Gerda Wegener and husband Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe
Gerda Wegener: The Lady Gaga of the 1920s
The Danish Girl tells the story of the painter Einar Wegener, who had the world’s first gender-reassignment surgery and became Lili Elbe.
But his wife Gerda had a fascinating life and career of her own.
by Helen Russell, The Guardian News
Eddie Redmayne is already being Oscar-tipped for his latest role in Tom Hooper’s biopic, The Danish Girl - the story of the painter Einar Wegener, who underwent the world’s first gender-reassignment operation to become Lili Elbe. But there was another woman behind Einar and Lili.
In The Danish Girl [film], Wegener’s wife, Gerda, a talented artist, is played by 26-year-old Swede Alicia Vikander, who very nearly steals the show as her partner’s devoted supporter.
In real life, the story is not dissimilar.
Gerda married Einar in 1904 and went on to become the nation’s most prominent exponent of Art Déco*, pioneering the bending of gender boundaries and rethinking the female gaze.
"I like to think of her as the Lady Gaga of the 1920s", says art historian Andrea Rygg Karberg, who has curated a new exhibition of Gerda’s work in Copenhagen.
"Gerda was a pioneer who spent two decades as part of the Parisian art scene and revolutionised the way women are portrayed in art".
In short, Gerda Wegener was A Big Deal.
"Throughout history, paintings of beautiful women were done by men", says Rygg Karberg. "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".
Gerda Gottlieb (1886-1940) was born in the coastal town of Grenaa, rural Jutland.
Despite a conservative upbringing as vicar’s daughter, she somehow persuaded her family to let her leave home for Copenhagen as a teenager to study at the newly opened women’s college of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
There she met Einar Wegener, a student at the adjoining college, and married him when she was just 19.
Living among artists, actors and dancers in Denmark’s capital, Gerda was inspired by the idea of performance and painted stylised, long-limbed, made-up figures who looked active rather than passive, as if challenging the viewer.
Gerda became interested in gender as a performance - long before philosopher Judith Butler - and in 1904, when one of her models failed to turn up for a sitting, she asked her husband to pose instead.
The Danish girl [Film] - Einar Wegener posed for Gerda Wegener
He agreed, adopting the alter ego of "Lili", who soon became Gerda’s favourite model. Lili started to dominate Einar’s life, too, and he eventually identified as male-to-female transgender. When Gerda’s paintings and drawings began to sell, the couple moved to Paris in 1912 and lived as two women in an artistic community.
"Gerda refused to be defined by her rural past or what she was born into or what society wanted", says Rygg Karberg, "just as Lili did. Both women created themselves from scratch".
Gerda was commissioned to produce illustrations for La Vie Parisienne, Le Rire and La Baïonnette, becoming hugely famous and considerably outearning her spouse. "What is more impressive is that she got ahead without trying to be more like the men to do it", says Rygg Karberg.
"She loved makeup and fashion, and didn’t see why embracing these traditionally feminine things should make her any less strong. She wanted it all".The other string to Gerda’s lyre was eroticism. Her playful nudes, including graphic illustrations for the memoirs of Casanova, were celebrated throughout liberal society for their groundbreaking ploy of depicting female sexual pleasure - "which isn’t something you see too much of in art!", says Rygg Karberg.
The culmination of her success was at the 1925 World’s fair in Paris*, the most important art exhibition of the era, where Gerda exhibited and won two gold medals* and one bronze for her work. But just as Gerda’s star was rising, her partner was struggling.
"Lili became a more and more integral part of [Einar’s] self-identification and life", explains Danish historian and transgender researcher Tobias Raun. At the end of the 1920s, Lili sought out opportunities for a surgical transition.
"As early as the 1910s, there were experiments with gender-modifying operations, not least in Germany, where Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin was established in 1919", says Raun. "It was there, and later in Dresden, that Lili had several operations performed".
By law, Gerda and Lili had to have their marriage annulled before gender reassignment surgery could take place (same-sex partnerships wouldn’t become legal in Denmark until 1989), but Gerda supported Lili and funded much of her surgery.
After her first operation, Lili gave herself a new surname, Elbe, and began to cut ties with her old life.
"She wanted to be reborn as a woman", says Rygg Karberg, "and she really wanted to be a mother. So Lili didn’t tell Gerda about the fifth operation" - believed to have been an attempt to create a working uterus - "that ultimately led to her death in 1931".Gerda remarried, but by the 1930s tastes had changed and she struggled to work at the same level.
"The art world was interested in pure, clean forms - the opposite of art deco", says Rygg Karberg, "so Gerda’s work fell out of fashion. Gerda’s second husband lost his job; she ended up back in Copenhagen and died in poverty in 1940, with no relatives and not many friends by the end of her life".
Buried alone at Solbjerg Park cemetery in Copenhagen, Gerda has rested in relative obscurity ever since. Until now.
"With the film interest in Lili and at a time where Caitlyn Jenner is an icon and Laverne Cox is a huge star on Orange is the New Black, it is worth remembering Gerda as another great pioneer of gender issues", says Rygg Karberg.The exhibition she is curating at Arken Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Danish women’s suffrage, is displaying almost 200 of Gerda’s works.
