When I get interviewed I make no secret of how my first attraction to BDSM-like imagery came from a source as silly as the bondage-laden Penelope Pitstop episodes when I was but a very small kid. If you peruse my website you can then find the ridiculous story of my obsessive quest for tracking down a later source of my passion for erotic domination and submission games in the infamous Lady Cruel comics. But there was a third element in my deviant imprinting: a series of illustration books that shocked me with their raw depictions of exaggerated, unreal sexual tortures. They were hideously expensive imports from France, and they were signed by the mysterious Joseph Farrel.
Stumbling into them was stunning for a young man like me. Although I grew up surrounded by counter-cultural visual art often featuring very adult themes, those books were unlike anything I had ever seen, their odd horizontal format and occasionally bad printing quality included. Like the works of Dali, Barks or Giger they opened a window onto a world that was entirely alien and yet fully coherent with its own skewed rules and aesthetics – with the important difference that in this case they spoke of a world ruled by the basest instincts of humanity. That Farrel fellow took the pleasant ideals of love and civil living and gleefully minced them into something that was fortunately too over the top to be taken seriously, but which felt eerily somewhat plausible if only things like morals, laws and decency weren’t in place. And everyone knows they are just feeble social constructs after all.
Like a modern-day de Sade, that artist tricked you into giving just a peek out of curiosity, then kicked you in the stomach with horrific violent imagery, then nursed you back with undeniably sexy elements, then made you question society and finally your own thoughts and character. All with one illustration – and the effect stayed with you long after you had slammed the cover closed again.
I eventually grew out of that phase, but in the following years Farrel’s drawings kept popping up again and again – sometimes in magazines and fanzines (remember those?), and later still of course on the Internet. New material was uncommon, leading me to think the artist was now dead. With maturity my interest had however morphed into a lingering curiosity about the man behind those incredibly excessive works; I couldn’t find any information about him anywhere, though, so I let that minor obsession go. Until a postage stamp-sized picture in the corner of a random website caught my attention with a familiar drawing style, but a brand new subject. That was the incomprehensibly understated and out-of-place advertisement for no less than a Farrel biography!
Simply titled Farrel, the artbook featured many previously unpublished drawings but, more importantly, solid information about the artist. The author was the erotica French expert Christophe Bier, who I immediately contacted to finally clear up a thirty years old mistery. Here’s our conversation.
Hello Christophe! Can you please introduce yourself to our readers, and tell us about how the Farrel artbook came to be?
I am an author and director of documentaries on cinema, a professional actor but also a journalist specialized in pop culture, cinema, eroticism and pornography. I edited and published an imposing dictionary of pornographic and erotic French films (Serious Publishing, 2011) and wrote Les Editions du Couvre-feu, a bibliography of French flagellation novels of the 1930s (éditions Astarté , 2013). At the beginning of 2017, the Dilettante published Obsessions, a collection of my radio columns for the program Mauvais Genres on France Culture; La Musardine published Vice chez les femmes, an anthology of 3 S/M texts from the 1930s, which I prepared and presented. Canal + channel subscribers can also now see me in the silent erotic movie Les Prédatrices by Ovidie, with whom I have played several times.
I met Farrel in 2012 because I had to write a preface to his latest drawings collection, Pourquai pleurent-elles?. I had always been fascinated by his drawings. When I discovered him and was able to gather a large number of originals, many of which were unpublished, the idea of publishing a deluxe book immediately imposed itself. He was 78 then and it was time to spot the light on this discreet artist, to tell who he was and to comment his work, to explain how unique he was. The ambition was to celebrate him and to get him out of the tired ghetto of the sex shops for which he had always worked.
This is clearly not a mainstream book, but I have seen Farrel’s stuff pop up over and over through the decades and this is just something that doesn’t happen with obscure artists. How many fans does this illustrator have, in your estimate?
That’s hard to say… I hope at least 600, which is the number of copies I had printed! His books were constantly reprinted between 1975 and 1990. Back then in France there were many sex shops and erotic bookstores, not to mention direct mail sales to collectors and more: a whole market allowing a thriving business. You could find his works advertised on adult magazines, of which there were plenty.
Each collection likely sold between 20 and 40,000 copies, and considering the pirate German and Spanish editions his fame clearly went beyond France. Who knows what has become of all those fans… This new book will hopefully encourage new people who have never encountered Farrel’s works before to learn about his amazing, definitely not-mainstream universe.
