In his day, Austrian painter Egon Schiele produced sexually charged images that were considered grotesque and even obscene, but the controversial history of his 1912 work Portrait Of Wally has nothing to do with its relatively demure subject matter. Twenty years after Schiele’s death in 1918, the painting was taken from the home of a Jewish art dealer by the Viennese Nazi who purchased her gallery. Lea Bondi Jaray had kept Wally as a prized personal possession, but Friedrich Welz made it clear that resistance could land her in a concentration camp.
The Nazi appropriation of Schiele’s painting is the opening chapter in the long, tortured saga behind Andrew Shea’s documentary P.O.W.: Portrait Of Wally, which traces Bondi’s attempts (and later, her family’s) to recover her property from sources as diverse as the Austrian government and New York’s Museum Of Modern Art. In the process, the film lays bare the territorial skirmishes between cultural institutions and individual collectors, a conflict whose outcome any viewer of The Art Of The Steal can all too easily predict.
When Allied troops raided Nazi storehouses, Wally was lumped in with a group of Schiele works whose owner died in Czechoslovakia’s Theresienstadt ghetto. But the painting was misidentified from the start, not only by subject—it was labeled as a portrait of one of Schiele’s other frequent models—but by medium, as a sketch on paper rather than oil on canvas. It beggars belief that Austria’s national museum could overlook such a discrepancy, but the nation’s courts were indifferent—or actively hostile—to Holocaust survivors attempting to reclaim their lives: Bondi ultimately got her gallery back, but she was found to owe Welz financial compensation for structural improvements.
Decades later, the painting came to New York, where MOMA exhibited it under the aegis of a private Austrian foundation. That’s where Shea’s co-writer David D’Arcy enters the picture, and P.O.W. trips over its own tangled legacy. D’Arcy, a journalist and critic, reported for National Public Radio on attempts to keep the painting in the U.S., including attempted seizures by the New York D.A. and the Customs Department. According to the film, MOMA declined to comment for D’Arcy’s story, in writing, then asked NPR to run a correction saying they had not been contacted for comment. NPR obliged and terminated D’Arcy’s freelance contract, here interpreted by Morley Safer, among others, as an uncalled-for reaction to an imaginary fault. D’Arcy’s name is in the opening credits, but the movie neglects to mention that he filed a $5 million lawsuit against NPR and MOMA, which by any standard qualifies as a fatal conflict of interest. Portrait Of Wally tells a gripping story, but the filmmakers should have been more forthright about their own part in it.