Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb (15 March 1886 – 28 July 1940) was a Danish fine-artist, illustrator and painter best known for erotica. Her artwork largely contains images of fashionable women in the style of art nouveau and later art deco.
She met fellow artist Einar Wegener (later Lili Elbe) (1882–1931) at art school. They married in 1904, when Gerda was 18 and Einar was 22.They traveled through Italy and France, eventually settling in Paris in 1912. The couple immersed themselves in the Bohemian lifestyle of the time, befriending many artists, dancers and other figures from the artistic world. The couple would often attend carnivals and other public festivals.
At the time, many considered Einar to be the more talented artist, but he toned down his own work and profile to help his wife in her artistic endeavors. Einar posed for Gerda in women’s clothes one day, filling in for an absentee model. She asked him to wear stockings and heels so his legs could substitute for those of the model, and soon he adopted the persona of “Lili Elbe”, after finding he felt surprisingly comfortable in the clothing.
Lili became Gerda’s favorite model, and over time, Gerda became famous for her paintings of beautiful women with haunting almond-shaped eyes dressed in chic fashions. In 1913, the art world was shocked when they learned that the model who had inspired Gerda’s depictions of petite femmes fatales was in fact her husband Einar.
Einar eventually identified as a male-to-female transgender woman. She had the first publicly known sex reassignment surgery in history in 1930 after years of living life solely as Lili Elbe. When out in public Gottlieb introduced Elbe as Einar Wegener’s sister when she was dressed in female attire. Since they were no longer man and wife, the Wegeners’ marriage was declared null and void in October 1930 by Christian X, the King of Denmark at that time. Lili died in 1931 from complications of surgery.
In 1931, Gerda, after being devastated from the death of Lili, married the Italian officer, aviator and diplomat Major Fernando Porta, who was born in 1896 and ten years her junior, and moved with him to Morocco (specifically Marrakech and Casablanca). She continued to create art during this period, signing her paintings as ‘Gerda Wegener Porta’. She divorced Porta in 1936 after a rocky marriage, with Porta swindling her funds, and returned to Denmark in 1938. She held her last exhibition in 1939, but by this time her artwork was out of style. She had no children and lived alone in relative obscurity and began to drink heavily. She kept an income by selling hand-painted postcards.
Gerda died on July 28, 1940, in Frederiksberg, Denmark. Just a few months prior to Gerda’s death, following the onset of World War II, Nazi Germany invaded Denmark in April 1940 .Her small estate was auctioned off and there was only a small obituary printed in the local paper. There has been debate about whether or not she was a lesbian. Some reports claim she married Einar Wegener because they were both homosexuals, and they knew in order to find work at that time they needed to keep this a secret.
Over the years, the story of Lili and Gerda gained a cult following in Denmark and around the world. Their artwork has been rediscovered, and exhibited and auctioned with success. A special exhibition of Gerda Wegener’s art is on display at the Arken Museum of Modern Art until January 2017, with plans for a traveling exhibit of her art to travel around the world.
The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff‘s 2000 novel about Einar/Lili and Gerda, was an international bestseller and was translated into a dozen languages. Wegener is portrayed by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander in the 2015 film The Danish Girl, also starring British actor Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe. The film received some criticism for having been written similarly to forced feminization erotica, obscuring the actual story of a historical trans person and omitting certain facts and for being based on a fictional book that does not tell the true story of Einar and Gerda Wegener. The topic of Gerda’s own sexuality, which many believe is demonstrated by the subjects of her erotic drawings, are not mentioned in the film or book.In February 2016, Alicia Vikander won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Wegener.
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