An aura of sapphic resplendence inspirited a soigné Tudor Revival mansion on Long Island’s Gold Coast on the occasion of “Fashioning Desire,” the first substantial presentation of art by Gerda Wegener (1886–1940) in the United States. The show featured upward of sixty paintings, drawings, advertisements, and illustrations, the lion’s share of which limned lissome women. The works were installed throughout the residence, displayed in grand hallways and sumptuous boudoirs, or placed so that they coyly peeked out of stately powder rooms. Spanning Wegener’s career, these sybaritic images—in which women voyeuristically wielded binoculars at the opera, kinkily wrapped vines around a fellow reveler at a masque, or executed a beatific full-skirted bow at the end of a ballet—shared a perversely elegant line and revealed an interest in the construction of femininity as performance, fetish, or even political stance. Tethered to Wegener’s prurient queer gaze, their extravagant post-Decadent artificiality read as a coquettish swipe at heterosexist and patriarchal ideas of “the natural.”
Wegener (née Gottlieb) grew up unnaturally glamorous in a parochial family on Denmark’s Jutlandic peninsula and decamped to cosmopolitan Copenhagen to attend the women’s annex at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. There, she met her future spouse, Einar Wegener (1882–1931), a landscape painter who modeled for the artist’s portrayals of mondaines with increasing regularity and who eventually transitioned to living as a woman, rechristening herself Lili Elbe. Wegener lucidly depicted Elbe as she wished to be seen and as she was; works such as Femmes aux paniers de fruits (Women with Fruit Baskets), ca. 1924, a tender watercolor of the couple standing side by side carrying a bounty of luscious flora, suggest an opulence of intimacy. In 1912, the pair relocated to Paris, which was a lesbian haven from the fin de siècle through the interwar years owing to the city’s permissive legal codes, the outsize influence of American expat writer Natalie Barney’s artistic circle, and wartime shifts in sex and gender identity, which produced the mediatized “new woman” and her androgynous successor, the garçonne. The women remained in Paris until Elbe’s death from an early gender-affirming surgery, which took place in Dresden. Afterward, Wegener moved to colonial Morocco with a new husband, a young Italian diplomat. Following their 1936 divorce, she returned to Denmark, where she lived out the rest of her life.
The work on view was largely completed in the Paris period, during which Wegener enjoyed artistic accolades and frequent portraiture commissions. She also took on commercial work, producing fashion illustrations, satirical cartoons for popular magazines such as La Vie Parisienne and Fantasio (both of which also published high-society sapphic gossip), and erotic drawings such as those in Les délassements d’Eros (The Amusement of Eros), 1925, her collaboration with writer Louis Perceau. One of these images, a playful roundel titled Erotic Scene and cheekily displayed in a guest bedroom dubbed the Bishop’s Room, features a winged fairy in a flouncy, flowered pink dress—femininity at its campiest—performing cunnilingus on a regal woman in masculine garb, parodying the proto-butch/femme typologies described by belletrist Colette in her 1932 book Ces plaisirs (These Pleasures). The more masculine figure, a consummate performer, grasps red theatrical drapes in one hand and a lute in the other; nearby, a cast-off black mask, the carnivalesque hallmark of Wegener’s erotica, conjures psychoanalyst Joan Riviere’s groundbreaking 1929 assertion that “womanliness . . . may be assumed and worn as a mask.” Glamourous portrayals of people of color, which the artist’s earlier work lacked, appear in mature portraits from her Morocco years. In the pencil, watercolor, and gouache Moroccan Newlyweds (Aicha and Djialli), 1931–34, a young couple lounges elegantly in a palm- and casbah-dotted environ. Like many of Wegener’s depictions of men, Djialli scrambles gender categories, his neat beard paired with thickly kohled eyes, high cheekbones, and long nails.
Wegener’s queer vision wasn’t confined to modernity; the late-nineteenth-century reclamation of Sappho by lesbian writers opened classicism to emendation, priming its foundational queerness for excavation. In the temporally jumbled manner of myths—itself a rejection of straight or logical time—the historically scaled oil painting Venus and Amor, ca. 1920, features a manicured jardin à la française set against craggy Renaissance peaks. Venus, a muscular and maquillaged goddess beyond gender binaries, helps young Cupid string a golden bow. A seductive trio of nudes, the Three Graces aux années folles, are the arrow’s potential target. One of these women, wearing a string of pearls, her face carved by experience, deftly bends down while holding an arrow to pierce a fat red heart herself.