Let’s start from the man himself. He had a rather prolific period in the Eighties, then his works dwindled to the point most people thought he had died; even the 2012 book looked like a posthumous collection featuring a bunch of apparently unfinished drawings. Now it turns out he was living in seclusion somewhere all along: what’s the actual story behind the disappearance? And, come to think of it, about the rest of his mysterious life?
All the drawings in the collection you mentioned were actually complete, but sometimes featured a new style developed in the twelve years since the previous Perversions. In addition the book was published on excessively light paper and went unnoticed, so I can understand why one could think that Farrel was dead. Here in France he was the victim of two things: first, the fall of the pornography industry to which he was linked. Less sex shops, fewer magazines. Both Farrel and his publisher believe that the appearance of DVDs has killed the public’s taste for books. The second element is the clear return of puritanism and self-censorship within the French society and in other European countries. The violence and absence of taboos in Farrel’s work certainly is no longer tolerable. Farrel is too outrageous for our current culture of consent. “Love shops” replace traditional sex shops. The sex trade is increasingly targeting women and urban couples. Farrel undermines it all. Pourquoi pleurent-elles?’s publisher had a hard time finding a printer. Many refused; one even reported him to the police! The publisher received the visit of the cops, was summoned by a judge and, since there was absolutely nothing reprehensible – these are only drawings, remember! – obviously there was no prosecution.
About Farrel, he continued to lead his discreet life, with his wife. He never knew how to show off. He never took himself seriously and therefore never sought to get out of the dying network of sex shops. He could have approached more traditional publishers. Farrel’s secret, which also explains the strength of his work, is that he never drew for a living. He had many jobs but he always drew for his own pleasure – and sometimes he executed private commissions which he sold at small prices elsewhere. He therefore continued to draw for himself, without lamenting further his disappearance in the publishing world.
By the way, in the closing notes of the book I noticed you thanked one Monique Farrel. I understand the difference between the art and its creator, but it surprised me that such a deeply misogynistic man had a steady female partner. Is the man really so removed from his dark fantasies in his everyday life? After all, I seem to remind that he once proudly signed his books ‘J.F. – pratiquant’ to stress he was the real deal.
Yes, in his first book Obéis! Sinon… he signed ‘Jo Farrel, practicing sadomasochist’. The man truly has BDSM in his blood, it was a very important part of his life. His private games clearly had nothing to do with the stuff he draws. Moreover, Farrel never drew from live models.
He built many of his play instruments like paddles, crops or wooden dildos and he frequented a BDSM club in Paris. His domination in real life however has of course always been with willing partners! The man I discovered in his private life is charming and caring with his wife. They are a modest couple without issues. Drawing has always been an outlet for him, expressing a violence he could nor would want experience in real life. He is a horror movie buff, and yet he can’t stand the sight of blood. We must really distinguish man and his fantasies.
I am not convinced that his work is misogynistic, but surely is misanthropic. The torturers are also cruelly depicted, with frightful rictuses. They are ugly, often vulgar. Farrel is full of rage, with a black view that spares nothing. Drawing sadomasochist scenes is far from easy for him: it is an exhausting, intense feat that he says sometimes leaves him crying. The real question is not «why are they crying?» (the translation of ‘Pourquoi pleurent-elles?’) but «why is he crying?». My opinion is that he is very sensitive to the violence and social misery of our society, which he emphasizes it in unsustainable family scenes. They express above all great despair and a kind of anarchy which brutalizes all the classical values we are trying to respect: family, marriage, the couple, children and the “living together” notion as we say in France.
Still, the power of Farrel’s drawings clearly comes from a strong personal passion. In one quote from your book he even says he couldn’t accept any work that didn’t give him a hard-on, so it is a bit difficult to believe social commentary is a priority for him. And yet his work contains an undeniable element of merciless satire. Can you elaborate on this?
