Gerda Wegener

Summary

Gerda Marie Fredrikke Wegener (née Gottlieb, 15 March 1886 Hammelev – 28 July 1940 Frederiksberg) was a Danish artist and painter who specialized in Art Nouveau and later Art Deco pictures of fashionably dressed women. Her first husband was Einar Wegener, who, during the couple”s marriage, began to dress in women”s clothes, identified as a woman and eventually underwent a process of gender reassignment. After the corrective surgery, her husband was renamed Lili Elbe in 1930. Danish law did not allow two women to marry, and the marriage was annulled in 1930.

Gerda Gottlieb was born near the town of Grenaa in Denmark. Her parents were Justine (née Østerberg) and Emil Gottlieb. Her father was the vicar of a Lutheran parish. Gerda”s father was a descendant of Huguenots, and her family was conservative. There were originally three children in the family, but only Gerda lived to adulthood. Gerda proved to have artistic talent from an early age. The family first moved to Hobro, and later Gerda persuaded her family to allow her to move alone to Copenhagen, where she began her studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

While studying at the Academy of Fine Arts, Gerda met Einar Wegener and the couple fell in love. They married in 1904, when Gerda was 19 and Einar 22. Gerda Wegener worked as an illustrator for books and fashion magazines such as Vogue and La Vie Parisienne, while Einar concentrated on landscape painting. Gerda graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in 1907, and in 1908 she was awarded a prize in an art competition organised by Politiken magazine. She was then unwittingly at the centre of controversy when a portrait of Ellen von Kohl, which she had painted, was not accepted for exhibition because of its style.

He painted stylized, long-legged and well-dressed female figures who, in the style of the time, did not appear passive but rather active, challenging the viewer. In 2015-2016, the Arken Art Museum organised a major exhibition of Gerda Wegener”s work, curated by art historian Andrea Rygg Karberg. According to Rygg Karberg, Gerda Wegener was a pioneer who revolutionised the way women are portrayed in art. Throughout the ages, images of beautiful women have been painted by men, with women typically seen through the eyes of men. But Gerda changed this, painting images of beautiful and powerful women with both admiration and identification, giving them the status of conscious agent rather than object.

In Copenhagen, Gerda lived surrounded by artists, actors and dancers, and was inspired by performance as an idea. Gerda also began to approach sex as performance, long before the philosopher Judith Butler, when in 1904 she was painting a painting and the model did not turn up: she asked her husband Einar to sit as a model instead of the original one. At first Einar resisted, but in his own words, the feel of the women”s clothes was very pleasant, he felt at home in them, and they helped him to find the woman he always felt he really was. Einar began to develop into “Lili”, and became Gerda”s favourite model, but at the same time Einar began to recede from Lili”s life, her husband began to live the life of a woman. The couple moved to Paris in 1912, when Gerda”s paintings and drawings began to sell. They lived as women in a local artists” commune. Gerda became a sought-after and well-known illustrator, and soon earned considerably more than her husband.

Gerda”s own sexual orientation was not so set in stone, and her husband”s change was also difficult for people to accept, at least in Denmark. All in all, Gerda Wegener broke the barriers of both gender and sexual identity. Some of Wegener”s drawings are erotic, and in these pictures women also indulge in sexual pleasures with each other. Gerda”s work included illustrations for Casanova”s memoirs. The nudes are playful and groundbreaking: they depict female sexual pleasure, something that had rarely been seen in art. In tolerant circles, the images were welcomed.

In 1925, the World”s Fair was held in Paris (French. Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes), where Gerda was very successful: she won two gold and one bronze prize. At the same time, however, her husband was having a hard time: Lili was taking up more and more of his time, Einar remained in the shadows. But in the 1920s, “Lili” heard about the possibility of correcting her gender permanently. Gerda constantly supported her spouse and also largely financed Einar”s transformation into Lili. Lili travelled to Germany to undergo surgery at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin. The sex reassignment procedure involved a series of very risky operations, but Lili went ahead with the procedure anyway. The first operation was performed at the clinic in 1930 and three further operations at the Women”s Hospital in Dresden in 1930 and 1931. Einar officially changed his name to Lili Elbe when the operations were completed and he had become a woman.

Gerda Wegener achieved great popularity in Paris, partly because of her outrageous, sexually explicit images. At the height of her popularity, Gerda threw lavish and extravagant parties, not content to keep a low profile. This is how King Christian X became aware that the Wegeners – two women – were married to each other. As marriage between two women was not possible under Danish law, the King annulled the marriage in 1930. Lili died of a heart attack on 13 September 1931, shortly after recovering from her last operation in Dresden.

Einarin

Arken, the Danish Museum of Contemporary Art, organised an exhibition of Wegener”s work from November 2015 to May 2016. Almost 200 works by artists were on display. Arken was celebrating the 100th anniversary of women”s suffrage in Denmark.

Ernst Ludwig Harthern-Jacobson wrote the story of Lil under the pen name Niels Hoyer. The book Fra Mand til Kvinde was compiled from Elbe”s diaries as Elbe had wished, and was published in 1933. In 2000, David Ebershoff wrote Einar”s

Sources

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  2. Gerda Wegener