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Gerda Wegener (15 March 1886 – 28 July 1940)

Gerda Wegener is a name that may currently be more recognisable than it has ever been in the years following her death. Thanks to the release of the motion picture The Danish Girl, a fictionalised, semi-biographical account of the journey made by Gerda and her husband Einar during his transition into a woman, the world has fast become captivated by their story.

 

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Born in Hammlev, Denmark in 1886, Gerda’s early life was contained to the small provincial town in which she was brought up. The sole surviving child of Justine and Emil Gottlieb (the Gottlieb’s had three other children who didn’t survive infancy), Gerda’s conservative background and her father’s role as vicar within the Catholic Church left her early years unfulfilled. No doubt using art as an escape from the mundane, her natural talents and capabilities were discovered at a young age and she soon sought out further academic training. At the age of 17, Gerda decided to move to Copenhagen in order to pursue her artistic aspirations and education at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. It was here that she met fellow artist Einar Wegener, who she went on to marry the following year.

Gerda’s time at The Royal Danish Academy was to prove incredibly beneficial to her, acting as a strong vaulting platform for this novice artist to begin her career.  In 1904, her work was included in the official exhibition of the Royal Danish Academy but following her graduation from The Academy in 1907, Gerda was at the centre of a controversy, dubbed the ‘Peasant Painter Dispute’, which played out in the Danish newspaper Politiken. The rejection for exhibition of Gerda’s portrait of Ellen von Kohl was the pawn in a feud between those who favoured Naturalism and Realism on one side, and those who advocated Symbolism, or the world of the emotions and imagination on the other. This was to be Gerda’s first encounter with controversy, but one which did her no harm, instead it brought wider critical attention to her work. In the following year, she went on to win a sketching contest organised by the same newspaper Politiken, with which she remained associated as a cartoonist.

 

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Gerda Wegener, Portrait of Ellen von Kohl, 1908 (image source: www.trineross.com)

 

Following an extended period of travel through Europe, Gerda and her husband relocated to Paris in 1912. Her success was almost immediate. She began working as an illustrator for various reputable fashion magazines such as Vogue, Journal des Dames et des Modes and La Vie Parisienne, to name a few. Her work in these publications appeared alongside other leading male Art Deco illustrators of the period, and with a near constant influx of commissions pouring in, Gerda soon became one of the leading illustrators of women’s fashion of her time.

 

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Gerda Wegener, Illustrations from Costumes Parisiens, 1914

 

While her works were being used for high fashion of the time, Gerda’s unique style and willing to explore themes of love and sex allowed her art to firmly establish itself as erotica. During her later career, her tasteful and elegant representations of female sexuality (then a subject still considered unacceptable for women to discuss), Gerda began to work as a painter and illustrator for various erotica volume publications. The art created for these volumes has since become highly sought after by collectors of the subject.

 

Gerda’s own interest in depictions of performance in art, and gender as performance, can be noted in some of her most popular and recognisable images. A favourite model of Gerda’s was famed for her trademark short hair and ‘haunting’ eyes, and was often painted oozing the captivating charm of a sophisticated, stylish woman. This is now known to be Lili Elbe. It came as a shock to most when it was discovered in 1913 that due to an absentee model, Einar Wegener donned a dress and a wig and proceeded to sit for his wife. This marked the beginning of Einar’s transition into a woman, a journey Gerda not only joined, but continued to be a friend, confidant and support system to Lili.

 

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Gerda Wegener, Portrait of Lili Elbe, watercolour, c. 1928 (image source: www.wellcomeimages.org)

 

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Gerda and Einar Wegener in front of Gerda’s painting Sur la route d’Anacapri, while it was on display in 1924 (image source: www.telegraph.co.uk)

 

The relocation to Paris enabled Lili to live openly as a woman, where Gerda would often introduce her as Einar’s sister. Once the news had broken that Gerda’s paintings of the high-brow, stylish and wealthy women of Paris were actually depictions of a man; her art works took a more risqué and sexualised turn. Her images of nude women in suggestive poses were exhibited in controversial exhibitions at the time and occasionally caused public outcry due to their sexual theme. Gerda thrived on this recognition. She was a popular artist, threw wild parties, and was known in both France and Denmark.

 

Selection of Erotic Images by Gerda Wegener
(image source: wikimedia.org)

 

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The 1930s was the decade during which Gerda’s life grew steadily sadder. Her marriage was not recognised by the law or the church once Lili had legally become a woman and it was declared null and void by the King of Denmark in 1930. Gerda’s life was once more struck by tragedy when Lili died the following year due to complications from a uterine transplant, a highly experimental surgery at the time. After the death of ‘her little lily’, Gerda married Italian Major Fernando Porta who was ten years her junior. The couple moved to Morocco where she continued to create and paint but her rocky marriage, coupled with her husband defrauding her of her money concluded in her return to Denmark in 1938.

A final exhibition in 1939 proved that Gerda’s art had fallen out of style and was no longer popular or ground-breaking. Becoming something of a recluse once she was back in Europe, Gerda was reduced to finding an income selling handmade postcards. She died penniless and alone in 1940, with a small estate that was auctioned off and a small obituary printed in a local paper acting solely as her commemoration.

Selected Recommended Reading:

Christensen, I., ‘Early 20th-Century Danish Women Artists in Light of De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, Women’s Art Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring-Summer 1988, pp.10-15

Ebershoff, D. The Danish Girl, US: Viking Press, 2000

Karberg, A. R., ‘When a Woman paints Women’, in Gerda Wegener, Exhibition Catalogue, edited by Andrea Rygg Karberg, Arken Museum of Modern Art, 2015, pp.13-41

Russell, H. ‘Gerda Wegener: ‘The Lady Gaga of the 1920s’, 2015, The Guardian