This kind of analysis is mostly just me. Farrel himself is only guided by his erotic impulses. When asked about a drawing, he always comments on the erotic tension, explains the extreme care he takes to draw expressions, eyes, the importance of placing a third person, a witness, who will reinforce the humiliation of the victim. He composes his drawings in order to arouse the reader and attaches importance to every detail. He is immersed in the eroticism of degradation and misery, which really has nothing glamorous to it and yet can be very arousing. We can then detect a very dark humor that turns out to be a further weapon of degradation, cruel and hopeless. The social criticism is inherently there, because Farrel is inspired only by what surrounds him. The characters look like the ordinary people he meets, his neighbors, his bosses. The settings are taken from direct experience. He doesn’t revel in fantasy or “porno-chic” BDSM like History of O. It’s the sadomasochism of the Glorious Thirty (the thriving 30 years following WWII), with men in tie-suits and polo shirts while the women don’t wear luxury underwear. Farrel focuses between the proletariat and the middle class of the 1970-2000 years, more rarely on the upper bourgeoisie. With his violent art he dismembers the French social model.
You mentioned a distinguishing element of Farrel’s art: the presence of gloating, voyeuristic characters who experience the most shocking sexual tortures as a normal, everyday occurrence. Is this another jab directed to the French population, a sign of the times, just a personal kink or what?
He likes to depict even the most violent erotic cruelty as happenstance. We often see jubilant torturers but also more placid voyeurs, all of them callous toward the pain they cause; they are the archetypal sadists. This trivializes violence and makes it even more unbearable. In the texts accompanying some drawings we are struck by the joking tone of the dialogues. Sadism becomes almost a standard of banality.
I guess my previous questions boil down to one issue: is Farrel a modern-day dark philosopher producing intellectual critique in the wake of de Sade, or just a lunatic gleefully shitting on any and every decency and minority?
Farrel a philosopher? He only draws to arouse himself and his audience: that’s his only concern. The only message that can be drawn from his work would be to try and confront his fantasies without the slightest fear, to go like him to the core of an idea, however frightening it may be. His nihilism is impressive, but what is truly magnificent is his creative strength to face it. He does not always come unharmed: he weeps over his drawings.
Talking about minorities, three items of escalating concern are apparent in the production of this artist. The inherent contempt in the portrayal of non-caucasian ethnicities; how practically all of his victims are female; the frequent inclusion of apparent minors in the scenes. Again, any judgment of this depends entirely on whether these figures are used in a symbolic way or at face value – but could you give an in-depth analysis of this?
Farrel leverages many stereotypical representations. He forces the stroke. He plays on a racist fantasy of degradation in interracial compositions in which white women are tormented by blacks with, of course, very big dicks. He uses the proletarian middle-Easterns to better degrade the bourgeois. We can of course judge these stereotypes as racist or at least primary, but they are arousing. In the twenty-first century it is time to learn not to be afraid of fantasies, but to play and enjoy them – as Farrel does. It is time to give up trying to regulate fantasies, to want to sanitize them. Fantasies are obscene, indecent, rude, politically incorrect, so let them be. The same goes for the children: Farrel strictly respects nothing and tramples the fable of childhood innocence, because at home the children are often on the side of the tormentors. According to Farrel, childhood already carries the germs of sadism. It is a way of forcing a little more the despair of his work: nothing can be spared from mankind, everything is already rotten, degrading or sadistic. Wherever we look at Farrel, we can not escape from the horror. Choosing the side of the torturers? They are so ugly! A remark about pregnant women tortured and beaten: I feel that the true prey of sadists is less the woman than her belly, in other words the child that is yet to be born. In some texts that accompanied the drawings we discover that the pregnancies exceeded nine months, with sadistic doctors who prevented the babies from being born and the bellies becoming misshapen. This is perhaps one of the keys to Farrel’s work: the inconvenience of being born. Farrel made women pay for being born. He agreed with this interpretation when I discussed it with him. He sometimes says that he is ambivalent: sadistic and masochistic. The extreme violence of his drawings paradoxically expresses a true masochism, a self-hate, an anger for having been born. The pregnant woman – or married and future mother – becomes the central figure that concentrates all his anger.
Did the peculiar themes of the drawings cause any legal problem for the publishers in the past, and for you now?
With eroticism there are always problems, depending on the evolution or the regression of morals. I mentioned the problems of his last publisher. Under a socialist government the reprints of some of his books got a triple ban in 1984: on selling to minors, exposing and advertising. Today the main problem is fear and self-censorship. The pressures of concerned citizens associations created a climate of self-censorship in France, and that influences the whole field of erotic publishing. Publishers hesitate, unfortunately ask advice from law firms that justify their salaries by admitting censorship and recommending prudent cuts, modifying the age of the protagonists in novels and so on. The biggest enemy of publishers today is themselves and their fears.
