Exhibition: ‘Gerda Wegener’ at ARKEN Museum for Moderne Kunst, Ishøj, Denmark

Exhibition dates: 7th November 2015 – 8th January 2017

GERDA WEGENER: The unusual story of a love between painter and muse that transcends gender boundaries



Gerda Wegener. 'Lili with a Feather Fan' 1920


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Lili with a Feather Fan
Photo: Morten Pors



Just a small comment on this posting as I am still recovering from a root canal operation at the dentist.

A fascinating, historically significant, love affair. Beautiful, stylish art painted with panache and flare. The two intertwined as, “The depictions of Lili are quite central to Gerda Wegener’s oeuvre.”

Much admiration and love to both.


Many thankx to ARKEN for allowing me to publish the art work and texts in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. Read an extract from the catalogue on ISSU.


Gerda Wegener (1885-1940) is an outstanding figure in Danish art. As a woman artist she uniquely depicts the beauty of women with equal proportions of empathy and desire. Flirting girls, glamorous divas and sensual women are among Gerda Wegener’s favourite subjects. And to these we can add the pictures of her transgender spouse, Lili Elbe, who developed her female identity as a model in Gerda Wegener’s art. Gerda Wegener’s ambivalent sexuality and the story of her spouse were too difficult for people to relate to in her time. On the whole, she broke down the boundaries of gender and sexual identity.

Today the themes of her works are highly topical. Transgender people have loomed large in the mass media, and trans icons like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner give the transgendered a voice in popular culture. Hollywood has seized on the story of Lili and Gerda, and the film The Danish Girl will have its Danish premiere in February 2016. In the biggest exhibition so far of the work of this pioneering artist we meet an experimental zest for life from the colourful, abandoned 1920s which hits a nerve in our own time.





“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.”

Gerda Wegener, 1934


“Einar Wegener felt like a person who was forced to go around in a costume that stifled him and in which he felt ridiculous.”

Lili Elbe, 1931


“Once one has found Paris, one cannot imagine living anywhere else. Although I love Italy, when I return and smell Paris, then I am happy.”

Gerda Wegener, 1924



Gerda Wegener. 'Lady in a large hat' 1909


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Lady in a large hat



Painter and muse

In 1904 Gerda Wegener, born Gottlieb, married the landscape painter Einar Wegener (1882-1931), who is known today as the trans woman Lili Elbe. Lili was Gerda Wegener’s favourite model, and together they created a place of freedom in art where Lili could live out her female identity. In 1930 Gerda Wegener supported her spouse when Lili became one of the first in history to undergo a series of gender-modifying operations in order to become a woman both physically and legally. She died the next year as a result of complications after a last operation.

In her art Gerda Wegener is profoundly fascinated by people’s games with identity through dressing-up, masks and theatre. In the depictions of Lili, Lili poses as a woman in make-up, a succession of wigs, dresses, shoes and exotic fans. We come close to the couple’s friendship and love as each other’s painter and muse across the normal gender boundaries.


Gerda Wegener. 'Portrait of Ellen von Kohl' 1906


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Portrait of Ellen von Kohl



A controversial work rediscovered

“After many years in the wilderness a harbinger of spring has once more appeared in Danish art.”

The artist Gudmund Hentze on Gerda Wegener’s Portrait of Ellen von Kohl in Politiken in 1907.


One of the biggest disputes in the history of Danish art followed from the rejection of Gerda Wegener’s Portrait of Ellen von Kohl (below) by both the Charlottenborg Exhibition and Den Frie Udstilling in 1907. It led to a storm of contributions to the newspaper Politiken for and against the spiritualised, refined Symbolism that the picture was taken to represent. The opponents were given the name “the Peasant Painters”. Wegener herself remained outside the “Peasant Painter Feud” but organised her own exhibition of the picture at an art dealer’s. Afterwards the work has never been shown, but now it has been rediscovered and hangs at ARKEN so everyone can see it for themselves and think about how the portrait could divide opinion so much on the Danish art scene in 1907.

