“I want to be a woman, not a painter,” says Einar Wegener to his artist wife, Gerda, who wryly reminds him that some have succeeded at being both. By this point in Tom Hooper’s latest film, The Danish Girl, Einar is no longer Einar but a transgender woman called Lili Elbe (portrayed by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne). Gerda (rising star Alicia Vikander) has supported Lili on an emotionally turbulent journey toward becoming her true self. The film is based on a both a novel and a true story and follows the pair from their meeting and passionate marriage in Copenhagen in the early 1920s to the creative ferment of Paris and then to Munich, where Lili undergoes a series of sex-change operations.


GERDA AND EINAR WEGENER IN FRONT OF GERDA’S PAINTING SUR LA ROUTE D'ANACAPRI DURING THE EXHIBITION IN OLE HASLUNDS HUS, 1924.
PHOTO: THE ROYAL LIBRARY, DENMARK.

The film is a tribute to the bravery of its real-life heroine, who was the first person to have the radical surgical procedures, and the story is particularly resonant now, as calls for transgender equality move to the forefront. But The Danish Girl is notably a story of artists and art making, of rivalries and career moves, dealers and patrons, models and muses. Specifically, what sets the central plot in motion, what allows Lili to emerge from Einar, is the act of painting.


EDDIE REDMAYNE STARS AS EINAR WEGENER, IN TOM HOOPER’S THE DANISH GIRL, RELEASED BY FOCUS FEATURES. CREDIT: FOCUS FEATURES.

In their Copenhagen apartment, which is bathed in the milky perpetual twilight of an interior by Vilhelm Hammershøi, Einar makes landscapes while Gerda is a painter of figures. Under pressure to complete a portrait of ballerina Ulla Poulson without her model, she asks Einar to pose. He agrees, and even gets into costume, slipping on silk stockings and a tulle skirt. Before she paints him, Gerda applies pigment to his lips and eyes, making him up as a woman with her brush, dabbing at his face as if it were a canvas. Feeling the silken fabrics and seeing his reflection, Einar is electrified.


TWO PAINTINGS BY GERDA WEGENER, FROM LEFT: QUEEN OF HEARTS (LILI), 1928, AND TWO COCOTTES WITH HATS (LILI AND FRIEND), CIRCA 1925. PHOTOS: MORTEN PORS.

So convincingly feminine is Einar that he attends an artist ball as “his cousin Lili.” Gerda thinks it a game, but it gradually becomes clear that Lili is supplanting Einar, who sheds his identity as both a man and an artist. The first time a man kisses her, Lili’s nose begins to bleed, the blood flowing like red pigment; it’s as if the embrace forced out the painter as well as the man. Even before this all-consuming transformation, Einar begins to lose interest in his work. In contrast to Gerda’s near-constant art-making activity—she even twirls her cigarette holder like a paintbrush—for several scenes we seem him working distractedly on the same landscape.


ALICIA VIKANDER STARS AS GERDA WEGENER IN TOM HOOPER’S THE DANISH GIRL, RELEASED BY FOCUS FEATURES. CREDIT: FOCUS FEATURES.

While Gerda loses her husband, she gains a muse. Lili becomes her primary subject, and the portraits start gaining notice from dealers, including one in Paris who invites Gerda to come to France and work. She decamps with Einar, who is in danger of being locked up in a psychiatric ward for sexual perversity. In Paris, Lili’s flowering parallels the rise in Gerda’s career, each feeding the other even as they drift apart. “What you draw, I become,” Lili says to Gerda. “You made me beautiful, and now you make me stronger.”


EDDIE REDMAYNE AS LILI ELBE AND ALICIA VIKANDER AS GERDA WEGENER IN TOM HOOPER’S THE DANISH GIRL, RELEASED BY FOCUS FEATURES.
CREDIT: FOCUS FEATURES.

The film has sparked renewed interest in not only Lili, but also Gerda Wegerner’s art and life. She was similarly self-styled, independent and determined, and her work was often unapologetically erotic. Her paintings, which combined the influence of Cubism and other avant-garde styles with traditionally “feminine” subjects such as women in gardens or at their toilettes, are the subject of a major exhibition at the Arken Museum in Copenhagen, on view through 16 May 2016.

Lead image: Eddie Redmayne stars as Lili Elbe, in Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, released by Focus Features. Credit: Focus Features.