The Danish Girl - Gender As a Performance

The Danish Girl is a study of gender and femininity, beautifully filmed on opulent, painterly backdrops. Moreover, one of the heroines is Gerda Wegener, a name I came across during my research on women's magazines from early 20th-century.

Gerda Gottlieb, Lili Elbe, 1920.

Gerda Gottlieb, Lili Elbe, 1920.

The film tells the tragic story of Einar Wegener, a transgender artist, who underwent one of the first gender reassignment surgeries in 1930, to become Lili Elbe. He was married to Gerda Wegener, a distinguished Danish painter and fashion illustrator. Initially, Gerda aided her husband and contributed to the formation of the alter persona Lili. She dressed him in women's clothes and he served as a model in her paintings. 

The work of Gerda Wegener has a prominent place among the art deco artists of the era. She explored gender as a performance (The Guardian 2015) and depicted long-legged, confident and active women. These artworks fascinated the Parisian art society. However, people were scandalised to learn that the model behind some of the portraits is Gerda's husband.

Neither medicine nor society was equipped to meet Einar's transformation. He suffered depression, his marriage to Gerda was dissolved, and he died as a result of his surgeries. It is interesting that Lili Elbe was ever only free to express her femininity in Gerda's paintings. In this respect art is often more forward than society.

Previously, I discussed Berger and how the "male gaze" is challenged by contemporary artists. It appears that Gerda Wegener, with her erotic paintings, redefined the "female gaze". Historian Andrea Rygg Karberg states that Gerda's work has revolutionised how women are portrayed in art:

Women were typically seen through the male gaze. But Gerda changed all that because she painted strong, beautiful women with admiration and identification – as conscious subjects rather than objects.
— Andrea Rygg Karberg, 2015.
Gerda Wegener,  A Summer Day , 1927.

Gerda Wegener, A Summer Day, 1927.

Fragmented Femininity

In contemporary Illustration textbooks, the depiction of fragmented gender and femininity is often discussed as a trend (Wigan, 2006, p. 36). On the other hand, according to researchers like Gauntlett perception of self-identity is unified (Gauntlett 2008, p. 266). He challenges the postmodernist views of identities being fragmented, and he shows that in visual representation, most people portray their identity as “one thing” (Gauntlett 2008, p. 269). I set to find some examples of fragmented feminine depiction.

First, I examined the work of Anna Higgie. She creates illustrations of womanly forms interrupted by geometric shapes and graphic patterns. Higgie combines traditional medium like ink, pencil, watercolour, with digital techniques. I was drawn by the cinematic mood, the monochromatic palette and the juxtaposition of fine art drawings with abstract geometric elements. It creates a feeling of feminine vulnerability, hidden behind the digital patterns. These pictures can be viewed as portraits of the modern woman and her fragmented life experiences, of which feminist authors like June Hannam write.

Anna Higgie,  Dolor EP , 2012.

Anna Higgie, Dolor EP, 2012.

Anna Higgie,  Designs for murals in rooms 103 & 104 of ACE London , 2013.

Anna Higgie, Designs for murals in rooms 103 & 104 of ACE London, 2013.

Next, I explored the work of Hungarian designer Anna Kövecses. I was fascinated with the playful way she combines photos with illustrations. This technique enhances the narrative by adding a layer of additional meaning in the composition. Her work has a deceptively naive style, featuring simple figures and bright colors. However, the layouts are carefully arranged in a knowledgeable and thoughtful manner. In my personal work, I usually draw a clear distinction between my design works and my illustrations. Merging the two disciplines can lead to interesting results, as these images by Kovecses show. 

Unlike the examples above, my works represent things in a realistic manner. I would like to experiment more with interrupting the flow by use of geometry or photo collage.

Anna Kovecses,  Aritzia , 2013.

Anna Kovecses, Aritzia, 2013.


Gauntlett, D. 2008, Media, gender and identity: an introduction, New;1;2; edn, Routledge, London.

Wigan, M. 2006, Thinking visually, AVA, Lausanne.