International Women’s Day has now come and gone, and with it we’ve seen every company and establishments’ yearly tributes to the fairer sex. One notable and important addition to the usual melee Frida Kahlo-themed Instagram graphics was the Dutch Bruun Rasmussen Auction House’s auction and sale of Gerda Wegener ’s 1924 painting of her spouse, Lili Elbe: I sommervarmen (Lili) (In the Heat of Summer (Lili)). As chronicled in the polemical film The Danish Girl (2015), starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili and Alicia Vikander as Gerda, Elbe was one of the first transgender women to undergo an experimental sex-reassignment surgery. Wegener, her one-time wife, was an artist and cartoonist who gained some recognition in her lifetime, and, when female models were scarce, Lili (then Einar) would step in and dress as a woman to pose for her works. Wegener stood by her spouse throughout her surgeries, though the two had their marriage annulled in 1930 after Elbe was able to have her name and sex legally changed. Unfortunately, due to the highly experimental nature of the program, Lili did not survive long after her vaginoplasty surgery, dying in 1931 at the age of 48.
Nonetheless, as she is captured in Wegener ’s oil painting, Elbe is vibrant and captivating. The work displays Elbe in an odalisque-esque pose with an oriental fan and silk heeled- slippers with her back to the viewer. Her bent shape emphasises her curves. Though she is seductively posed and her lips painted in a corresponding sultry red, the strategic pose displays her nudity as a vulnerability. This is further emphasised by the chair and the fan’s garish ornamentation. The flatness of the background scene puts Lili fully on display. She is the focal point of the piece.
One could argue that the painting is flattening itself by taking place in a domestic space with closed shutters and shadows dominating its background. Truly, it seems more like the painting’s highlighting of Elbe is simultaneously saying that she is only allowed to be this seductive and free behind closed doors and shutters. The painting’s title tells us it is a season of heat and outdoor activities, yet she is inside, presumably so hot she had to take off all her clothing. Yet the windows remain closed.
The idea of gaze is ambiguous here: the typical female nude is presented for the male voyeur, as evidenced by the male artist’s use of a female model. Here, however, the painter is a woman who is painting a trans- woman. The gaze is split.
Wegener painted Elbe as a woman several times throughout their marriage. Wegener ’s style honours the idea of women as idealised and conceptualised under the patriarchal gaze. This work is no different, but, with an understanding of its background, gives an important message on what womanhood means, and intimates how gender can be interpreted as simply a facade society teaches us to inhabit. In this day and age, when gender, sexuality, and identity are debated more than ever before, this work is relevant despite being nearly 100 years old. Truly an important work to bring attention to on a day that celebrates all women and their history.
I sommervarmen (Lili) sold for more than the estimated 400,000– 500,000 Danish Krone: selling for a grand total of 775,000 DKK on 8 March 2022 at 4:13pm. The painting is available for viewing on the Bruun Rasmussen website.