The Danish Girls
after Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, wives and artists
1. Lili Elbe, artist: see how her watercolours pool to poplar; papery sentries rising over a pond. Her paintings are still signed Einar Wegener: she is still in disguise: sideburns, tie, slacks, vest. The canvases show bridges, gardens, interiors- perfectly presentable, but not especially memorable. Like Einar, they are classic, composed, orderly, and a little nervous. Nothing coloured outside the lines.
2. Gerda is the only one who sees her. Einar’s wife.
3. Gerda is bold and brave, the kind of woman who takes the bull by the horns. The first one in the pool. She is not like other women of her day: she never apologizes for her appetites, Champagne or otherwise. She loves Copenhagen, sturdy and sensible, bookish and drab, because she stands out like a festoon of fuchsia flowers. She loves Paris more, because there are so many artists there, and music, and dancing, and cigarettes.
4. Lili cannot explain why she stops painting. Everything inside of her is taken over by her becoming. As if that metamorphosis has meant shedding who she was before. Family and friends wonder if Einar is outshined by Gerda’s flamboyant canvases, a rainbow riot of festive and untamed women. They presume the staid Einar is relegated to the shadows by a wife he can’t control.
5. They know nothing.
6. In fact, Gerda is the one who accepts what Lili can barely accept herself. Gerda guards and protects her. Gerda invites her out of her shell, giving her a safe space to land. Gerda does not abandon her, even as Einar abandons Gerda. Gerda sees Lili almost before she does.
7. Lili is a secret for a very long time. She is a secret that she does not know herself how to keep. If she were Gerda, she would fling open the windows and doors and proclaim herself to the world, messy, uncertain, unfinished, unabashed. Here I am!
8. But she is not Gerda. She is more reserved, restrained. She prefers to avoid attention, or confrontation. She gets no fuel from shocking or provoking. She wants time to transform. She wants to feel at home in her new dresses and T-strap slippers before anyone else notices.
9. Gerda has the solution. Lili does not have to stay home, but can go anywhere she wants now. They go together, to luncheons, exhibitions, concerts, cocktail parties. Gerda introduces her to everyone: this is Lili, Einar’s visiting cousin. Girls on the town. It is the perfect foil. No questions asked.
10. Lili Elbe, muse: Gerda, painting her from the very beginning. Lili, at a mirror, astonished. Lili in Paris, in a long white satin gown, as rounded and slender as a swan. Lili in nothing but ruby mules that offset her strawberry blonde tresses. She is painted from behind, with the outdated relics of her biology camouflaged, affirming the soft and feminine curves. In ribbons and sapphires, in stockings and silk gloves, in beads and bows and bonnets, in a cloche, in other fetching millinery. Portrait after portrait of Lili, hidden in plain sight.
Lorette C. Luzajic‘s flash fiction is widely published. Her work is often inspired by visual art. She is the editor of The Ekphrastic Review.