The first time I heard about Lili Elbe was when The Danish Girl was making the film award circuit in 2015. The movie was gaining Oscar buzz for Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander’s performances, with the latter eventually winning the coveted golden statuette. While the movie was being praised by the mainstream media for depicting the story of the transgender artist, the trans community which it claimed to be representing on screen, raised many issues with it– and rightly so. Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, you might have come away from the entire thing forgetting that it’s two main characters were based on real-life artists.
Lili Elbe (formerly Einar Wegener) was among the first people to receive a sex reassignment surgery but prior to transitioning she was a successful painter. Elbe’s area of focus included post-Impressionistic landscape paintings, interior scenes, portraits and still-life.
Elbe (who at the time went by ‘Einar’) studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts which is where she met Gerda Gottlieb. They were married in 1904.
Gerda was an illustrator as well, and her work was far more successful than her partner’s. She created illustrations for books and fashion magazines. Her paintings of beautiful women with full lips and large eyes were very popular. It was later made public that the model for these artworks was her spouse. Lili became a model for Gerda when her regular model– actress Anna Larssen– was late for a sitting.
While these paintings of Lili Elbe are what Gerda is most famous for today, her feminist illustrations of women made a significant impact on art. Her work depicted female sexual pleasure– something that was taboo at the time and which is pretty risqué even by today’s standards. Her work was shunned in Denmark but was a success in Paris. Significantly, Paris was also where Lili felt more freedom as that was where she could live openly as a woman by pretending to be Gerda’s sister-in-law.
Today, many of Gerda’s works are what we would consider “lesbian erotica”. She also worked commercially, creating illustrations for prestigious publications like Fantasio, Vogue and La Vie Parisienne. Regardless of who her intended audience was, Gerda’s artwork nearly always has women as the subject. While this was not unusual given that women are the subject of most male artist’s work, what made this significantly different was the lens through which she portrayed these women. Her innovative approach is why art historian Andrea Rygg Karberg calls her “the Lady Gaga of the 1920’s“.
“Throughout art history, portrayals of women had typically been produced by men; they were shaped by the male gaze. “Gerda changed all that,” says Rygg Karberg, “because she painted strong, beautiful women with admiration and identification – as conscious subjects rather than objects.””Gerda Wegener: ‘The Lady Gaga of the 1920s’ by Helen Russell, The Guardian
There is a misconception that Lili and Gerda’s relationship started to crumble when Lili “came out”. On the contrary, Gerda was very supportive of her partner. She even tried to fund Lili’s surgery with money from the paintings she sold. When their marriage was annulled in 1930 following Lili’s surgery, the couple parted ways amicably with Gerda going on to marry an Italian diplomat.
Lili never painted again after transitioning. She wrote, “I do not want to be an artist, but a woman. Hence I must shut all artistic creation out of my life… because I cannot continue the work of the virile artist who was [Einar].”
Lili Elbe died in 1931 from complications due to her surgery. Her death left Gerda heartbroken. She separated from her second husband and isolated herself. As the years passed, her style of work fell out of fashion. She supported herself by drawing Christmas cards. She took to drinking and died in 1940 at the age of 54.
The story of Lili and Gerda is rather Shakespearean, don’t you think? These women unfailingly chose to be themselves and express themselves honestly in the face of society’s disdain. They died in obscurity, never knowing the trail they blazed in their wake. In the grand scheme of things, their contributions to art, culture and gender politics may seem small but we cannot deny that it was significant.
This month is Pride month, and as we celebrate a community that has long been maligned, lets take a moment to remember Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. And let’s hope that they next time Hollywood pays homage to them, they try to be as authentic to their story as Lili and Gerda were themselves.