Ever since. the work has been known from an old black-and-white photograph, but in 2015 it has been found for ARKEN’s exhibition and photographed in colour, and it is now being exhibited again for the first time since 1907. This provides a suitable occasion to note that there is nothing wrong with the technical execution. Ellen von Kohl sits like a Renaissance woman in a 16th-century portrait, viewed obliquely from the side with her face turned towards us. The dress, the background and the hair are in the darker colour, while the face, the skin in the neck opening of the dress and the beautiful hands are in lighter shades. The long, slender fingers are typical of Gerda Wegener’s visual idiom, elegant and mannered. To these we can add the strangest thing in the picture, the only thing that our eyes tell us may have seemed objectionable – the eyes and the woman’s gaze. The is are not clearly open. Ellen von Kohl both sees and does not see. She appears to be half in a trance, present not only in this world, but also in the one she sees with her mind’s eye. The model is not a worn-out old women “with mittens and a back bent by work”, but a well-dressed, highly cultivated and sensitive being, so sensitive that for better or worse she seems sensual and erotic to the viewers of the time…

The portrait has several resemblances to a number of other portraits by Gerda Wegener in these early years in Copenhagen, which typically show women who were themselves active in various arts such as literature, dance, or theatre. Many have a similar gaze, and they are all shown with the greatest possible beauty.

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 17


Gerda and Einar Wegener in front of Gerda’s painting Sur la route d'Anacapri during the exhibition in Ole Haslunds Hus,1924. Photo The Royal Library, Denmark


Gerda and Einar Wegener in front of Gerda’s painting Sur la route d’Anacapri during the exhibition in Ole Haslunds Hus, 1924
Photo: The Royal Library, Denmark


Gerda Wegener. 'Sur la route d'Anacapri (On the Way to Anacapri)' 1922


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Sur la route d’Anacapri (On the Way to Anacapri)



Gerda Wegener also drew and painted several pictures of Gerda and Lili together. In 1922 she painted one of the finest examples on one of the couple’s many journeys to Italy, including several to Capri – the double portrait On the Way to Anacapri (above). Gera and Lili are seen standing in profile in front of a magnificent view of a sea bay in moonlight surrounded by mountains and with the town below. Lili turns her head and looks directly at the viewer, holding her arm fondly and protectively around Gerda. Gerda looks forward dreamily with an apple in her hand. Both women wear make-up as well as jewellery and dresses in red shades. Lili is tallest and brownest; their rings are identical. The picture is painted in delicate colours and has an almost ethereal, dreamlike lightness as if the moment is timeless. Again there is a certain Renaissance atmosphere, especially in the strict profile of the self-portrait…

It is as if this particular borrowing of the formal language of of a bygone time elevates the scenario beyond time and space and gives it the character of the eternal. The works take on a special meaning, showing both Gerda’s and the couple’s love of Italy, art, beauty and each other.

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 21


Gerda Wegener. 'Two Cocottes with Hats' c. 1925


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Two Cocottes with Hats
c. 1925
Photo: Morten Pors



In Gerda Wegener’s Two Cocottes with Hats, 1920s, it is presumably Lili in the light-coloured wig with flowers and feathers in her hair, who looks at us with seductive bedroom eyes. In her hands she holds the symbol of the female sex, a rose whose scent permeates the atmosphere of the picture and probably helps to attract the other woman’s attention. The two stand close to each other and are further united by the compositions close cropping of the subject.

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 26


Gerda Wegener. 'On the banks of the Loire' (the artists' colony at Beaugency), Paris, 1926


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
On the banks of the Loire (the artists’ colony at Beaugency)
Paris, 1926



The female gender role in transition

In Gerda Wegener’s On the banks of the Loire, 1926, we see innumerable Bohemians from the artists’ colony on a summer’s day in swimsuits far from the city of Paris…

For female artists just a generation before Gerda Wegener’s it was not possible at all for a woman to move around freely in the spaces of the city without being accosted and misunderstood. The definition of the Impressionists as ‘the painters of modern life’, for example, is therefor problematic in the case of an artist like Berthe Morisot. Gerda Wegener on the other hand romped freely through city life, whether this was well received or not. At any rate it became normal – not least during the First World War, when the french men were at the front, and the women had to take over many of the men’s former tasks. The women grew stronger… After World War One, Europe was traumatised, and the survivors lived wilder lives than before – quite simply so they could feel alive. The 1920 were thus typified by festivities and amusements and by gender roles in transition. Everything was permitted, much more so than before.

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 28


Gerda Wegener. 'A Summer Day' (Einar Wegener behind the easel, Lili nude, Elna Tegner with accordion, publisher wife Mrs. Guyot with book) 1927


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
A Summer Day (Einar Wegener behind the easel, Lili nude, Elna Tegner with accordion, publisher wife Mrs. Guyot with book)
Photo: © Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers



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 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 in the cards that this minister’s daughter from eastern Jutland would become Denmark’s foremost exponent of Art Deco and one of the most colourful personalities of her time. In 1904, she married the landscape painter Einar Wegener (1882-1931) who today is better known as the trans woman Lili Elbe. Paris was to be the city where they unfolded their artistic careers. There the couple lived a fashionable life, enabled to a great extent by Gerda’s 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 identity became the central focus.


