Sex and the Canvas: The Rise of Fetish in Modern Art

The worlds of sex and art are not dissimilar, especially in that they can be quite unconventional. More often than not erotica, kink and fetish express themselves through art–and have been doing so since humans first began to depict the hidden and sensual aspects of their lives.


When it comes to sex and fetishism, the first modern works of art to embrace the theme began to emerge around the 1940s. Erotic images–drawings, etchings, paintings and the occasional photograph (though, perhaps surprisingly, few actual models) began to appear, and by the 1960s could be found in a number of fetish magazines dedicated to this purpose. Fetish art as a concept, then, is a form of artistic expression and a genre that focuses on the depiction of people in fetishistic situations–often bondage, domination or submission, sadomasochism, rope bondage or foot fetishism.


The Rise of Modern Fetish Art

Perhaps no two names should be more synonymous with the rich and vivid history of modern fetish art than those of Gene Bilbrew and Eric Stanton, both of whom began their careers at the Movie Star News Company.


Movie Star News itself as a publication was the product of Irving Klaw, himself a creator of bondage art. Stanton and Bilbrew would become known for their illustrations, drawings, and bondage stories in drawn form. Most of these would involve nude women–a cross between the popular pinup girls of the time and comic book heroines clad in tight costumes, corsets, and role play clothing adorned with whips, chains, and other BDSM accessories.


In 1954, Fetish Art reached a mainstream audience for the first time with the advent of Bizarre magazine. Under the guidance of another fetish artist, John Willie, Bizarre is today considered the precursor to many other popular magazines–and even The Avengers television show. (Dianna Rigg’s leather catsuit? You knew it looked familiar right…)


Magazines continued to be an important platform for fetish artists, as they helped serve as a promotional tool for creative names like Robert Bishop. In the publishing world, comic books became a mainstay for fetish art, where the female form in leather costumes, high heels, and stockings exuded a certain sexual energy. Today, comic book art remains hugely popular in fetish art circles, with artists like Alberto Vargas and George Petty creating custom pieces for names like Playboy and Esquire.


Fetish Art Today

In the 70 plus years since its inception, fetish art has mostly been relegated to its own inner circles and a few select showings. Until 2015, when the TASCHEN Gallery in Los Angeles hosted a huge show to celebrate pioneers Elmer Batters and Eric Stanton, as well as a selection of fetish-themed art from around the country. A rousing success, the show was a celebration of all things fetish, sadomasochistic, BDSM, and beyond–and a full-circle showing that art, like life, is at once dominant and submissive.

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