Behind the Danish Girl: Gerda Wegener’s queer art

Warning: this article contains sexual images

Gerda Wegener may not be the focus of this year’s Oscar nominated film, The Danish Girl, but her life certainly has a touch of the cinematic. Wegener, the wife of fellow Danish artist Einar Wegener – who later became Lili Elbe, now well-known as one of the first people to undergo gender transition surgery – was a painter and illustrator who used art nouveau and art deco styles to depict her fashionable models. In her immersion in erotic female imagery we see it wasn’t just her partner who was challenging gender and sexuality.

For a woman who become a Parisian salon favourite, Wegener’s beginnings were surprisingly rural. She was born in Grenaa, Denmark in 1886 and had the typically conservative upbringing expected of a vicar’s daughter, until she left home as a teenager to study at the new women’s college of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. This was where she met not just Einar, but an array of other artists and performers who inspired her stylised, almost theatrical, paintings.

Gerda Wegener - Kettle Mag - Lucy Pegg

Portrait of Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener. Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons

Having fallen in love and married Einar, it was through Gerda’s work that Lili emerged. When Lili decided to have gender reassignment surgery, her and Gerda were forced to annul their marriage, as same sex marriages were of course illegal. As Lili embraced her new female life, the former partners grew apart, and Gerda may not have been aware of the final operation which ultimately killed Lili in 1931. In the same year Wegener remarried to Fernando Porta, an Italian officer, aviator and diplomat, though by 1936 this marriage also ended in divorce. Having lived with Porta in Morocco, Wegener then returned to Denmark in 1938, having continued to paint throughout her second marriage. Her style was now out of fashion and her 1939 exhibition was her last. Gerda Wegener died on July 28th 1940 in relative obscurity.

But Wegener’s art itself is as intriguing as the biography of its creator. Wegener’s work was both commercial and artistic; she enjoyed success producing illustrations for both fashionable and political magazines like Politiken and La Vie Parisienne, but she also created images for erotic literature and participated in important exhibitions, especially in Paris. Surprisingly for a female artist, she far out-earned her spouse, then still living as a man. Though Wegener is not as well-known now, she was celebrated in her life, winning medals at the 1925 World Fair in Paris in addition to her financial success.

All this success came despite Wegener’s radical depiction of women. In her art women could be objects of an erotic gaze, but with Wegener as artist the voyeur was female too. The women she painted were beautiful, often flirtatious and never plain. Her women were multifaceted, but they certainly weren’t ordinary either. Rygg Karberg, curator of a new Danish exhibition of Wegener’s work, told the Guardian that ‘throughout history, paintings of beautiful women were done by men… women were typically seen through the male gaze. But Gerda changed all that because she painted strong, beautiful women with admiration and identification – as conscious subjects rather than objects’. Rather than denying that women could be sexual creatures – both as viewer and the viewed – Wegener created a more complex relationship between the audience and the subject of her work, queering the traditional male gaze that was so reductive. In doing so, she foreshadowed the work of gender and queer theorists who would follow her decades later, particularly Laura Mulvey, who deconstructed the power of the male gaze in cinema, and Judith Butler, whose work investigates the performative nature of gender identities.

Gerda Wegeer - Kettle Mag - Lucy Pegg

Anagoria via Wikimedia Commons

Her favourite model was Lili and in painting a transgender woman, who was also Wegener’s partner, she continued to disrupt traditional ideas of sexuality. Lili took the place of a cissexual model without comment from the paintings; without knowing Gerda and Lili’s biography the viewer would not be aware of Lili’s gender identity, suggesting an acceptance of transgender identities that many struggle with today, let alone in the early 20th century. This wasn’t the only supposed “deviancy” Wegener portrayed; her erotica shows women pleasuring each other and themselves, as well as depicting interracial sex. Her work indulges in performance and often has a touch of the mystical, as though Wegener has created a make-believe space in her art where women can indulge in forms of sexual expression not allowed by polite society.

Like so many women and queer people, Gerda Wegener seems to have been written out of history. But her work speaks to today’s sexualised world as much as it does to the bohemian European environment in which it was created, and its freedom and playfulness can inform vital modern conversations.