The artist I am looking at today was unknown to me. The more I read about her the more I realise I should have been aware of her especially after the recent publicity. Howeve,r so that I am not cast alone as the “unknowledgeable one” I wonder how many of you have heard of Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb. Well, have you? I am not going to totally give away why you, like me, should have known her until a little later in the blog. Today’s blog is not just about her but also about her first husband Einar Wegener.
Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb was born on March 15th 1886 in the small rural town of Hammelev in the eastern part of central Jutland. She was the daughter of Emil Gottlieb, a clergyman in the Catholic Church and Justine Gottlieb (née Osterberg). Although she had three other siblings they all died before adulthood. Life as the daughter of a clergyman was a very conservative one. Probably, because of her father’s profession, the family moved around the country. Whilst still a child the family moved the short distance south from Hammelev to the coastal town of Grenaa and later to the central Jutland town of Hobro.
Gerda showed a love of art and an unusual artistic talent at a young age and began to receive some local artistic training. In 1903, when she was seventeen years of age, and had completed her schooling, she managed, after a lot of cajoling, to have her parents agree to allow her to carry on with her art studies and enrol at the newly opened women’s college at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Gerda proved to be a very talented student and in 1904 some of her work was exhibited in the Kunsthal Charlottenborg which is the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art. It was at this artistic academy that fate was going to change her life for it was here that she met and fell in love with a fellow Academy student Einar Wegener.
Einar Mogens Andreas Wegener was born a male (important to note!) on December 28th 1882 in the small Danish town, Vejle, which is situated in the southeast of the Jutland Peninsula and lies at the head of Vejle Fjord. He was the youngest of four children. By all accounts Einar was a precocious child who, like Gerda, showed an early artistic talent. He trained as a painter at the Vejle Technical School, and on graduating in 1902 enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen.
In his own works Einar Wegener often painted landscapes from the place where he came from, and later scenes from the countryside in France. Einar Wegener received Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes Efteraarsudstilling (the Artists Fall Exhibition), Vejle Art Museum and in the Saloon and Salon d’Automme in Paris . These two aspiring young artists would often paint together although their interest in art differed.
Einar liked to paint landscapes whereas Gerda preferred illustrative work, the type she would have seen in fashion magazines. Her main influences derived from her love of French eighteenth century Rococo art depicting well dressed women in luxurious and colourful clothes painted by the great French artists of that time such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, Francois Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Having a love of illustrative work she also admired the work of a contemporary of hers, the British Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley
Beardsley, a major figure in Aestheticism and Art Nouveau, was influenced by the pre-Raphaelite painter and illustrator, Edward Burne-Jones and the woodcuts of the Ukiyo-e movement in Japanese art. He had a distinctive style contrasting the subtle use of line with bold masses of black. Many of his illustrations were classed as decadent and as an author he wrote an erotic novel, Under the Hill, and illustrated it with pornographic pictures.
Gerda Weneger had a refined and decadent character style, inspired by the English illustrator and her paintings split the views of the critic and public, some of who were excited with her work whilst it offended others, believing it to be simply pornographic. However in a lot of her erotic work Wegener often ensured that the ladies depicted had a disarming and somewhat enchanting twinkle in their eyes which countered the possible pornographic nature of the work. There is a distinct sense of fun and joie de vivre in Wegener’s work.
Gerda now lived in a bohemian area of Copenhagen populated by actors and dancers as well as artists her early works often depicted long-limbed heavily made-up, colourfully dressed exuberant females who were full of joie de vivre rather than art’s normal depictions of somewhat lifeless women. In some way this could have been her challenge to the art establishment’s depiction of women, even challenging society’s concepts of women and challenge the standards of the time. Her book and magazine illustrations included ones which focused on high fashion and which were acceptable and loved by the public but she also produced illustrations featuring lesbianism and erotica which were often frowned upon my many parts of society. There was a belief that Gerda herself was a lesbian.
Although I had never heard of Gerda and Einar Wegener they have become well-known not for their art but his sexuality which was brought to life in the 2016 biographical romantic film, The Danish Girl, which was based on the fictional book, of the same name, written in 2000 by David Ebershoff. The book and the film also derived their information from a 1931 book about Einar. The biography of Einar Wegener (Lili Elbe) was published in Denmark in 1931 under the title Fra mand til kvinde (From Man to Woman). This was actually an autobiography edited by Niels Hoyer (real name Ernst Ludwig Hathom Jacobson) who had put together many manuscripts and letters after Lili’s death. So when did the problematic sexuality of Einar first surface? The Danish Girl film and book probably over simplified the beginnings of Einar’s doubt about his own sexuality but they refer to the day when he was asked to pose for his wife. He described the occasion:
“…About this time Grete painted the portrait of the then popular actress in Copenhagen, Anna Larsen. One day Anna was unable to attend the appointed sitting. On the telephone she asked Grete, who was somewhat vexed: ‘Cannot Andreas pose as a model for the lower part of the picture? His legs and feet are as pretty as mine…”
Einar was very reluctant but Gerda finally persuaded him. When Anna turned up unexpectedly at their studio she was very impressed with Einar’s portrayal of her and nicknamed him Lili. On seeing (Einar, whose middle name was Andreas), she reportedly said:
“…You know, Andreas, you were certainly a girl in a former existence, or else Nature has made a mistake with you this time…”
Gerda was so pleased with Einar as a female model she persuaded him to model for her on a number of future occasions. Wegener’s fashion industry paintings featured beautiful women dressed in chic attire, one of the most popular of which was a captivating lady with a stylish short bob, full lips, and haunting almond-shaped brown eyes. Who would have believed that this exquisite beauty was her husband, Einar, who posed as her fashion model while donning women’s clothing. It was through these experiences that her husband Einar came to realize his true gender identity and began living his life as a woman. Einar’s sexuality became even more complicated when he and Gerda would go to parties as two females and often Gerda would introduce Lili Elba as Einar’s sister.
