Two larger-than-life-size vinyl photographs mark the beginning of this exhibition of works by the Danish painter Gerda Wegener, who died in 1940. The first is a portrait of the artist, taken by her husband Einar. In it, we can see him reflected in the mirror that the couple faces. The second image, taken by Wegener herself, is an intimate portrait of her husband’s other ‘self’ – the trans woman Lili Elbe. Einar was one of the world’s first patients to undergo gender modification surgery in 1930.
Coming nearly 80 years after Wegener’s death (and 20 years since her last major show), this exhibition at Arken Museum of Modern Art feels both long overdue and extremely timely. With Tom Hooper’s 2015 film The Danish Girl (based on the Wegeners’ lives) receiving an Oscar nomination, the couple’s story and, by association, Gerda’s work have garnered public interest. Arriving at the museum, I was wary of the tendency to chart Wegener’s posthumous reputation and work through the life of her spouse. Certainly, the fluidity with which she approached Einar/Lili as a lover, friend, partner and muse transcended any heteronormative ideals, making for a capacious love story, ripe for Hollywood. But I hoped that the exhibition would not prioritize that narrative over Wegener’s artistic output.
My concerns proved unfounded. The exhibition includes almost 200 works, dating from the 1900s to the 1930s, making it Wegener’s largest to date, demonstrating the extent and range of her work. Throughout her career, Wegener consistently muddied the divisions between fine art and popular culture. Working as a painter, illustrator and cartoonist, she created a formal language that incorporated elements of art nouveau and art deco along with a particularly erotic sensibility. The consistency of her distinctive style allowed her to move freely between media while remaining true to her core interest: exploring the boundaries of gender and sexual identity.
The mid-1900s brought Wegener early recognition in Denmark. In 1907, her Portrait of Ellen von Kohl sparked the Peasant Painter Feud: a national debate enacted in the pages of the Danish newspaper Politiken over ‘distasteful’ paintings of excess, at a time when the penchant for realism favoured representations of ‘ordinary people in the countryside’. The debate saw Wegener’s work rejected by the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art, as well as Den Frie, the gallery founded by the Association of Danish Artists. Nevertheless, in 1908 Wegener entered, and won, a competition to draw ‘Copenhagen Woman’ for Politiken, after which she joined their staff as a regular contributor and established herself as a capable cartoonist. Though perhaps too risqué for the conservative tastes of Copenhagen, her paintings and illustrations of this time attracted commentators and collectors in Paris, where they welcomed her salacious style.
In 1912, the Wegeners relocated to Paris where Gerda worked for numerous magazines and journals. Her output included paintings, illustrations and advertisements featuring modern women, anti-German satire and morale-boosting depictions of French troops, as well as erotic illustrations of uninhibited lesbian pleasure and sexual encounters between ambiguously gendered individuals. The majority of Wegener’s works express a charged, seductive attitude. Yes, she painted the typical female types of the modern city – dancers, actresses, garçonnes and bohemians, often including Lili and their friends as models – but she reflected their desires by appropriating the ‘feminine’ codes of the time in order to subvert them. Works such as At the Mirror (1931–36) and Queen of Hearts (1928) depict their female subjects as emancipated and erotically self-assured: not merely the objects of desire, but possessing desires of their own.
Her unblushing portraits reflect her ambivalence toward the confines of gender norms, a paradigm that she continually challenged. The viewer is always latently present in her work – her models display an almost confrontational exhibitionism that oscillates between extremes of masquerade and disguise. They are seemingly both aware and unaware of our presence, inviting and dismissive. Her style is mannered yet debauched, poised between elegant enlightenment and decadent nausea.
Wegener’s works depict ‘woman’ as performatively constituted and gender itself as mutable. What is refreshing about her output is not just the incontestable fact that it defied societal limits, but that it reinvented the grammar of representing women. Though the exhibition does, at times, fall foul of prioritizing the sensational subject of Einar/Lili, it still manages to reveal the deftness and sensitivity of Wegener’s work and, in doing so, makes a real claim for her historical and contemporary significance.