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Art and Idolatry in Austria

Art transforms life through beauty but inspires a possessiveness unlike any other. Collectors tend toward obsession, which overwhelms morality; museums, like the medieval church, wash away sin with exhibitions for the public good.  Andrew Shea’s new documentary, Portrait of Wally (subtitled “the face that launched a thousand lawsuits”), examines these phenomena through the journey of a Viennese painting from a Jewish owner to Nazi loot to Austrian icon, a process interrupted—temporarily—by a family and the Manhattan District Attorney.

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The Viennese painter Egon Schiele, born in 1890, is renowned for his phantasmagoric female nudes—louche and erotic, hovering between desperation and exhaustion.  Schiele, a protégé of Gustav Klimt, was an indefatigable womanizer.  Both artists displayed fin de siècle attitudes toward sexuality and figurative art: the naturalistic purity of line breaks to display uncertainty, neurosis, and compulsion.

But Schiele’s non-nudes were penetrating.  His self-portraits revealed a man well aware of his obsessions, defiant unconventionality and grotesquerie, whose distortions reflected deeper truth.  And his portrait of his mistress—Valerie Neuzil, or Wally—showed a woman who understood Schiele completely.  Her large blue eyes and tilted head bespoke resignation, indulgence, and love, her beauty a striking contrast to the distortions of Schiele’s decadence.

Portrait of Wally, as it became known, belonged to Lea Bondi, a Viennese Jewish art dealer and one of Schiele’s first enthusiasts.  A gift from the artist, it hung in her apartment.  In 1939, a Nazi art dealer seized her gallery, then charged into her home and pulled the portrait off the wall.  Bondi left London for Vienna the next day and never saw Wally again.

After the war, with Austria transforming itself from Nazism’s heartland to its “first victim,” the painting passed into the state collections with a deliberately misleading description and an inaccurate attribution to another—conveniently dead—Jewish owner.  Wally, along with vast quantities of other Jewish property, became part of Austria’s “national patrimony.”  Restitution of such treasures was out of the question.

When Bondi found that Wally was in the state collections, she turned for help to Rudolf Leopold, an Austrian Schiele collector.  Leopold was a physician, but his real passion was art—specifically, an insatiable lust for Schiele’s paintings.  Leopold later claimed that he “discovered” Schiele, and in the postwar context that is partly true: he bought his first Schiele in 1947 for less than $15.  He became Schiele’s great promoter and putative interpreter.  Bondi offered Leopold other Schieles she owned in exchange for Wally.  Instead, Leopold gave some of his Schieles to the government—and got Wally for himself.   

The extent to which Wally and Schiele were Leopold’s absolute possessions cannot be understated.  In 1972, Leopold prepared a massive catalog of Schiele’s works.  It omitted Bondi from Wally’s chain of ownership.  In 1994 the Austrian government bought Leopold’s collection, over 5,000 pieces, for more than $500 million.  In 2001 the state-sponsored Leopold Museum was opened to house it, with Leopold as director.       

The near-mystical connection Leopold had established between himself and Schiele elided the unpleasantness of Jewish ownership and Nazi looting.  Austria’s postwar embrace of “decadent” artists like Schiele, Klimt, Kokoschka, and others—posthumous, belated, exculpatory—followed the same arc.  Austria had always embraced its artists, the story went, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  These paintings had always been national treasures, as Austrian as Mozart.  Hitler belonged to far-away Germany.

Leopold later claimed that Bondi gave up her efforts to recover Wally in 1954.  In truth, she made numerous efforts at recovery before her death in 1969.   But against the juggernaut of Leopold and growing Austrian veneration of all things Schiele, there was little hope.

Hope has a somewhat different character, however, in America.  In 1997 Portrait of Wally appeared in New York at an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and the long-suppressed story began to bubble out. Bondi’s family intervened to obtain restitution.  Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau subpoenaed Wally, claiming it had been looted by Nazis and preventing its return to Austria.

For a moment, the intertwining of the worlds of art, politics, and money was revealed.  MoMA, and the museum world generally, reacted with outrage, claiming the restitution of Wally would forever end international art exchanges.  Ronald Lauder—MoMA chairman, former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, head of an effort to restore looted art, and a Schiele collector himself—defended his museum and Leopold.  

There was no evidence, claimed Leopold’s defenders, that he knew the piece had been stolen from Bondi (it was later established that she had told him so).  Besides, what did it matter?  The family was no doubt simply after money.  Wally belonged in a museum, under Leopold’s loving and watchful eye, for the masses to enjoy.

The case dragged on for 12 years.  Finally, in 2009, a federal court ordered a trial on the single issue of whether Leopold knew that he had acquired stolen property.  As if to avoid the ordeal, Leopold died two months before the trial date.  His museum agreed to pay Bondi’s heirs $20 million for Wally and, before returning it to Vienna, exhibit it at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.  There, with deep conviction, Leopold’s widow extolled the Jewish contribution to Austrian culture and declared Wally a “symbol of tolerance, respect, and cooperation.”  Wally was then reunited with her companion, a self-portrait of Schiele, under the elated eye of Leopold’s widow in Vienna.  Wally seemed shrunken, as if recoiling from the embrace.  The only element of justice to emerge was that Austrian law was forced to change, allowing heirs to press claims for art restitution more readily.  Several have now done so.

The documentary amply shows the chameleon quality of Austria—where uneasy acceptance of Jews turned overnight to Nazi-era hate, and, as the bones of Jewish art owners became dust, reverted to love eternal. The film also confirms, though inadvertently, the extent to which museums exist to flatter the vanity and lighten the wallets of the wealthy, to whitewash donors’ souls through spectacles of beauty in which they, as much as the art, are the center.

But the real story is about the power of art to twist morality.  Wally Neuzil would doubtless have been surprised to find herself an idol, worshipped and fought over in the name of ever higher claims—national patrimony versus personal property, public versus private good, the right to restitution versus a will to possess that is too deep for non-idolators to understand. Portrait of Wally, more than the story of a painting and its travails, depicts essential contradictions in the conduct of human affairs and flaws in the human soul. Perhaps, then, Schiele’s intentions have been realized.

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Danielle on November 4, 2012 at 2:51 am (Reply)
Appreciated this!

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