artist / participant
Each age has its pioneers who push the envelope. The Danish artist Gerda Wegener was one such. She was part of the artistic avant-garde in the Paris of the 1920s with her piquant works featuring women with crimson pouts and bedroom eyes. But Gerda Wegener’s own life was just as pioneering, not least her relationship with her husband and favourite model Einar, who underwent one of the first sex-change operations in world history. In a major exhibition in November, ARKEN takes a fresh look at Gerda Wegener’s life and works.
Ahead of her time
Gerda Wegener (1885-1940) was a woman ahead of her time. It was not in the cards that this minister’s daughter from eastern Jutland would become Denmark’s foremost exponent for Art Deco and one of the most colourful personalities of her time. Paris was to be the city where she and her husband, the painter Einar Wegener (1882-1931), unfolded their artistic careers. There they lived a fashionable life, enabled to a great extent by Gerda’s success as a portrait painter and illustrator for the glitzy 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 Wegener’s favourite subject was female figures. In powder-puff colours and sophisticated lines she portrayed long-limbed, graceful women, often suggestively intertwined. But first and foremost she painted her own husband dressed as his alter ego, the woman Lili Elbe. Gerda Wegener idealized Lili’s elegant figure, the gloved hands and the wistful face crowned by a succession of wigs. But outside the canvas too Einar dreamed of merging with his wife’s depictions of Lili. He was unhappy in his male body and Gerda supported her husband in having the operations done that were to effect the transformation from man to woman, but which shortened Lili Elbe’s life.
Woman seen through woman’s eyes
Through Gerda Wegener’s works ARKEN’s exhibition tells the unusual story of a love between painter and muse that transcends gender boundaries. Gerda Wegener’s perfumed feminine universe not only paints a picture of a period and a dramatic metamorphosis; central to the works too is the female gaze which admires other women with desire. In the light of the centenary of women’s suffrage ARKEN’s exhibition is a tribute to a powerful artist who has been as good as neglected in the Danish context, but whose works and extraordinary life strike a chord in our own time.
The story of Gerda Wegener’s transgendered husband, muse and model is also the setting for the major film The Danish Girl with Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne in the role of Lili Elbe.