Shin Gallery presents 'Gerda Wegener & Lili Elbe: The Powering of Portraiture'
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Shin Gallery presents 'Gerda Wegener & Lili Elbe: The Powering of Portraiture'
Gerda Wegener (Danish,1886 – 1940), Venus and Amor. Oil on canvas, 31¾ x 45¾ in. (81 x 116 cm.)

NEW YORK, NY.- Gerda Wegener (1886-1940) may be familiar to viewers from the 2015 bio-pic film, The Danish Girl, which is (quite) loosely inspired by the lives of Gerda Wegener and her partner (and fellow Danish painter), Lili Elbe (1882 – 1931). The 2015 film is, in fact, a romanticized narrative that takes great liberties—it is an adaptation of David Ebershoff ’s 2000 novel of the same name that draws on, but also greatly fictionalizes, Lili Elbe’s story as the first transgender woman to undergo gender affirmation surgery. Indeed, Ebershoff ’s novel draws from source material that it also takes liberties with, the original anchor being Lili Elbe's posthumously thatched-together autobiographical writings that were published in 1933, Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex. While The Danish Girl is a compelling film featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Alicia Vikander, its heterosexual Hollywood romance plot structure simplifies the non-normative narrative turbulence that Man into Woman presents. More importantly, the film eludes the complexity and breadth of Wegener’s art practice, while simultaneously saying little of Elbe’s (shorter-lived) career as a landscape painter with impressionist persuasions.

This exhibition, the largest-ever exhibition of Wegener’s paintings to date, attempts to remedy the fictionalized accounts found in the aforementioned accounts while simultaneously giving viewers a chance to directly experience Elbe and Wegener’s art first-hand. This exhibition avoids the tendency to chart Wegener's posthumous reputation and her work through the life of her spouse, Lili Elbe. Although it is notable that the fluidity with which Wegener approached Elbe as lover, friend, and muse informs her depictions of the early 20th century "modern women", poised contra heteronormative ideals, the exhibition does not prioritize this narrative over Wegener's output. Working as a painter, illustrator, and cartoonist, Wegener proffered a formal language incorporating elements of Art Nouveau and Art Deco alongside a uniquely erotic sensibility. This exhibition treks through a prolific number of works made between the 1900s to the 1930s, illuminating the breadth of Wegener’s cannon.
Though perhaps too risqué for the conservative tastes of Copenhagen, Gerda Wegener’s paintings and illustrations of this time attracted commentators and collectors in Paris, where they welcomed her salacious style. In 1912, Wegener and Elbe relocated to Paris where Gerda worked for numerous magazines and journals. Wegener found employment as a painter and fashion illustrator for magazines such as Vogue, La Vie Parisienne, and Fantasio. Wegener’s work was characteristically painted in Art Nouveau, Art Deco, or Renaissance-inspired styles, but also tinged by a modernist mode initially spurned by the Copenhagen art scene of the early 20th century. Wegener drew from manifold thematic sources, often displaying elegant women couples and friends donned in languorous poses performing various activities. As Wegener’s career progressed, she produced a number of portraits of women from the cast of the contemporaneous Parisian bourgeoisie, donning them in a characteristically decorative high-society style. Wegener exhibited many of these works in the salons of the capital, including the Salon des Humoristes, the Salon des Indépendants, and the Salon d’Automne. Her output included paintings, illustrations and advertisements featuring modern women, anti-German satire, and morale-boosting depictions of French troops, alongside erotic illustrations of uninhibited lesbian pleasure and sexual encounters between ambiguously gendered individuals. It is here that Gerda and Lili’s biography dovetails with their art practice. The majority of Wegener’s works, as evinced by the works exhibited in the exhibition, express a seductive attitude. The paintings are often of the archetypal female types of the modern Parisienne: dancers, actresses, garçonnes and bohemians. These paintings often use Lili Elbe and friends from their bohemian social circle as models. Many of the women are adorned in beady, glistening pearls and donned with gargantuan eyes, swooping Stygian eyelids and charcoal eyeshadow crowning heavily blushed cheeks. Elegant arms of cross in and out of one another, skirts are upturned and arching nude legs curve into beautiful bows.

What makes Wegener’s work radical is her active aesthetic engagement in disavowing the putative gender binary. This is evinced in many of her illustrations, cosmetic advertisements, and erotic drawings. Fashionably dressed at times and polished in recherché garb in others, Wegener’s scenographies include groups of nude women in gold-trim interiors crowned by serpentine-sloped cats or nature scenes with blossoming peach trees and verdant fauna. Often, these women are engaged in erotically-charged acts or merely coaxing one another, elegant sloped fingertips pooling from one hand onto a bare back. For instance, in Wegener’s Venus and Amor (c. 1920), we see a group of five figures, many of whom have austere faces donned in blush make-up and rouge. A muscle-chested and masculine-coded Cupid cradles a child, perhaps Venus—who, after all, is often portrayed throughout art history as the son of Venus, the love Goddess. Wegener here both appropriates the Venus and Cupid series famously painted by Renaissance masters like Bronzino, Sirani, and Lotto while infusing it with a soft, sensual androgyny. The eroticism is soft and subdued here; this is clearly not a standard Cupid scene, as Wegener’s painting is characterized by effusive feminine sexuality.

Throughout her oeuvre, Wegener presents myriad subjects—more often than not, women— liberally immersed in lesbian erotic scenes. But what is perhaps more radical is Wegener’s depictions of gender fluidity and “gender-bending”—the practice of contorting received judgments about one’s biological sex and, consequently, confronting the notion of static, genitalia-determinate sex as biological taxonomy. From cross-dressing and thereby instrumentalizing clothing and accessories, to mending traditionally masculine-coded poses and stances, to depicting bohemian life that challenges the predominant social/sexual norms, Wegener’s work runs counter to the received cisgender-heterosexual view. In broadening our horizons of expectation and self-judgement, Wegener’s art—radical even today—illuminates how, as Judith Butler notes, our “life histories are histories of becoming, and categories can sometimes act to freeze that process of becoming.” Specifically, Wegener’s works speak to the alliance of theatrical performance and discursive performativity, using femininity and sexuality as analytic tools to question what constitutes the performance of gender and sexuality.

In 1930, the Danish Court annulled the couple’s marriage on the grounds that it could not have been consummated. Soon, Elbe passed away due to complications related to her surgery—indeed, in 1930, Elbe had travelled to Germany for her surgery, performed by Erwin Gohrbandt, under the supervision of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin. The second operation had involved an implanted ovary into Elbe's abdominal musculature and a third operation removed her penis and scrotum; Elbe passed away in 1931 due to complications related to a fourth procedure that involved a uterus transplant, which Elbe's system rejected. In 1931, Gerda remarried an Italian officer and diplomat named Fernando Porta in Morocco, who quickly spent the entirety of her savings. She divorced him in 1936 and returned to Denmark in 1938. Wegener continued making art into mid-1930s, as evinced by the painting Moroccan Newlyweds (1931-34), on display in the show, though her productivity dissipated during the final few years of her life. In 1939, Wegener held her final exhibition. Unfortunately, Wegener's penchant for Art Nouveau had fallen out of style. Wegener died, near penniless, in 1940.

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