“Injustice upon injustice upon injustice” is how one interviewee describes the saga behind Portrait of Wally, a 1912 painting by Egon Schiele of his mistress Valerie “Wally” Neuzil. Much of Schiele’s work is quite provocative, not just nude but erotic, viewed by some as pornographic and grotesque. But Andrew Shea’s inciting documentary is less a biography about the Expressionist figurative artist (in fact, little is said about Schiele’s short life at all) than his most controversial work—a work controversial not for its subject matter but for its history of ownership.
Wally’s story begins with Lea Bondi, a Jewish art dealer whose gallery in Vienna, Austria, featured Schiele’s work. The Portrait, though, was her personal property and hung in her home, so when Friedrich Welz acquired her business through the Aryanization of Jewish industry after Hitler’s arrival in the city in 1938 (the Austrians’ welcome of which is briefly criticized in the film), his taking of her beloved artwork under duress was not a wrong she forgot or forgave.