A tale of metamorphosis

La Vie Parisienne, La Baïonnette and Le Rire – Gerda Wegener’s technically superb and sometimes daring drawings could be found in the leading French periodicals of the time, and often it was her spouse who posed for her. The depictions of Lili are quite central to Gerda Wegener’s oeuvre. Gerda Wegener idealised Lili’s 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 wife’s depictions of Lili. He was unhappy in his male body and Gerda supported her husband in having the operations done that were to effect the physical transformation from man to woman, but ended in Lili’s early death.


Renewed topicality

ARKEN’s exhibition is a tribute to a strong artist whose works and extraordinary life strike a chord in our own time. With 178 works the exhibition will be 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 Louvre’s collection and are today at the Centre Pompidou – she never achieved the same status here 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.

Press release from ARKEN


Gerda Wegener, advertisement for powder in the French magazine La Vie Parisienne, 5 June 1920


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Advertisement for powder in the French magazine La Vie Parisienne, 5 June 1920


Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the erotic book 'Les Délassements de l’Éros' 1925


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Illustration for the erotic book Les Délassements de l’Éros
Photo: Morten Pors


Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the erotic book 'Les Délassements de l’Éros' 1925


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Illustration for the erotic book Les Délassements de l’Éros


Front page illustration by Gerda Wegener for the Danish magazine 'Vore Damer', 19 October, 1927


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Front page illustration for the Danish magazine Vore Damer, 19 October, 1927


Gerda Wegener. ' Girl and pug in an Automobile' (sketch for front page illustration in Vore Damer, 1927) c. 1927


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Girl and pug in an Automobile (sketch for front page illustration in Vore Damer, 1927)
c. 1927


Gerda Wegener. 'The Carnival' c. 1925


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
The Carnival
c. 1925
Photo: Morten Pors



A Danish Parisienne

Gerda Wegener divided opinion in Copenhagen, but enjoyed great success in Paris, where she and Lili lived for two decades from 1912. They participated enthusiastically in the Parisian entertainment world, as is evident from Gerda Wegener’s many depictions of festivities and carnivals. Gerda quickly became a popular portrait painter and exhibited at the most important annual art exhibitions in Paris, and even in the French Pavilion at the World Exposition in 1925, where she won two gold medals. She provided illustrations, especially of erotic literature, and designed glass mosaics for Parisian shops and prosperous homes.

None of the major Danish art museums bought any of Gerda Wegener’s works, but the French State bought three. Today these are in the Centre Pompidou’s collection – and two of them can be seen at ARKEN’s major exhibition.


Artist, illustrator and cartoonist

Throughout her artistic life Gerda Wegener worked with both art in the traditional sense and popular mass culture. She alternated between participating in important art exhibitions, primarily in Paris, and supplying huge numbers of advertisements, newspaper and magazine drawings and book illustrations in the fields of fashion, satire, humour and the erotic.

Gerda Wegener had her breakthrough as an illustrator in 1908 when she won a drawing competition in Politiken with the set task of portraying ‘Copenhagen Woman’ and again in 1909 with ‘Figures of the Street’. After this she had a regular association with Politiken as an artist. At the same time Gerda Wegener supplied drawings to several other magazines such as Klods Hans, Tik-Tak and Vore Damer, and in France her drawings for leading French magazines were her primary source of income until the middle of the 1920s.


Gerda Wegener. 'Lili Elbe' c. 1928


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Lili Elbe
c. 1928


Gerda Wegener. 'Queen of Hearts (Lili)' 1928


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Queen of Hearts (Lili)
Photo: Morten Pors



Gerda Wegener was a curious observer in this whole period as she participated in life in the metropolis of Paris. In her innumerable pictures of women she accordingly revealed very different female types, just as the pictures of Lili send out a wide variety of signals. Lili who is often sweet and innocent looks rather like a provocative sinner in Queen of Hearts from 1928. Here she is playing cards, which in the history of art has always been symbolic of a life of sin, and in the sixteenth century was regarded as ungodly. An ashtray, a bottle and a glass are on the table, and Lili has a cigarette in her mouth. She has her feet up on two different chairs and is wearing snakeskin shoes and a red dress that has slipped slightly down along her legs, revealing the petticoat. The room in which Lili sits is more well-defined than in most other Lili portraits and is full of realistic details. The picture is no longer detached from time and place or ethereal. The hands are not long and graceful. It is the real Lili of flesh and blood that we see here, an emancipated and erotically self-assured woman. And so it is naturally the Queen of Hearts that she holds in her hand.

