By: Jon Bowman Published online: Friday, October 05, 2012 Appeared in: Pasateimpo
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documentary finds the Museum of Modern
Art and allied museums seeking to block
a family’s efforts to reclaim a famous painting looted
by the Nazis. Besides lifting a veil and exposing the
high-stakes politics of the art world, director Andrew
Shea’s film fairly weighs the complex legal and moral
issues raised by the case. At the center of it all is Egon
Schiele’s oil painting Portrait of Wally, one of the
most sensual works of the 20th century. Presented
by the Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival. Shows at 4 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 7, only. Not rated. 90 minutes.
Portrait of Wally, documentary, not rated, CCA Cinematheque, 3 chiles
The Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival embarks on its third season embracing a new
name as well as an expanded, community-wide mission. In prior years, the
festival was known as the HaMakom Jewish Film Festival, carrying the imprimatur of the sponsoring HaMakom synagogue. Festival director Marcia Torobin
said that HaMakom remains supportive, but now the festival has regrouped
under a more broad-based board and is affiliated with the Jewish Federation of
New Mexico. “The membership now reflects the broader Santa Fe community,
not only the Jewish community, but the community at large.” Besides forming
several new partnerships, the festival has mapped out a much more ambitious
slate for its third season, pairing key lectures and educational events with each
planned film screening.
To open the season, on Sunday, Oct. 7, at the Center for Contemporary Arts,
the festival has secured what Variety described as a “bombshell” documentary,
one that should be of particular appeal for Santa Feans because a prominent
former city resident directed the picture. The film, Portrait of Wally, traces a
landmark legal battle surrounding an Egon Schiele painting that had been seized
by the Nazis from Lea Bondi, a Jewish gallery owner in Vienna. Following World
War II, Bondi successfully reclaimed most of the artwork confiscated from her,
but not Wally. Whether through sleight of hand or a clerical error — there’s
still debate over which applied — the 1912 oil painting of Schiele’s mistress
Walburga “Wally” Neuzil eventually landed in the collection of Austria’s famed
Acting on behalf of Bondi’s heirs, the U.S. government, through the district
attorney in Manhattan, shocked the art world by seizing the painting after it came
to America on loan from the Leopold to the Museum of Modern Art in 1997.
This precipitated an acrimonious court case that lasted more than a decade,
pitting the heirs and the district attorney against the Leopold and MOMA,
as well as a consortium of museums that claimed the seizure could have a
chilling effect on art loan programs.
Andrew Shea, who directed Portrait of Wally, founded the New Mexico
Repertory Theatre and built it into the largest professional company in
the history of New Mexico before leaving in the 1990s to Los Angeles to
launch his film career. While here, he directed or produced more than 40
plays, including world premieres of works by New Mexico’s Mark Medoff,
playwright of Children of a Lesser God.
For the Jewish Film Festival’s screening of Wally, Shea has agreed to
provide an introduction via Skype as well as to conduct a Q & A after the
show. He will be appearing from his home in Austin, Texas, where he is
an associate professor in the Radio, Television and Film Department at
the University of Texas. Portrait of Wally is his first documentary after
several feature-length fiction films including The Corndog Man, Santa Fe,
Shea became aware of the convoluted Wally wrangling through David
D’Arcy, a former NPR arts reporter whose coverage of the scandalous case
got him fired by the radio network. “I could see what a great story it might
be and how it could do just as well translated as a film,” Shea said. “Meeting
David gave me the context and the connections to pull it off.”
What Shea didn’t imagine at the start, though, is how long the project
would take to bring to fruition and how tough to foresee the outcome, and
thus give final shape to the film. While the case was being litigated, District
Attorney Robert Morgenthau and his staff lawyers begged off doing any
on-the-record interviews. Principals from the museums also refused to go
on camera, although Shea found news and archival footage representing
As the case dragged on for years, Shea grew more nervous, wondering
if he would ever finish the film. He also found himself buffeted by the
explosive dynamics unfolding in the courtroom — dynamics, in the words
of Variety’s John Anderson, that touch upon “cultural skulduggery, political
sleaze, institutional hypocrisy, and the virtues of persistence.”
“A documentary is just like fiction in that the narrative arc is so important
to the storytelling,” Shea said. “But what is so difficult in documentary is
that nothing is open and shut. We were always rewriting and reworking
our script, right up until the end, because the facts kept changing, and we
had to shift our focus if we wanted to present the material as accurately and
honestly as possible.”
In the end, Portrait of Wally packs an emotional wallop, not so much
in excoriating the Nazis for originally looting the painting, but in
suspenseful and charged as the painting itself — a work of great sexual
energy and electricity that became a talisman openly coveted by many
Having now acquired the documentary bug, Shea is eager to pursue a
second nonfiction work, about the first Eastern European basketball stars
recruited by the NBA. But he hasn’t abandoned a lifetime dream to film a
screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. He is open
to either possibility: “For under-the-radar indie films, it’s always a struggle
to get funding for these projects.”
As an accompaniment to Portrait of Wally, Temple Beth Shalom presents
a lecture and slide show on Oct. 28 on the topic “Looted Art: A Look at
American Museums After the Holocaust,” with attorney Judah Best.
The Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival season continues through April 14,
2013, encompassing at least five other titles, among them, the 1939 Yiddish-
language version of Tevye, based on the folk tales by Sholem Aleichem that
inspired Fiddler on the Roof.
The Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival opens at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7, with
a screening of “Portrait of Wally,” at the Center for Contemporary Arts
(1050 Old Pecos Trail). Advance tickets, $10 (discounts available), may be
purchased from www.santafejff.org; tickets at the door are $12. Multi-ticket
passes are available from the website.