Melina Mercouri once said of the Parthenon Marbles – known as the Elgin Marbles and currently in the British Museum in London – that it was irrelevant to say that the Marbles were in good condition. They should be returned to Greece, as they were taken from Greece, without consent or payment.
“If someone steals my jewellery, it will not comfort me to think they look after it well. It’s my jewellery. They stole it. If I wish to treat it badly or well, that’s my right,” said Mercouri.
I thought about Melina a lot as I watched “Portrait of Wally”. Her thoughts on ownership resonate as ideas in this film.
“Wally” , the movie, is a complex tale of Nazi art theft. Egon Schiele was a Vienna artist who painted a portrait of himself and another of his mistress, Wally (Walburga or Valerie) in 1912. Depending on your perception, Schiele is a great and timeless artist or a pornographer.
He was a student of Gustav Klimt and his paintings look very modern. His focus on erogenous body parts makes most of his oeuvre unsuitable for your elderly relative who likes a nice water lily or still life.
“Wally” is one of the sweetest and best of his paintings. He died in 1918, age 28. Schiele had a complex personal life, just before that became normal in Vienna.
Vienna in the 1920s was a hotbed of sexual activity and artistic and intellectual innovation. The painting captures an innocence and a love at a key time in Schiele’s artistic development, just before he becomes part of Vienna’s next big thing. He had a very interesting personal life, just before Vienna decided to swing.
We are not in the Austria of Captain and Maria Von Trapp. Think Berlin in its promiscuous heyday or the last days of disco in New York City and you’re in the correct zone.
When the Nazis take over Austria, all that fun ends.
When “Portrait of Wally” was shown at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1997, the heirs of its original Jewish owner pointed out that it had been stolen from Lea Bondi in 1939.
Lea fled to London and survived, but she never gave up on her ownership of “Wally”, which had been in her private collection at her home for many years and not at the gallery she owned in Vienna.
Several big bags of worms opened up. The movie asks questions about the behaviour of MOMA, Ronald Lauder (Estee Lauder’s heir) and about what ownership is and what it means.
In 1954, “Wally” ends up in he collection of Rudolf Leopold, a highly-regarded collector and expert on Klimt and Schiele. Lea fought Leopold’s enormous power and influence to assert her ownership, but died in 1969, without having got very far, despite her enormous energy.
She ran a successful gallery in London through tough times and I imagine she had a fierce life force in her.
In many ways, this tale of a painting tells a Holocaust story in a very accessible way. We all own stuff and, therefore, we identify with stolen stuff.
The resistance of the various parties to admitting the true ownership of the painting makes for a fascinating film. Co-written by Director Andrew Shea and David D’Arcy , there is an extraordinary side story here of respected journalist D’Arcy having his contract ended by National Public Radio.
Lovers of modern art have to see this. Those interested in stories of Nazi history have to see this. If you have longed for a clever and different approach to familiar stories of Nazi bad guys, and how they got help from some unlikely bedfellows, see this.
If your child tells you tonight that they have to be an artist, find this film and show it to them. Then – very gently – steer them in the direction of being a lawyer who specialises in art cases. Because, despite the outcome of the legal case about this painting, the lawyers always win.
Even though she was an amazing actress and a government minister in Greece, Melina never got very rich. The truth may set you free, but it won’t make you a millionaire. Of course, you may not believe that matters, compared to creating timeless art.