neuzil, Portrait of Wally became a kind of prisoner of war in 1939, when a Nazi art dealer spotted it in the apartment of a Jewish gallery owner named Lea Bondi Jaray and forced her to sell it for a pittance of its value before she fled to London.
By the mid-1950s, the painting had ended up in the collection of Schiele authority and art-world heavyweight Rudolf Leopold, where it would lead a relatively uneventful existence until making a highly fateful journey to New York in the late 1990s. Alerted by Bondi’s relatives that it was showing at MoMA in an exhibition of works from Leopold’s collection in Vienna, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau issued a subpoena preventing its return. The lengthy courtroom drama that ensued brought new attention to the fate of thousands of works that had been stolen by the Third Reich and may still retain P.O.W. status.
Having made its local premiere in the Toronto Jewish Film Festival last spring, Shea’s film makes a welcome return of its own as January’s Doc Soup selection. Well-paced and smartly packaged, Portrait of Wally provides an efficient summary of the case without neglecting the wider issue of Holocaust restitution. The film’s troubling take on the moral flexibilities of the art world may also have viewers wondering about the provenance of what they see on museum walls.