From Einar Wegener to Lili Elbe, first gender reassignment in the art world
Einar Wegener, better known in art history as Lili Elbe, was born in Denmark in 1882, registered as male at the time of their birth. They studied at the School of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, specializing in landscape painting, where they met Gerda Gottlieb (Gerda Wegener), a Danish painter and illustrator, whom, still called Einar, they married in 1904. Gerda, by the way, supported them in the development of their career as a landscape painter. In 1907, after exhibiting at the Kunstnernes Efterårsudstilling, the Vejle Art Museum and the Salon d’Automne in Paris, they received the Neuhausens Prize, a Danish award for architects and visual artists.
Now, how, and when does Lili Elbe’s story begin? At what point does Einar discover that their being is a woman occupying the body of a man? Well, it all started by chance, one day Gerda’s model didn’t show up at her studio, so she asked her husband to act as a model, dressing up in women’s clothing, a dress, tights, and high-heeled shoes, to finish painting one of her works; at first Einar resisted, but then agreed and ended up feeling comfortable, experiencing a preference for female clothing, and posing as a woman. In relation to this experience, Lili confessed in their memoirs: “From the first moment I felt at home in that outfit.” Certainly, Einar had a very feminine body with facial features that made them look like a young woman.
Einar continued to pose as a female model for their wife, who soon became famous for her paintings depicting an attractive hazel-eyed redheaded woman, fashionably dressed or nude, whom Gerda presented as a cousin of her husband. What they initially assumed as a fun game, was acquiring the body of a woman, which was how Einar really felt identified. But by 1912 the secret came to light, it was discovered that Gerda’s model was her husband Einar, who had begun to appear in the artistic world as Lili Elbe, which is why the couple decided to go to live in Paris, where Einar could live frankly as a woman, as Lili.
In Paris, Gerda accompanied Lili to social gatherings, exhibitions, and dances, where she passed her off as Einar’s sister, while she watched Lili seduce men. This situation wasn’t easy for the Wegener couple. Although Gerda was understanding and became the biggest defender of Einar, little by little she realized, with great pain, that she was losing the man she had fallen in love with and whom she still loved, but they had already decided to leave that body to leave it completely to Lili, who wanted to take an important step to be totally a woman. Lili began to experience discomfort and fall into depression, so they decided to consult different doctors; some diagnosed them as hysterical, perverse, and others as homosexual.
Finally, in 1930, Lili traveled to Germany with the firm decision to transform their body, to change their genitals through surgery, which at that time was still very empirical. There they met Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the first homosexual and transgender rights organization. Under the supervision of this doctor, the first surgical intervention was carried out, which consisted of the removal of their external genital organs, then they gave them an ovary transplant, but they were removed because their body rejected them; the last operation consisted of a uterus transplant, but it wasn’t positive either.
Despite everything, Lili managed to legally obtain a change of gender and a passport with her female name. She stopped painting, because she considered that it was a job that she did like Einar Wegener, and like Lili, as a woman, with a new identity, she was no longer interested in continuing to paint; however, Lili Elbe is recorded in art history as a successful Danish painter, who died in 1931, after the last surgery, which caused an infection and, consequently, a heart attack. At her side was Gerda, who never left her, along with her new husband, officer Fernando Porta.