Aside from the incalculable human cost, World War II left in its wake property-rights issues whose repercussions are felt to this day. Nowhere is this truer than in the art world, where the Nazi seizure and fire sale of state-disapproved "degenerate" art and Jewish collections has been followed by the still-incomplete and often willfully blocked process of restitution—returning lost works to victims or, more often, their survivors. Portrait of Wally deals with one of the most famous contested pieces, the titular 1912 painting by Egon Schiele depicting his mistress and frequent model, carrot-topped "Wally" Neuzil. The painting had long been part of Austrian collector Rudolf Leopold's holdings when it was seized by the United States while appearing at a 1997 MOMA show. Since the surviving family of Lea Bondi Jaray, a Viennese gallery owner who died in 1969, still insisted that Wally was hers, the painting's provenance was then cast into international dispute. Andrew Shea's documentary is a well-arranged if rather drawn-out parade of talking heads telling Wally's story, including a trenchant and funny Morley Safer, never missing a chance to knock the art world; what prevents it from being more is the absence of the dissenting voices of its "villains"—particularly Leopold, who died shortly before the case of Wally went to trial in 2010, accused here of "playing any dirty trick in the book to get his hands on a desired painting."
The disputed painting.
Opens Fri., July 20 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 90 minutes.