Any lingering doubts about the protean authenticity of fetish artist John Willie’s genius are crushed under the weight of Taschen’s page-for-page reprint of all issues of Willie’s magazine, Bizarre, edited and introduced by contemporary fetish photographer Eric Kroll. Published intermittently from 1948 to 1954, Bizarre was a kind of Baedeker to the demimonde of fetishism, sadomasochism, transvestism and other now fashionable paraphilias in an era when married couples couldn’t be shown sleeping in the same bed on a movie screen. More importantly, it was a showcase for his original illustrations of fetishistically costumed women in bondage, which remain the biblical authority for fetish-derived art and fashion today.
Willie (real name: John Alexander Scott Coutts) was the sort of raffish figure the U.K.’s better classes have exported for years, a flamboyantly eccentric remittance man, paid by his stolid British merchant banking family to stay away from home. Shipped off first to Australia, where he began his tempestuous relationship with his volatile muse, Holly, he worked in intelligence during WWII before moving to New York to pursue his “hobby” full time. That hobby, which is often generically described as bondage, encompassed a wide variety of interests—reflected in the pages of Bizarre—ranging from corsetry to amputee fetishism. He carried on a voluminous correspondence with fellow enthusiasts around the world, publishing their invariably literate and often touching accounts of their secret passions under pseudonyms like “Hobbledehoy” and “High French Heels.” Excavation even turns up a letter from the young Fakir Musafar, the most visible contemporary interlocutor of the body-modification culture. Thus, among his other accomplishments, Willie became the first historian of what has since become a vast and much-inspected sexual bohemia.
But it is as an arbiter of erotic taste that Willie enjoys immortality. His elegant renderings of idealized women in dominant and submissive poses created an idealized form evident today in everything from John-Paul Gaultier’s dresses to the surgically sculpted bodies of modern porn stars. Though these images are executed with a light hand and an evident affection for their subjects, they possess an undeniable bite that comes directly from the unconscious. Willie’s pinups with missing limbs seem no less radical at a distance of four decades.
Indeed, careful though he was to avoid the strangling obscenity laws of his own time, he was bedeviled by postal authorities and lived with constant economic and legal insecurity, undoubtedly contributing to his propensity for strong drink and his early death. The end of his final affair with 19-year-old Los Angeles model Judy Ann Dull, who died at the hands of bondage murderer Harvey Glatman, may have contributed as well. The artist whose subject matter is sex lives in a perilous world, in every sense, and that very tang of risk, what the late Dr. Robert Stoller called “the element of harm,” is what gives Willie’s work its steely edge beneath all the lace. If there is an indispensable omnibus work of fetish art, this must be it. IL
Hardback in slipcase: 1 pages