02 June 2015

Commes des garcons

I - Les Garçonnes the French called them, using their gendered language to suggest that women in the decades between the two world wars had turned into some kind of hybrid of male and female, not androgynous exactly but definitely new.  Short hair, short skirts, and trousers, smoking, dancing, and working; everything they did seemed to flout conventional mores.  
And no one shredded convention more thoroughly than Danish artists Gerda and Einar Wegener.  The two met when they were students at the Danish Royal Academy of Art in 1902.  Gerda was only seventeen at the time and the daughter of a provincial clergyman; Einar was twenty.  They were married two years later.  Einar Wegener was unusual in supporting Gerda's even career
When the couple arrived in Paris in 1912, it was Gerda whose work was the immediate success; Her paintings  shown at the Salon and her illustrations for such periodicals as Vogue and La Vie Parisienne were memorable for their sensuality.  People began to guess at the identity of Wegeners' favorite model, she of the almond-shaped eyes, known only by her first name - Lili.   That's Lili in La sieste (above).

As with any story this delicious, this one has been retailed in varied versions.  What is clear is that at some point Einar began to pose for Gerda in woman's clothing, donning also the persona of “Lili.”  What began as an invented character became in time the third member of a trio, a woman named Lili Elbe.  In 1930 Elbe went to Germany to undergo an experimental operation,  the first publicly recorded sex reassignment surgery. News of the event was a sensation in newspapers throughout Europe and was even noted in the Milwaukee World newspaper.   In October, the King of Denmark invalidated the Wegeners' marriage; however Elbe was able to legally change her name and gender on her passport.  Elbe died in 1931 of complications from her fifth surgery, an attempt to implant a uterus.

David Ebershoff published a novel The Danish Girl that imagines the Wegeners' relationship and published in 2000.  A film based on the novel has been in planning for a few years and is currently in production, directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech – 2010) and starring recent Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe.  Swedish actress Alicia Vikander will play Gerda Wegener.

II - The Paris the Wegeners found was the acknowledged center of the art world and, like Berlin, a mecca for the self-created person.  Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo shared a flat on the rue de Fleurus with an attached studio where they kept their growing art collections  and their gatherings attracted  local artists (Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, and Guillaume Apollinaire) and  fellow expatriates, including the American journalist Djuna Barnes (1892-1982).  When Barnes arrived in Paris in 1921, she spoke no French (and never learned the language during the nine years she lived there) but came armed with a letter of introduction from Vanity Fair to the Irish expat James Joyce.  Barnes was also the illustrator of her own books (The Book of Repulsive Women - 1915) and  Parisians noted a similarity in style between her drawings and Rousseau's.  A Barnes story A Night Among the Horses had been published in  Margaret Anderson's Little Review and chosen as one of the best stories of 1919. .   Anderson, also an decided to move to France after seeing a performance of Sacred Dances by the Greek-Armenian spiritual teacher Gurdjieff.  She became a student at his  institute the Prieuré des Basses Loges  at Fontainbleau-Avon, undeterred by the negative publicity that  Gurdjieff  had recently endured as  “the man who killed Katherine Mansfield” when the writer died there under his care in January 1923.

"Call her walking-mort; say where she goes
She squalls her bush with blood/. I slam a gate.
Report he axis bone it gigs the rose
What say of mine?  It turn a grinning gate.
Impugn her that she baits time with an awl.
What do my sessions then?  They task a grave.
So, shall we stand, or shall we tread and wait
The mantled lumber of the buzzard's fall
(That maiden resurrection and the freight),
Or shall we freeze and wrangle by the wall?"
                     “The Walking-Mort”  by Djuna Barnes, reprinted in Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology edited by Robert Hass and Paul Ebenkamp, Berkeley, Counterpoint Press: 2014.

Henri Lebasque (1865-1937), who painted  La Cigarette in 1921, founded the Salon d’Autuomne in Paris in 1903 with his friend Henri Matisse.  The casual sophistication of the smoking woman, it has to be remembered; would have been a daring subject for the time just as her cropped hair would have earned her the sobriquet  “La Garconne”.  In the case of La Cigarette the circumstances of the painting are prosaic; the model was Helen Lebasque, nicknamed Nono, the artist's daughter.   Comme des garcons, like the boys; one episode in women emancipating themselves.  Sometimes even the words trip you up.

1. Gerda Wegener - La Sieste, 1922, Pompidou Center, Paris. 
2. Gerda Wegener - Lili, 1922, Pompidou Center, Paris.
3. Henri Lebasque - La cigarette, 1921, La Piscine, Roubaix.


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