Gerda Wegener lived from 1886 to 1940. After that she was long forgotten, but fairly recently she has been rediscovered. Now we see her as a talented and courageous illustrator, who helped define the avant garde style in Paris in the early twentieth century. But above all, she was a fearless and liberated woman who pioneered gender freedom and political activism.
Born Gerda Gottlieb, she grew up in the Danish countryside near the town of Grenå. She showed artistic talent at an early age and studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Here she met Einar Wegener whom they married in 1904. Einar was a talented artist who encouraged Gerda in her adventurous and unconventional work. At that time, realistic works were popular and therefore Gerda’s work was usually considered too modern.
Gerda, Einar and Lili
To escape conservatism, Gerda and Einar left for Italy. Later they traveled on to Paris where they settled. Einar liked to dress in women’s clothes. Thus, he created his alter ego Lili Elbe. Eventually that led to Einar becoming a male-to-female transgender. She underwent the first known sex-change operation in history in 1930, only to die a year later when the fledgling treatment failed. This history is the basis of David Ebershoffs’ novel, which was adapted into The Danish Girl (with Eddie Redmayne) in 2015.
Once in Paris, the couple immersed themselves in the Bohemian lifestyle of the time. They became friends with artists, dancers and gallery owners and were often seen at parties and dances, dressed in the latest fashions. Gerda’s colorful graphic style and attention to detail appealed to magazine editors of the time, and she easily found work as an illustrator for Vogue, La Vie Parisienne and other fashion magazines. During World War I, Gerda regularly produced work for patriotic posters.
She remained highly regarded throughout the 1920s; the French state purchased three of her paintings and she won two gold medals at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes for her book illustrations and stained glass.
Throughout this period, Einar/Lili had remained Gerda’s main muse and support, and when he died in 1931, she was devastated. Within a few months she married Fernando Porta, an Italian diplomat and aviator who was ten years younger, and moved with him to Morocco. She continued to paint and signed her paintings with Gerda Wegener Porta, but the marriage was not a success and they divorced in 1936. Gerda returned to Denmark in 1938 and held her last exhibition in Copenhagen in 1939, but by then her work was out of fashion and she died in relative obscurity.
Gerda Wegener’s art and her own sexuality were strongly connected. Sensual and sexual intimacy fascinated her. It has been suggested that Einar and Gerda both knew they were homosexual when they married and used their relationship as a cover, but it is much more likely that they discovered that they greatly enjoyed exploring the boundaries of sex together, both with each other and within libertine artistic Paris.
Below are some examples of Gerda Wegener’s work:
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