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 28


Gerda Wegener. 'The Ballerina Ulla Poulsen in the Ballet Chopiniana' Paris, 1927


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
The Ballerina Ulla Poulsen in the Ballet Chopiniana
Paris, 1927
Photo: The Theatre Museum at The Court Theatre



In Poulsen, Gerda Wegener cultivated the perfect classical ideal of beauty for a woman. Ulla Poulsen was well known for her pure, oval face and could have posed from the most beautiful Madonnas of the Italian Renaissance. She met the Wegeners during a tour of Paris in 1927 and ever afterwards appeared in many of Wegener’s works, both when she has posed and when Gerda depicted her from memory.

In the best known and most monumental portrait of Ulla Poulsen the ballerina takes her bow after a performance of the ballet Chopiniana. A typical Wegener bouquet lies on the edge of the stage, and in Toulouse-Lautrec fashion a little piece of a bass or cello projects from the orchestral pit. Again the light beams shine down over the main figure in a fan pattern, and the ballet skirt spreads around her in a circle. The ballerina is set up as the most beautiful imaginable object for the viewer’s gaze, as is the point of ballet and theatre, for the delectation of everyone. The awareness that someone is looking is so to speak a condition of all theatre, and for that matter of the existence of the phenomenon of fashion – another of Gerda Wegener’s favourite fields.

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 32


Gerda Wegener (1885-1940) 'Eva Heramb' 1934


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Eva Heramb
Photo: Photo: The Theatre Museum at The Court Theatre



Eva Betty Koefoed Heramb (24th November 1899 in Aarhus – 9th January 1957 in Copenhagen ) was a Danish actress. She made her debut in 1921 at Odense Theatre, at which theatre she was employed the following six years. From 1927-1935 she was engaged to the People’s Theatre, where she received a variety of roles, including appearances in this period with several other Copenhagen theatres. She also recorded a few films.


Gerda Wegener. 'Young Man, Bare Chested' 1938 and 'Adrienne Sipska' Paris 1925


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Young Man, Bare Chested

Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Adrienne Sipska
Paris 1925



The mixture of sources of inspiration and materials is yet another characteristic of Art Deco – and in the portrait of the short-haired, long-necked Adrienne Sipska from 1925 Gerda Wegener has painted the hard with gold. The young man she paints with a bare chest in 1938, on the other hand, has soft locks on his brow and marked, almost feminine facial features. Men and women cross over imperceptibly in many of Gerda Wegener’s pictures as the boundaries between the normal gender roles are gradually erased more and more.

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 30


Gerda Wegener. 'Carnival, Lily' Paris, 1928


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
Carnival, Lily
Paris, 1928


Gerda Wegener. 'At the mirror' 1931-1936


Gerda Wegener (Danish, 1885-1940)
At the mirror



In Gerda Wegener’s At the mirror, 1931-1936 (above), the directions of the gazes are more complicated. A woman sits in front of the mirror and forms a beautiful S-shape with the low-cut back and neck of her dress and the turning of her head. She looks herself deep in the eyes. We see he both from the back in front of the mirror and her face from the front in the mirror. In the mirror we also see an elegantly dressed man, presumably standing more or less where we are conceived as standing, looking at the woman’s beautiful neck with a slightly worried expression. For she is not looking at him, although she is well aware that he is there. Nor is it certain that it is only for him that she is putting on make-up. He is like a perplexed voyeur who has been discovered. He seems a little superfluous as a moment of profound solidarity arises between the woman and her ‘sister’ in the mirror.

Gerda Wegener does not only depict empty decorative dolls, but also strong personalities who stage themselves as beautiful women and exercise much of the power at play in their relations with other people. ‘Girl Power’, quite simply.

As mentioned, a viewer is always latently present in Wegener’s works, as the figures are so aware of the signals they are sending out. The women display themselves with a clear exhibitionistic tendency which is taken to extremes in the pictures of theatre, masquerade and disguise. At the same time the very act of looking at themselves in the mirror is associated with narcissism. This beautiful woman in front of the mirror and in the mirror exhibits and enjoys herself at one and the same time. As always the work is charged with an intense eroticism. This woman is attracted by herself and is also ready to attract others. And these others could be of either sex depending on who is looking at the picture.

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, pp. 32-34



Arken Museum for Moderne Kunst
Skovvej 100, 2635 Ishøj, Denmark

Opening hours:
Until 31 May 2023:
Wednesday – Sunday: 11am -5pm
Thursday: 11am – 9pm
Monday – Tuesday: Closed

1 June – 31 August 2023:
Tuesday-Saturday: 11am -5pm
Thursday: 11am – 9pm
Sunday: 11am – 7pm
Monday: closed

Arken Museum for Moderne Kunst website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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