“Portrait of Wally”, Egon Schiele’s tender picture of his mistress, Walburga (“Wally”) Neuzil, is the pride of the Leopold Museum in Vienna. But for 13 years the painting was locked up in New York, caught in a legal battle between the Austrian museum and the Jewish family from whom the Nazis seized the painting in 1939.
Serendipity. A phenomena when it unexpectedly strikes can be quite magical or extremely problematic. I recently returned from an art excursion, a blitzkrieg of culture revolving around Document 13 (an art fair of monumental proportions occurring every five years in Kassel, Germany) with a prequel in Vienna, Austria where I had a face â€“to- face encounter with enigmatic "Wally" (Walburga Neuzil, 1894-1917) in tandem with the self-portrait of her creator, Egon Schiele (1890-1918), iconic Austrian painter, in the Leopold Museum (Foundation).
The Portrait was owned, and lived complacently, comfortably in the home of gallerist Lea Bondi, pre- WWII , Vienna. There is irrefutable evidence supporting the painting's provenance. The Nazi regime closed her gallery in 1938 and gobbled greedily all her works; then Nazi art lover Friedrich Welz invaded her home, rapaciously stealing her precious"Wally". Lea and her husband fled to London and survived. She tenaciously and diligently quested for its return; always stymied by the belligerent and entitled; she died in 1969, unrequited.
Hence, the saga of the ethereal "Wally" commences; obsessive collector, Rudolph Leopold acquired, under vague circumstances ,the piece from the Belvedere Museum; in 1997 it traveled as part of a Schiele retrospective to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here is where the proverbial"painting and its provenance" hit the fan; artistic bureaucracy, mayhem became the fodder for the press, courts, NPR correspondent David D'Arcy (lost his job because his reporting supposedly maligned MOMA; he rises from the ashes by being the prime instigator and co-writer of this documentary); a myriad of interviews between Bondi's heirs, government officials, historians, museum directors and curators, interspersed with scenes of Jewish persecution; an especially prescient one of the Viennese welcoming Hitler (Austria, always claimed to be a victim of Germany ) into their frenzied, cherished midst.
"Wally" vaulted, and held prisoner for over twelve years in a federal storage facility in Queens, New York; until her fate was equably determined by all sides.
Watching this valuable history lesson I kept pondering Lea Bondi, a lovely, brilliant, avant- garde art collector, who happened to be Jewish, and the millions of others, throughout millenniums who were shunned, scattered, savaged because of their faith; so many of these civilizations, perpetrators of heinous villainy, wasted with time, consumed by war, greed and myopia are gone, gone with the ages. But Jews and their inimitable, intransigent stubbornness thrive and strive to survive; a mystery unlikely solved, as to how or why; probably, maybe possibly they are"chosen" to bear witness until the end of time and mankind. This is an election year, I would not bet against it.