|Gerda and Einar Wegener in front of Gerda's painting Sur la route d'Anacapri at an exhibition in 1924. |
Photograph: The Royal Library, Denmark
Gerda Wegener: 'The Lady Gaga of the 1920s'
The Danish Girl tells the story of the painter Einar Wegener, who had the world’s first gender-reassignment surgery and became Lili Elbe. But his wife Gerda had a fascinating life and career of her own
Monday 28 September 2015 18.58 BST
ddie Redmayne is already being Oscar-tipped for his latest role in Tom Hooper’s biopic, The Danish Girl – the story of the painter Einar Wegener, who underwent the world’s first gender-reassignment operation to become Lili Elbe. But there was another woman behind Einar and Lili.
In The Danish Girl, Wegener’s wife, Gerda, a talented artist, is played by 26-year-old Swede Alicia Vikander, who very nearly steals the show as her partner’s devoted supporter. In real life, the story is not dissimilar. Gerda married Einar in 1904 and went on to become the nation’s most prominent exponent of art deco, pioneering the bending of gender boundaries and rethinking the female gaze.
“I like to think of her as the Lady Gaga of the 1920s,” says art historian Andrea Rygg Karberg, who has curated a new exhibition of Gerda’s work in Copenhagen. “Gerda was a pioneer who spent two decades as part of the Parisian art scene and revolutionised the way women are portrayed in art.” In short, Gerda Wegener was A Big Deal. “Throughout history, paintings of beautiful women were done by men,” says Rygg Karberg. “Women were typically seen through the male gaze. But Gerda changed all that because she painted strong, beautiful women with admiration and identification – as conscious subjects rather than objects.”
|An illustration by Gerda Wegener in 1925|
Gerda Gottlieb was born in the coastal town of Grenaa, rural Jutland, in 1886. Despite a conservative upbringing as vicar’s daughter, she somehow persuaded her family to let her leave home for Copenhagen as a teenager to study at the newly opened women’s college of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. There she met Einar Wegener, a student at the adjoining college, and married him when she was just 19. Living among artists, actors and dancers in Denmark’s capital, Gerda was inspired by the idea of performance and painted stylised, long-limbed, made-up figures who looked active rather than passive, as if challenging the viewer.
Gerda became interested in gender as a performance – long before philosopher Judith Butler – and in 1904, when one of her models failed to turn up for a sitting, she asked her husband to pose instead. He agreed, adopting the alter ego of “Lili”, who soon became Gerda’s favourite model. Lili started to dominate Einar’s life, too, and he eventually identified as male-to-female transgender. When Gerda’s paintings and drawings began to sell, the couple moved to Paris in 1912 and lived as two women in an artistic community.
“Gerda refused to be defined by her rural past or what she was born into or what society wanted,” says Rygg Karberg, “just as Lili did. Both women created themselves from scratch.” Gerda was commissioned to produce illustrations for La Vie Parisienne, Le Rire and La Baïonnette, becoming hugely famous and considerably outearning her spouse. “What is more impressive is that she got ahead without trying to be more like the men to do it,” says Rygg Karberg. “She loved makeup and fashion, and didn’t see why embracing these traditionally feminine things should make her any less strong. She wanted it all.” The other string to Gerda’s lyre was eroticism. Her playful nudes, including graphic illustrations for the memoirs of Casanova, were celebrated throughout liberal society for their groundbreaking ploy of depicting female sexual pleasure – “which isn’t something you see too much of in art!”, says Rygg Karberg.
The culmination of her success was at the 1925 World’s fair in Paris, the most important art exhibition of the era, where Gerda exhibited and won two gold medals and one bronze for her work. But just as Gerda’s star was rising, her partner was struggling.
“Lili became a more and more integral part of [Einar’s] self-identification and life,” explains Danish historian and transgender researcher Tobias Raun. At the end of the 1920s, Lili sought out opportunities for a surgical transition. “As early as the 1910s, there were experiments with gender-modifying operations, not least in Germany, where Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin was established in 1919,” says Raun. “It was there, and later in Dresden, that Lili had several operations performed.”
By law, Gerda and Lili had to have their marriage annulled before gender reassignment surgery could take place (same-sex partnerships wouldn’t become legal in Denmark until 1989), but Gerda supported Lili and funded much of her surgery. After her first operation, Lili gave herself a new surname, Elbe, and began to cut ties with her old life. “She wanted to be reborn as a woman,” says Rygg Karberg, “and she really wanted to be a mother. So Lili didn’t tell Gerda about the fifth operation” – believed to have been an attempt to create a working uterus – “that ultimately led to her death in 1931.”
|Ulla Poulsen in the ballet Chopiniana by Gerda Wegener in 1927.|
Gerda remarried, but by the 1930s tastes had changed and she struggled to work at the same level. “The art world was interested in pure, clean forms – the opposite of art deco,” says Rygg Karberg, “so Gerda’s work fell out of fashion. Gerda’s second husband lost his job; she ended up back in Copenhagen and died in poverty in 1940, with no relatives and not many friends by the end of her life.”
Buried alone at Solbjerg Park cemetery in Copenhagen, Gerda has rested in relative obscurity ever since. Until now. “With the film interest in Lili and at a time where Caitlyn Jenner is an icon and Laverne Cox is a huge star on Orange is the New Black, it is worth remembering Gerda as another great pioneer of gender issues,” says Rygg Karberg. The exhibition she is curating at Arken Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Danish women’s suffrage, is displaying almost 200 of Gerda’s works.
“Whereas many depictions of trans in art don’t give trans people a voice or agency, Gerda worked with Lili,” says Raun. “It’s not just the artist in a position of power and the model with no power. Gerda’s work was about collaboration.”
“I think many strong women of our own time owe Gerda a debt of gratitude – artists such as Nan Goldin and Sarah Lucas, Vivienne Westwood and yes, even Lady Gaga,” says Rygg Karberg.
The Gerda Wegener exhibition is at Arken from November until May 2016. “After that, I hope we can take Gerda’s work and her inspiring story to the US and the UK,” says Rygg Karberg.
Gerda Wegener / 'The Lady Gaga of the 1920s'
Gerda Weneger / Women
The Danish Girl puts Gerda Wegener’s art on view to the world