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 libertiesit is an adaptation of David Ebershoff s 2000 novel of the same name that draws on, but also greatly fictionalizes, Lili Elbes 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 Wegeners art practice, while simultaneously saying little of Elbes (shorter-lived) career as a landscape painter with impressionist persuasions.
This exhibition, the largest-ever exhibition of Wegeners 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 Wegeners 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 Wegeners cannon.
Though perhaps too risqué for the conservative tastes of Copenhagen, Gerda Wegeners 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. Wegeners 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 Wegeners 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 dAutomne. 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 Lilis biography dovetails with their art practice. The majority of Wegeners 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 Wegeners 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, Wegeners 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 Wegeners 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 Venuswho, 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 Wegeners painting is characterized by effusive feminine sexuality.
Throughout her oeuvre, Wegener presents myriad subjectsmore often than not, women liberally immersed in lesbian erotic scenes. But what is perhaps more radical is Wegeners depictions of gender fluidity and gender-bendingthe practice of contorting received judgments about ones 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, Wegeners work runs counter to the received cisgender-heterosexual view. In broadening our horizons of expectation and self-judgement, Wegeners artradical even todayilluminates how, as Judith Butler notes, our life histories are histories of becoming, and categories can sometimes act to freeze that process of becoming. Specifically, Wegeners 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 couples marriage on the grounds that it could not have been consummated. Soon, Elbe passed away due to complications related to her surgeryindeed, 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.