Sexual Fables
This article accompanies
Alice's Mirrors

The Pornographer

Nowadays if the Internet is awash in erotic images, many of them were placed there by women, but a century ago only the leisured classes had access to such images. It is more interesting when the pornographer, back then, was a woman.  What were her motives?  Was it just the money?  Think Anaïs Nin writing Delta of Venus.


Gerda Gottlieb Wegener (1886-1940) was a Danish artist and painter who is best known now for her erotic paintings like the ones below.  During her career, most of which was spent in Paris after 1912 (her family heritage was French and she felt more at home there), she did illustrations for the major magazines, Vogue and so on, mixing with the glitterati and the doomed.  She also continued to paint and exhibit in Copenhagen when she could.  The most arresting images are the lesbian ones - it seems evident she preferred women - but she also provided illustrations for a Casanova memoir and other books.



Notice the fallen black mask in the illustrations - her recurring motif.

But in the histories she is always overshadowed by her husband.  We have to go back, to 1904, when she married fellow artist Einar Wegener, and he modeled for her dressed in drag.  It certainly helped her career.  He would become notorious as the first known individual to undergo a sex change operation, in 1930, and thus Einar become “Lili Elbe ” but she only survived a year – the operations took their destructive toll.  By this point it was a huge scandal with newspapers all around the world taking an interest and the King of Denmark felt compelled to declare the Gerda-Lili marriage null and void.

This is where the fascination lies, for before the operation Gerda and Einar/Lili lived as two women, thus the question of whether this fueled the erotic lesbian images she is associated with.  Sadly, things rather went downhill for Gerda after Lili’s death in 1931 and she too was gone by 1940.

Neither her birthplace of Hammelev (she was born a vicar's daughter in this tiny rural town), nor the larger town of Hobro, where she grew up, have made a claim to their talented daughter. She returned to Denmark in her last years and died alone in Frederiksberg in Copenhagen. She is buried at Solbjerg Park Cemetery there, but the long term plan is to convert the cemetery into a park. Such is life.

A novel focusing on Lili, The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff, came out in 2000 and a film version starring Eddie Redmayne in 2015.


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