Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In this collection of thematically related essays in criticism, Wendy Lesser makes her subject the portrayal of women in works of art created by men. What she hopes will emerge is a deeper understanding of men’s relationship to the feminine, as revealed through art. The context of His Other Half: Men Looking at Women Through Art, as Lesser sees it, is a climate of gender-theory obsession, a climate whose separatist pressures she resists. Specifically, she absolves the artists whom she discusses from the accusation of misogyny, although one of the criteria that had led her to choose these particular artists is their willingness to risk that charge—and, one might add, the willingness of some feminist critics to make it. While Lesser concedes that some male artists may justly be accused of misogyny, a mere exposé of misogyny is not her concern here.

Drawing on the psychoanalytic tradition inaugurated by Sigmund Freud, especially as developed in the work of the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, Lesser employs as an organizing device the Platonic myth of the divided self. According to this myth, found in Plato’s Symposium, human beings were at an earlier time unified with—shared the body of—another being. The present gender isolation is not a natural condition, and people seek in their relationships with others to reestablish the primal unity that was lost. The myth may allude symbolically to the physical separation from the...

(The entire section is 595 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Wendy Lesser’s subject has significant implications for women, since women have a special interest in how their gender is depicted in art. That Lesser is primarily concerned with art produced by men acknowledges men’s historical domination of the art world. Her subject, then, might have been chosen by any feminist critic in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Yet Lesser’s relation to feminism is complex. Nowhere in her book does she describe herself as a feminist, and is frequently critical of what she calls “orthodox feminism.” One of her tactics is to oppose her reading of a text to a feminist misreading. The climate of gender-theory obsession that she challenges has largely been the creation of feminist critics. Lesser’s refusal to construct her argument on historicist lines would be viewed with suspicion by many feminists. Her claims that great art leaves behind the masculine and feminine; her suggestion that the circle can and should be closed; her reminder (borrowed from the novelist Dorothy L. Sayers) that, although women are different from men, they are more like men than like anything else in the world—all this might be seen by some feminists as a retreat to a supposedly discredited humanism.

Yet perhaps Lesser has opened up precisely the sort of questions that a vital feminism requires. Her fundamental assertion is that ideology offers at best a limited guide to reality. An ideology that rejects constant self-questioning is already far along the way to becoming an orthodoxy. If Wendy Lesser does not declare herself a feminist, she is no enemy of what is most creative in feminism. A feminism that did not have room for her critical spirit would be a poorer one.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Boston Globe. March 7, 1991, p. 78.

Chicago Tribune. March 21, 1991, V, p. 3.

Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951. As the title suggests, a study of the arts in social context from prehistoric times to the film age. This sweeping study provides a useful context for Lesser’s more narrowly focused investigation.

Hollander, Anne. Moving Pictures. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. A provocative exploration of the links between painting and cinema. The willingness to juxtapose supposedly high art and popular culture parallels Lesser’s approach. Hollander was one of the original reviewers of His Other Half.

Hudson, Liam, and Bernadine Jacot. The Way Men Think: Intellect, Intimacy, and the Erotic Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. A husband and wife who are also a scientist and a painter explore questions of creativity and gender that often echo Lesser’s interests.

Library Journal. CXVI, February 15, 1991, p. 194.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 31, 1991, p. 6.

The Nation. CCLIII, October 14, 1991, p. 456.

New Statesman and Society. IV, May 31, 1991, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review XCVI, April 7, 1991, p. 15.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. A provocative—some would say outrageous—journey across many cultures and most of the arts. Like Lesser, but more aggressively, Paglia distances herself from orthodox feminism, as well as from some other orthodoxies. Also like Lesser, she is concerned with questions of gender and artistic creativity. Paglia wrote an enthusiastic review of His Other Half.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 7, 1991, p. 9.

The Wall Street Journal. March 27, 1991, p. A12.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. Examines the development in art and culture of one of the West’s most powerful symbols of womanhood. The book, by one of the original reviewers of His Other Half, can usefully be compared to Lesser’s work for subject, methods, and conclusions.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, March 10, 1991, p. 5.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock, 1971. Winnicott is a major influence on Lesser, who includes five of his books, including this one, in her bibliography. By no means easy reading, but accessible to the general reader.