The Danish girl: how Gerda Wegener bent gender boundaries
She was born in Denmark, but she gained recognition in Paris because of her sophisticated and elegant portraits of women, for which her spouse posed. Her story, ambivalent sexuality, and a strange marriage were too complicated for people to understand at the beginning of the 20th century. She was a pioneering artist, but she didn’t get a single exhibition in her homeland in over 75 years since her death. It was only in 2015 that ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen presented a huge exhibition on Gerda Wegener. Read an extraordinary story of the artist and her muse, whose love and creativity have pushed gender boundaries.
"I like to think of her as the Lady Gaga of the 1920s", said art historian Andrea Rygg Karberg, who curated the exhibition of Gerda’s work in Copenhagen.
Gerda Wegener (1885 — 1940) was a prominent figure in Danish art. As an artist, she amazingly portrayed female beauty with an equal share of empathy and lust. Flirting girls, glamorous divas and sensual women are among her favourite subjects. Her model and muse was often her spouse — the landscape painter Einar Wegener (1882−1931). They are known as one of the first medical cases to have a sex reassignment surgery performed on them.
On the left: Gerda Wegener in 1904. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
"Woman must unleash her womanly instincts and qualities, play on her feminine charm, and win the competition with man by virtue of her womanliness — never by trying to imitate him," Gerda Wegener, 1934.
Gerda Gottlieb married Einar in 1904. In 1912, they moved to Paris and started pursuing their artistic careers. The couple lived a fashionable life, enabled to a great extent by Gerda’s success as a portrait painter and an illustrator for the leading fashion magazines. Decadent, frivolous Paris also made it possible for them to live out their controversial love affair in which playing with gender and identities became the central focus.
Gerda and Einar Wegener in front of Gerda’s painting, Sur la route d’Anacapri at the exhibition in Ole Haslunds Hus, 1924. Photo: The Royal Library, Denmark
Einar regularly presented as a woman named Lili Elbe. In 1930, Gerda supported her spouse in the decision to go through a transgender transition and become a woman, both physically and legally. However, Lili Elbe died a year after the last operation from complications of the surgery.
On the left: Gerda Wegener, Queen of Hearts (Lili), 1928
Artist Einar Wegener, later known as Lili Elbe. Photo: huwaw.com
"Einar Wegener felt like a person who was forced to go around in a costume that stifled him and in which he felt ridiculous," Lili Elbe, 1931.
Lili Elbe was the first known recipient of male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. For this reason, in 1930, the Wegeners moved to Germany, where Einar underwent an operation. When this fact was made public in October 1930, the Danish king dissolved the marriage between Gerda and Einar.
A scene from the film The Danish Girl: Einar poses for Gerda as the ballerina Ulla Poulsen. Photo: outsidersmag.net
The story of this couple formed the basis for the film The Danish Girl directed by Tom Hooper, known for his films The King’s Speech and Les Misérables. In the film, Gerda is played by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, while Einar / Lily — by the Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne.
The Danish Girl was first shown at festivals in North America and Italy, and then released all over the world by the end of 2016.
In her works, Gerda Wegener was deeply fascinated by human games with identity, dressing, masks and theatricality. The readers of the magazines La Vie Parisienne, Vogue, La Baïonnette and Le Rire admired her technically stunning and at times explicit drawings. Most often, it was Einar/Lili, who posed for them, wearing makeup, various wigs, dresses, shoes and holding exotic fans. Love and friendship of the artist and her muse went far beyond the relationship between sexes.
Above: Gerda Wegener, advertisement for powder in the magazine La Vie Parisienne, 5 June 1920
While living in Paris, Gerda Wegener exhibited her works at the most important annual art fairs. At the the French Pavilion of the World Exposition in 1925, Gerda Wegener won two gold medals. She drew illustrations (especially for erotic literature) and designed glass mosaics for Parisian shops and homes of the wealthy families.
Today three of her paintings are at the Centre Pompidou. However, the leading Danish museums did not buy any of them — because she was a woman, because she also expressed herself in commercial mass culture, and because of her ambivalent sexuality and the story of her marriage.
The painting Summer Day depicts Einar Wegener at the easel, naked Lili, Elna Tegner with an accordion, and the publisher’s wife, Madame Guyot with a book.
"Once one has found Paris, one cannot imagine living anywhere else. Although I love Italy, when I return and smell Paris, then I am happy," Gerda Wegener, 1924.
With almost 200 paintings on view, the ARKEN’s exhibition was the biggest ever of the artist’s work.
Based on the materials from artdaily.com and the official website of ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Title illustration: detail of the portrait Lili with a Feather Duster (1920)
Artists mentioned in the article