A Way of Looking at it

Pretend you’re the little owl, Athena noctua, perched on the shoulder of Pallas Athena. You would have had a chance to see Gerda Wegener painting the exquisite erotic watercolors which decades later, in 1984, were discovered in a Copenhagen jumble shop. Dégas after seeing some of Mary Cassat’s work said: "I do not admit that a woman can draw like that."

Gerda Wegener is practically forgotten, yet in the not-too-distant past this Danish woman, born Gerda Gottlieb, the daughter of a clergyman from a long line of clergymen, was an internationally renowned painter, portraitist and graphic artist, and one of the very few successful female artists in history. La dame à l’anémone is the title of a painting by Gerda Wegener in the Musée National d'art Moderne, Centre George Pompidou in Paris. The French State decorated Gerda Wegener with a Legion d'Honneur for her art. Nonetheless, she died in poverty and obscurity.

When Gerda Wegener arrived in Paris in 1912 the artistic world was in a period of upheaval. There were exhibitions of paintings which caused public outcry and even riots. Likewise with music. Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chlöe, produced in Paris in 1912, was an object of controversy, and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, which was produced in Paris in 1913, caused a riot. Gerda Wegener’s talent was protean, and she was industrious. In 1917 at the end of World War One it would have been possible to see a whole wall covered with her illustrations and ads in Vogue and other magazines, and to have heard her husband Einar Wegener explain: "...My wife’s drawings were so popular among the soldiers that they wallpapered their trenches with clippings. Once when she had given an original drawing to an officer, he called his comrades together and made a will. The last survivor was to own the picture. As it turned out, the man who got the picture was the only one to come out of the war alive..."

One of the things Einar Wegener liked to do was to disappear, wearing one of his costumes, into the streets of Paris in the throngs of revelers during the Carnival.

In her art, Gerda Wegener recognized decadence as the bearing principle between romantism and cubism, between art nouveau and art deco. In her life she was a dynamic personality, energetic, brash, and ambitious. She deliberately sought economic success and a life surrounded by the accoutrements of bourgeoise comfort. "Les Arums," her high-priced apartment and studio in Paris, was in the fashionable quartier Tour Eiffel. At the same time she was of a generous and outgoing nature in the grand manner. At her summer home on the banks of the Loire she would throw lawn parties for two thousand invited guests, "half of Paris." Who did she know? Perhaps she knew Gertrude Stein.

Gerda was a divinity, worshiped by devotees. A guest at one of these lawn parties was Fernando Porta; you can see a photo of him standing together with the Wegeners, must be 1928-29. On the 25th of May, 1928, the dirigible ITALIA, under the command of the controversial Umberto Nobile, wrecked on the ice on its way from the North Pole, a tragedy whose aftermath shook the world. Two years later, in 1930, Einar Wegener underwent his pioneering surgery, no less world-shaking. Cybele holding the hand of her transgendered spouse. In 1931 Gerda Wegener married Nando Porta. Nando’s ardent, perhaps aggressive courting. Fernando Porta was a major in the Italian air force, and it is not unlikely that he had at least a passing knowledge of dirigibles, of which the Italian air force had many. It is my conjecture that Porta was a personal friend of Umberto Nobile, and that the former’s involvement with Gerda Wegener was in some part motivated by the sensational events associated with the latter. As an officer and a diplomat (he was also a consular secretary in the Italian foreign service), Fernando Porta was the very incarnation of chivalry, rescuing the Scandinavian woman from a transsexual husband, St. George and the dragon. And so Parcifal, instead of having to wed the Ethiopian princess, marries the Hyperborean goddess – or so the whole affair might appear to the eyes of Athena’s owl, in the light of the Nobile-Amundsen disaster.

The skies were full of dirigibles transporting the lucky ones to places of their dreams, appealing to the popular imagination. Why don't the movies ever show 1920s and ’30s people traveling in the luxurious salons of airships? "Strangers on an Airship." Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart arrive in Rio de Janeiro aboard the Graf Zeppelin, say.

However that may be, what is beyond conjecture is that Gerda Wegener and Nando Porta were a fabulous couple, romantic, charismatic, wildly in love. It is more than possible that Gerda’s large oil painting Leda and the Swan is from her love affair with Nando, the two figures in the upper left-hand corner representing herself and her former husband, and the swan is the airship – Nando.

After her divorce from Nando Porta and her return to Denmark, her decline into obscurity was rapid and at the end she had to support herself by drawing Christmas cards which she sold for one krone apiece. People could say they owned an original Gerda Wegener. I heard that story from our old retired parish pastor Mogens Gottlieb. Gerda was his father’s niece.


–Kenneth Tindall

Lynæs, 8 March 2000


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A photo album
Pictures from an exhibition


Copyright © 2000 by Kenneth Thomas Tindall, all rights reserved