Gerda and Einar married in 1905 whilst they were still students at the Academy. She was nineteen and he was twenty-two.
In 1907, Gerda completed a portrait entitled Portrait of Ellen von Kohl but although as we look at it now you will be surprised to know it caused quite a controversy and sparked the Peasant Painter Feud which was a national debate covered in the pages of the Danish newspaper Politiken. It was all about ‘distasteful’ paintings of excess, (the smouldering look of Ellen von Kohl was seen as being too lascivious!) for the favoured norm at the time was for realism favoured representations of ‘ordinary people in the countryside’. The debate became so heated that the portrait was rejected by both the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, which was the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art, and also the Den Frie gallery, which was founded by the Association of Danish Artists, in protest against the admission requirements for the Kunsthal Charlottenborg.
Gerda completed her art course at the Academy in 1907 and once again fate was going to play a part in her future as in 1908, soon after leaving the Academy she entered and won a drawing competition organised by the leading Danish broadsheet newspaper Politiken. It was competition to draw ‘Copenhagen Woman’. The newspaper was so pleased by her winning entry that they offered her a job as a regular contributor and soon she established herself as a capable cartoonist and illustrator. This was just the start of her career as the recognition launched her into the fashion magazine industry and soon she became a leading illustrator of women’s high fashion in the Art Deco style of the time
Although the bohemian quarter of Copenhagen, where the couple lived, had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards life, the pair eventually moved to the more liberal Paris and soon Gerda and Einar began to live as two women. In the French capital, Gerda was able to further her art career and, some would have us believe that she became a more active lesbian.
Besides posing as a woman for his wife’s paintings, Einar only dressed as Lili and was a tremendous hit on the bourgeois Parisian scene, with all its decadence, art, and sex. It soon became common knowledge that Lili and Einar were the same person but for Einar he had the satisfaction in knowing he would not be ridiculed.
Sadly for Einar simply dressing as a woman was not enough and he was suffering mental torment as Lili slowly took over his life. For him, Einar was slowly dying and Lili was taking control. Einar viewed himself as an artist but, as his alter-ego Lili, he viewed things very differently. He described Lili as:
“…thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman”, prone to fits of weeping and barely able to speak in front of powerful men…”
Life in Paris was good for Gerda who found success as a portrait painter, fashion illustrator and caricaturist and received many commissions for illustrations from La Vie Parisienne, a French weekly magazine founded in Paris in 1863, Le Rire, the successful humour magazine, La Baïonnette, the magazine which started a few years after Gerda and Einar moved to Paris, as well as the elite Journal des Dames et des Modes, a favourite of artists, intellectuals, and high society. Her success guaranteed a degree of fame and soon she was the primary breadwinner of the couple.
Andrea Rygg Karberg, art historian and curator at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Denmark has no doubt about the artistic ability of Gerda Wegener, saying:
“…Gerda was a pioneer who spent two decades as part of the Parisian art scene and revolutionised the way women are portrayed in art. 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…”
With her new lesbian lifestyle in the avant-garde French capital, Gerda Wegener’s art became considerably more racy and scandalous. In addition to her fashion world portraiture that was featured in many fashion magazines, Wegener completed paintings featuring nude women often depicted in erotic, some would say lewd, poses. These paintings were termed “lesbian erotica,” and were published in art books, the most notorious being the Adventures of Casanova. Some of these risqué paintings were exhibited publicly and the erotic nature and lesbian theme of the works often led to a public outcry. Far from being taken aback by such vociferous criticism of her work by sections of the public, Gerda revelled in the notoriety.
The phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity” may be correct as far as the sale of her work but for Gerda there was a price to pay. Christian X, the King of Denmark, became aware of Gerda’s marriage to Einar Wegener when he, Lili Elba, had legally become a woman, and so the king declared their marriage invalid in October 1930. Maybe the time had come to an end for Gerda and Einar’s marriage anyway but in 1930 following the annulment, the couple parted ways amicably.
Gerda Wegener following the end of her marriage to Einar married an Italian military officer, Major Fernando Porta, and the couple went to live in Morocco. She continued to paint and would sign her paintings as ‘Gerda Wegener Porta’. The marriage was not a happy one and did not last long with couple divorcing in 1936.
She returned to Denmark in 1938, but by then, her paintings and illustrations were no longer in demand and sadly Gerda just managed to eke out a meagre living by painting and selling postcards. She managed to exhibit her work one last time in 1939. She had no children and her latter years were spent alone in relative obscurity and with the loneliness came her reliance on alcohol. Gerda Wegener died on July 28th 1940 in Frederiksburg, Denmark aged 54, a few months after the German army marched into Denmark. She was buried alone at Solbjerg Park cemetery in Copenhagen.
Einar Wegener continually struggled with his sexuality and believed that Lili Elba was his true self. It was no longer enough to dress as a woman, he believed that the only way to be at peace with himself was to undergo revolutionary sex reassignment surgery and for that he had to travel to Germany. In 1930 he attended Dr Ludwig Levy-Lenz clinic in Berlin where he was castrated and had his penis surgically removed. The following year, 1931, he underwent further surgery, vaginoplasty, which was a procedure that results in the construction of the vagina. Sadly for Einar these surgical procedures were carried out at a time before antibiotics and he died in Dresden of an infection on September 13th 1931, aged 48.