Artist Spotlight: Lili Elbe

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Einar Wegener, born in 1882 in Denmark, was a painter who specialised in post-impressionist landscapes. He had always felt like a matryoshka doll; as though inside his body, there was another one – that of a woman. Nonetheless, he tried to lead a traditional life. He married Gerda Gottlieb, also an artist whose primary focus was on portraits and fashion illustrations in the style of Art Nouveau and later Art Deco. Their history became more popular in 2015 when an award-winning film The Danish Girl (dir. Tom Hooper) based on their life story came out. The lives of Einar and Gerda only loosely inspire the movie. It is true, however, that Lili Elbe was the first transgender person to undergo a documented sex reassignment surgery. 

‘The birth’ of Lili was somewhat accidental. Gerda arranged a meeting with an actress Anna Larssen who was supposed to be a model for one of her paintings. For some unclear reasons, Anna did not show up in time, so Gerda asked her husband to dress up as a woman and pose instead of Anna for her to finish the painting. When Anna finally arrived and witnessed Einar dressed as a woman, she suggested that they give this new character a name. That is how this previously unnamed matryoshka doll inside Einar gained its own name – Lili.

As time went by, encouraged by Gerda, Lili started to become a more frequent visitor. There have been some rumours that perhaps Gerda herself was a lesbian who could explain her active support for Einar’s transition as well as her erotic portraits of women, but that did not necessarily have to be the case. Lili was Gerda’s muse, and her paintings earned fame and recognition not only in Denmark but also in Paris where the couple decided to move. In Paris, the hub of Europe’s artistic bohemian life, Lili could become more visible, so much so that Gerda started introducing her as Einar’s sister or cousin at parties.

Even though seemingly free, Lili was still trapped in Einar’s body. He and Gerda sought medical help, but the doctor’s diagnoses were not very helpful. Einar was classified as schizophrenic or gay and as a threat to society. Doctors even tried to “cure” him with the use of X-rays. As we find out from Einar’s diaries, overwhelmed with mental suffering, he tried to commit suicide. That did not happen in the end as in 1930; he travelled to Dresden to receive sex reassignment surgery. It was a German sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld who concluded that Einar’s brain was fine, but it was his body that needed correction. Hirschfeld himself was a fascinating figure. In 1919 he set up and Institute for Sexual Science where his recommendations for patients willing to be “cured” from their homosexual tendencies would involve “plenty of gay parties and lots of boys.” Unfortunately, in 1933 the Nazis destroyed the Institute together with Hirschfeld’s books and documents, including Lili Elbe’s medical record.

Lili went through 4 surgeries in total, but the last one turned out to be unsuccessful and resulted in her death in 1931. Nonetheless, she did manage to live a short, but happy life. Gerda and her divorced though remained friendly (in fact, Gerda financed much of Lili’s surgeries). Shortly before her death, Lili began a romantic relationship with a French art dealer, Claude Lejeune. Her last dream, however, was to become a mother – a dream she never realised. Instead, she became a pioneer and an icon for the transgender community whose legacy continues to live on.

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