30 April 2012

Wild Weekend with Wally-Part Two

Close-up view of "Portrait of Wally"
Source: Google Images
Andrew Shea, Director
Source: Google Images
The making of a documentary film on the fate of the “Portrait of Wally” is a heady exercise. Its subject matter is a loving, dreamy and complicit portrait by Egon Schiele of his mistress, Walburga Neuzil. This was no art historical exercise here, though, especially coming from a legally-trained filmmaker, Andrew Shea, a veteran journalist, David D'Arcy, who straddles the fence between art and politics, and a well-seasoned film festival organizer, Barbara Morgan. “Wally” is all about the forensics of a racially-motivated theft in Nazi-absorbed Austria and the postwar attempts to recover title to an illegally acquired painting, “Portrait of Wally”, from an iconic figure of the Austrian art world, Rudolf Leopold, more interested in protecting ill-gotten treasures which were ripped from the bosoms of persecuted Jews in a nation that forgot to mete out justice against the culprits of Nazi collaboration.
Howard Spiegler, attorney for the Bondi Estate
Source: Google Images
The fight over Wally echoes the deep-seeded schisms that underlie the frail ties that bind Jews with non-Jews in nations implicated in different aspects of the Final Solution through intense, widespread collaboration at all levels of the society. By extension, it is about those who did nothing to help those who suffered for the fact that the others did nothing. An uneasy situation with which most European societies have yet to fully come to grips, albeit clumsily and unevenly, some countries behave better than others, although nowadays, anything is possible in the face of a massive rightward and chauvinistic shift in European politics.

David D'Arcy
Source: Google Images
False notions of venality have plagued the claimants of “Wally”—in this case, the Bondi heirs—through press reports (New York Times being no exception), statements made by museum and art world figures who are apparently more concerned with the value of an object and the inviolability of collections than with human justice.

The Wally case encapsulates all that is wrong with the way in which we relate to culture. Our ability to so eagerly disconnect an object from its history is disconcerting, much like when grave robbers violate the sanctity of a tomb and rip out from its matrix funerary objects meant to accompany their owners into the afterlife. De-contextualization makes it all the more easier to ignore the fact that an object has a human history, a social history, one that is organically connected to its previous owners, its jealous rivals, its covetous admirers, and its oglers. That is not to say that we should all weep and moan at the vagaries of history and the incessant and continual tragedies that sever ties between objects and owners—no, we are not comparing art objects to our favorite pets.

Andre Bondi, son of the late Henri Bondi
Source: Google Images
Left to Right.: Sharon Levin, Willi Korte, and Andrew Shea
Source: Google Images
In the case of Wally, we now have 20-20 hindsight—how convenient! Those who steadfastly opposed the Bondis’ claim to “Wally” and railed against Robert Morgenthau’s seizure of the painting are now gloating about their early involvement in the “Wally” case. The silent ones are those who produced the most damage—MoMA, and by extension, the New York art world, writ large; the Leopold Museum and, by extension, many in the Viennese cultural world, as well as members of select organizations traditionally devoted to the protection of the rights of Holocaust survivors and their heirs and to the greater good of the Jewish community at large.

 Is it so naïve to think that, if in late 1997 and early 1998--the crucial time frame for the Wally "Case"—MoMA, the Leopold Museum, the Federal Government, Jewish organizations, had reacted differently to the plight of the Bondi family, the Wally “case” might not have been a “case” at all? I am one of those who is that naïve to believe so. Woe on me! The seizure could have been so easily avoided. A dialogue between the parties, such as had been offered by HARP in late December 1997, might have spared all the parties thirteen long and tedious years which involved attorneys, judges, experts, researchers, historians, family members, government officials, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. An enormous waste of time, energy, and priceless resources, if you ask me.

But such as it is, human nature can be vile in its inability to produce empathy, understanding as it steadfastly adheres as if life itself depended on it to confining, self-serving, self-satisfying legal and fiduciary frameworks and principles—who owns what when? Under what circumstances? I work in a museum, you don’t. Who are you anyway? I am a collector, you are not, etc., etc., etc. Should one even dare cross the Rubicon and wonder whether the underpinnings of those legalistic and defensive questions do not belie more sinister thought processes such as: why do those Jews always fret about what is theirs and what is not theirs? Haven’t they received enough? Is it because “Wally” is worth two million dollars (in 1997) that the Bondi family has asserted its rights of ownership? Is it greed disguised as justice that creates these complications? So many ugly thoughts and questions which pervaded the press and trade debate over Wally, ugly as could be, thus rendering any adult and civilized conversation about the ownership history of this painting by Egon Schiele nigh impossible, resulting in what we have come to know as the “Wally Case.”

End of Part Two