From a strictly legal point there is no problem in publishing drawings like those of Farrel. He is not a revisionist, he propagates no terrorist ideology and he only tackles his own fantasies (and our own). As an artist, he uses his freedom of creation. But it is true that many people advised me to go and see a lawyer. I evidently refused and devoted my money to publishing a beautiful edition, rather than squandering it with alarmist lawyers. We live in a world seeking zero risks and wanting to sanitize fantasies. Using the protection of childhood and that of human dignity as your two main arguments is the mark of fascism. If we truly care about human dignity and the protection of children, it is better to help the real victims, those closest to us upon whom we too often close our eyes. The “good” citizens who attack artistic works only want to save imaginary victims and despise the cathartic value of fantasies.
Personally, I probably have a hard time taking Farrel’s work seriously because all of his horrors are taken to such extravagant excesses that, like splatter movies, they exist in a realm of pure fantasy no matter how mundane each single detail is. In a sense, he is the only Western ero-guro artist I can think off the top of my head. Which brings us to the next question: why is he so unique in his approach, even among erotic – and therefore supposedly liberated – artists?
May it be that Farrel is perhaps the most free spirit of them all? His strength is that he never drew for a living. He seized the opportunity of being sold in sex shops only because a publisher had discovered his drawings, but unlike many artists he does not depend on any gallery, hasn’t ever had an exhibition, nor he seeks to please an audience and sell. This is why he allows himself no bound. I find that this is akin to an artist of raw art, drawing without filter. He is a self-taught artist, claiming to be realistic perhaps as a provocation. But he lets imagination invade his drawings; he pushes the limits beyond what is possible. Take his breasts stretched for years, taking on cartoon proportions – it is the detail of the duration that, according to him makes the transformation realistic! His approach toward BDSM is quite unique even in its total absence of glamour. It is an aesthetic of ugliness, unlike many SM illustrators where the suffering female characters, even when chained or bound, always seem to pose in front of a camera, pretty in their lingerie. Farrel does not embellish anything.
I am under the impression that the digital revolution and the Internet have homogenized erotic art somehow, even in its kinky fringe. Are there revolutionary artists like Farrel still out there, or has market and self-censorship really taken over? Whose names would you think of?
Is it self-censorship or only a lack of talent and imagination? Many artists do not really have strong universes to depict: they copy or aim to stick to a certain market. For Farrel, drawing is necessary, vital, for many others, drawing is… cool: that’s where all the difference is. Fortunately, there are other formidable kinky illustrators: Mavado Charon, for example (who bought the Farrel book!), Antoine Bernhart, Anne Van der Linden, Asaji Muroi, Namio Harukawa and Sardax (both with male victims). And then Alonzo Serai, completely obsessive and crazy with female-bitches and white fillies trained by angry and vicious emirs.
Among more mainstream erotic artists I would mention Stu Mead, Mïrka Lugosi, Reinhard Scheibner, Roberto Baldazzini, Guillaume Soulatges… I can add another name, specialized in the femdom genre: Yxes, because I worked with him on a album to be released in 2018 titled SM le maudit. All women (and men!) who do not support Farrel’s orientations should love this next comic set in Weimar Germany in the early 1930s, with an aspiring comedian who becomes the submissive star of illegal BDSM porn.
The lesson of Farrel to the younger generations: howl your drawing to the face of the world, without worrying about anything. Creation is madness, not calculation.
However you see it, the illustrations by Farrel represent a punch to the stomach that has very few equals in our era of de-clawed, bourgeois-friendly, mass-market “transgressions” like 50 Shades of Grey. Is it because we are living in more civilized times, or has society lost something along the way? I am honestly having a hard time making my mind about it…
Modern societies are obsessed with control: control of individuals, ideas, regulations, zero risk worship, extension of the politically correct ideology. We are losing the sense of unexpected, of adventure, of danger. They revolve around pernicious ideas such as respect for human dignity. Artists have a decisive political role to play in fighting this ideology. At 83, Farrel has nothing more to show, but his independence shows the way. By never having been afraid of his fantasies, he expressed his absolute faith in the imagination. Joseph Farrel’s painful and black drawings do us good. They touch on poetry and dark dreams.