"Whereas many depictions of trans in art don’t give trans people a voice or agency, Gerda worked with Lili", says Raun. "It’s not just the artist in a position of power and the model with no power. Gerda’s work was about collaboration"."I think many strong women of our own time owe Gerda a debt of gratitude - artists such as Nan Goldin and Sarah Lucas, Vivienne Westwood and yes, even Lady Gaga", says Rygg Karberg. | © The Guardian News
Gerda Wegener and husband Einar Wegener /Lili Elbe
The Danish Girl è un film multi premiato del 2015 diretto da Tom Hooper, adattamento del romanzo La danese /The Danish Girl, scritto nel 2000 da David Ebershoff e liberamente ispirato alle vite dei pittori danesi Einar Wegener /Lili Elbe e Gerda Wegener.
Il film è stato presentato in concorso alla 72ª Mostra internazionale d'arte cinematografica di Venezia il 5 settembre 2015. In Italia è uscito il 18 febbraio 2016, con un incasso in Italia di oltre 4.000.000 di euro.
Il film The Danish Girl si concentra sulla storia del pittore Einar Mogens Andreas Wegener (1882-1931), che si sottopone -per la prima volta nella storia -ad un intervento chirurgico di riassegnazione di genere per diventare Lili Elbe.
Ma c'era un'altra donna dietro ad Einar e/o Lili, la moglie di Wegener, Gerda,-nata Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb (1886-1940)- l'artista Danese di origine francesi, che quasi ruba la scena come fedele sostenitore del suo partner.
Ma realmente, la storia è un'altra.
La ritrattista Gerda Wegener, sposata nel 1904 con il pittore paesaggista Einar Wegener, diventa l'esponente più importante dell'Art Déco* in Danimarca.
Per due decenni Gerda diventa parte della scena artistica parigina, rivoluzionando quel mondo fatto di donne ritratte attraverso lo sguardo maschile.
La Gerda cambiò tutto, ritraendo con ammirazione donne belle e forti - soggetti coscienti, piuttosto che oggetti.
Il culmine del successo arriva alla Fiera dell'Art Déco, nel 1925. a Parigi*, la più importante mostra d'arte del periodo, dove Gerda espone e vince due medaglie d'oro* ed una di bronzo.
Gerda Wegener, nasce nel 1886 (o forse nel 1885) in una famiglia francese emigrata in Danimarca nel XVIII sec. Cresciuta in provincia, Gerda si trasferisce nella capitale a Copenaghen per frequentare l'Accademia di Belle Arti nella quale conosce ed infine sposa Einar Wegener, che diverrà Lili Elbe.
Viaggia in Italia, Inghilterra e Francia, trasferendosi nel 1912 a Parigi, città che la fa esporre con notevole successo.
Collabora anche con riviste come Vogue, La Vie Parisienne, Fantasio, Rire, La Baïonnette.
Rientrata in Danimarca, continua a godere dei successi ottenuti in Francia, esponendo in più occasioni nella galleria Ole Haslunds di Copenaghen.
Nella sua carriera, pur poggiante su un innegabile talento, Gerda Wegener trova un notevole supporto nel suo matrimonio con Einar Wegener, un artista paesaggista a detta di molti di gran talento, che sacrifica la propria carriera per aiutarla, assumendo, in un iniziale gioco, il ruolo di sua modella preferita.
Un giorno Gerda chiede a Einar di posare per lei al posto di una modella donna, la ballerina Ulla, impegnata nelle prove di uno spettacolo; quasi per gioco l'uomo assume l'identità di Lili Elbe, il suo alter ego femminile.
Ma a un certo punto Einar, che prima si rivolge a medici che lo riconoscono schizofrenico e malato di mente sottoponendolo a cure anti-devianza, infine conosce un medico che lo aiuta a liberarsi del corpo nel quale non si riconosceva, sottoponendosi, primo caso al mondo, a un'operazione di cambio di genere nel 1930, mutando il proprio nome in quello di Lili Elbe.
Gerda Wegener, che lo aveva sempre sostenuto, rimane a fianco di Lili nonostante il Re di Danimarca nell'ottobre del 1930 dichiari nullo il loro matrimonio, finché Lili muore a seguito del rigetto causato dal tentativo di impianto dell'utero durante la quinta operazione di riassegnazione di genere.
Nel 1931 Gerda si risposa con Fernando Porta, un ufficiale italiano, col quale si trasferisce in Marocco, ove tenta, invano, di proseguire la sua carriera. I due divorziano nel 1936 e due anni dopo, nel 1938 Gerda torna in Danimarca esponendo per l'ultima volta, senza grande successo, nel 1939.
Muore nel luglio del 1940.
Lili Ilse Elvenes, better known as Lili Elbe (28 December 1882 - 13 September 1931) was born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener and was a successful landscape painter under that name.
Lili Ilse Elvenes, meglio conosciuto/a come Lili Elbe (28 dicembre 1882 - 13 Settembre 1931) è nato/a Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener ed è stato un pittore paesaggista di successo, conosciuto sotto questo nome.