Sexuality, representation, and Gerda Wegener



CW: Discussion of sexual imagery.

When discussing the fluidity of sexuality and gender in art, it should be mandatory to mention Gerda Wegener. Famous for her marriage to the first trans woman to medically transition, Lili Elbe, her paintings and illustrations show sex, femininity, and queerness at its most lighthearted and fun. Originally Danish, the painter and illustrator made most of her popular work after settling in Paris, working under many fashion magazines and being praised later on for her modern, decadent characters and eye for design.


The Danish Girl(s)

Personally I, like many others, originally found out about her from the book the Danish Girl. The book, written by David Ebershoff and published by the Viking Press in 2000, was fundamental in my journey of self-discovery. I remember first leafing through it, re-reading the first chapters to experience the pleasure of discovery and love, never tiring of Gerda's patience and unwavering support. The concept of a love that defies gender and is as fluid as sexuality itself is very powerful. Never has the quote “Every Portrait is like a love affair” by Maggi Hambling been more appropriate than to describe Gerdas portraits of Lili.


Gerda often painted Lili with wet bright eyes, looking over at the viewer with a sensuous gaze, adorned with jewelry, feathers, and fans. Her work shows an undying commitment to femininity, and she famously said , “Woman must unleash her womanly instincts and qualities, play on her feminine charm, and win the competition with man by virtue of her womanliness – never by trying to imitate him.”


Much speculation has been made about Gerda's sexuality, and it is often said that her portrayal of the female body is not only charged with empathy and admiration, but with a clear lust as well. Her collection of erotic illustrations, “Les délassements de l’Éros: douze sonnets lascifs”, were drawn partly from her incredible imagination, and suggests personal experience. These works accompany a series of sonnets, the most explicit works from writer Louis Perceau, but were not originally made for that purpose. They were packaged together, as there was not enough demand for the prints on their own.


Satyrs, feathers, dresses, oh my.

The prints depict mostly nymph-like women in watercolor, either completely nude or in luxurious, rococo reminiscent dresses. The thin delicate lines and bright colors make the drawings light and whimsical instead of charged, as other erotic illustrations of the time were. All figures have an androgyny to them, and the explicit nature of the art gets lost in the sheer happiness portrayed.


There are many lesbian relationships depicted in this collection, and they all have an air of lascivious love to them. The carnival imagery is consistent, with masks and costumes being either used or spread across the floor around the nude figures. It is said that the model for most of her female figures was her trans spouse , as Lilis' life as a woman was initially explored within the safe space of Gerda's gender-defying art.


That collection was extremely successful, and Gerda was commissioned to produce another series of illustrations. They would be presented in Casanovas memoir, under the name “Une aventure d’amour à Venise”. The paintings in this collection differ from the previous ones, as they are more complex and are more reminiscent of her painting style than her illustrative one. The focus is on color and shape and less on line-work; not all of the paintings are sexual. They also include more figures, instead of the one to three that were the norm in Les délassements. Instead of the mostly nude figures, "Une aventure d’amour" shows half-dressed characters, lounging and kissing in expensive royal rooms instead of the clearings and intimate beds previously seen. The trend of the fluidity of female sexuality remains, with two female characters being shown kissing and having sex.


Gerda and the absence of representation

There are other collections, "Les contes de La Fontaine", "Sur talons rouges", and "Fortunio", produced from 1928 to 1934. Through her modern, beautiful style, Gerda produced an extensive portfolio of complex, colorful illustrations. Unfortunately, due to her marriage and her link to the queer community, the painter died in relative obscurity and had none of her work purchased by her country. It is important to note the unfortunate lack of detail we have about this woman's life. There are nearly no first-person records of her relationship with her spouse and with her work.


There is a need to discuss, share and celebrate the work of queer artists and any figure that celebrates female sexuality and liberation. There is, to this day, a simulated absence of these discussions in pop culture. The truth is, these discussions exist. Work depicting happy queer people and female sexuality is very much present. What is lacking is the broadcasting of this art, which is usually buried and censored. Hopefully, our community will unearth these artists that have gone through this journey before us.