The painter and illustrator Gerda Wegener aroused a furore in Denmark, but was fêted in Paris because of her sophisticated line and her elegant portraits of women. In November ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
in Copenhagen presents the biggest exhibition so far of works by the pioneering artist whose life and works strike a chord in our own time.
Gerda Wegener (1885-1940) was a woman ahead of her time. It was not evident that this ministers daughter from eastern Jutland would become Denmarks foremost exponent of Art Deco and one of the most colourful personalities of her time. Paris was to be the city where she and her husband, the landscape painter Einar Wegener (1882-1931), unfolded their artistic careers. There they lived a fashionable life, enabled to a great extent by Gerdas success as a portrait painter and an illustrator for the leading fashion magazines. Decadent, frivolous Paris also made it possible for them to live out their controversial love affair in which playing with gender and identities became the central focus.
A tale of metamorphosis
La Vie Parisienne, La Baïonnette and Le Rire Gerda Wegeners technically superb and sometimes daring drawings could be found in the leading French periodicals of the time, and often it was her spouse Einar who posed for her. Einar Wegener was a transgender person long before the word was generally known, and the depictions of Einar either as a man or in the figure of the woman Lili are quite central to Gerda Wegeners oeuvre. Gerda Wegener idealized Lilis tall, elegant figure, the gloved hands and the wistful face crowned by a succession of wigs. But outside the canvas too Einar dreamed of merging with his wifes depictions of Lili. He was unhappy in his male body and Gerda supported Lili in having the operations done that were to effect the physical transformation from man to woman, but ended in Lilis early death.
ARKENs exhibition is a tribute to a strong artist whose works and extraordinary life strike a chord in our own time. With almost 200 works the exhibition is the biggest ever of her work and one of the first at any art museum. While in Paris Gerda Wegener won great recognition and fame among other things three of her works were incorporated in the Louvres collection and are today at the Centre Pompidou she never achieved the same status in Denmark, because she was a woman, because she also expressed herself in commercial mass culture, and because her ambivalent sexuality and the story of her marriage were too difficult to relate to.
The exhibition at ARKEN emphasizes Gerda Wegeners artistic range and distinctiveness, and at the same time tells the story of a love between painter, muse and model across the traditional gender identities.
Major film about Gerda and Lili on the way
The turbulent story of Gerda Wegener and her transgender spouse, muse and model also forms the framework for the major film The Danish Girl. In the title role we see the Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne, and Gerda is played by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. The film will have its UK premiere 1 January 2016.
The exhibition about Gerda Wegener can be seen at ARKEN in the period 7 November 2015 to 16 May 2016.