- Monster Maker
- Nightmare Therapy
- Bedfellow of Controversy
- The Art
- The Man
- Fun Bits
It is a bizarre fact that H.R. Giger’s artwork is celebrated in every corner of the world. His paintings are overtly horrific or overtly pornographic, most often both. So why the widespread adulation? The long answer regards how people shun the reality of A) their own biology and B) the shortcomings and side effects of our societies. The short answer is Hollywood. Giger was the designer behind the horrifying xenomorph of the Alien franchise.
Hans Rudolph Giger, born in Switzerland, was a surrealist painter and industrial designer. His paintings are portals into a hellish world merging biology and machinery, or vast spaces of wholesale impersonal violence. In short, they are mirrors into the harsh realities of the world humans have created. In the beginning his exhibitions shocked people so severely they threw refuse and even dog feces at the windows of the galleries. (Jahn) Perhaps the most surprising aspect of his art was its source: the man himself. Giger’s agent Leslie Barany wrote in 2002, “Giger’s life bears little resemblance to his paintings, and neither do they reflect any aspect of his real personality. He seems as surprised as anyone at what is hidden, in plain sight, within. It’s a wonder he has not gone mad.”
Giger was born in the throes of WWII, when the most civilized societies on earth were sprouting concentration camps. He grew to manhood during the cold war, maturing under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Not surprisingly, through it all he suffered nightmares. His manner of coping with his chronic nightmares was found in art, despite living in a family where neither parent was artistic.
He maintained a diary of his nightmares, such as one suffered in 1970 wherein Giger found himself trapped in a claustrophobic bathroom. The mouth of the toilet yawned menacingly and the room began to shrink around him. The walls and pipes began to look like loose skin with festering wounds. Small creatures appeared to glare at him from the corners and cracks. Upon awakening, he wrote down the dream and eventually transformed the unpleasantness into a series of paintings. “[The nightmares] were horrifying,” Giger wrote. “But I found that when I made drawings about them, the dreams went away. I felt much better. It was sort of self-psychiatry.”
Yet Giger maintains that there is beauty within the imagery. “Sometimes people come and see my paintings and they see only the horrible, terrible things. I tell them to look again, and they may see that I always have two elements in my paintings—the horrible things and the nice things… I like elegance, I like art nouveau; a stretched line or a curve. These things are very much in the foreground of my work.” (Scanlon, Gross). In a later interview he doubled down upon such thoughts. “A monster isn’t just something disgusting—it can have a kind of beauty.”
Giger himself was not unaware of his art’s effect on people. His art leads to anxiety. Viewers are simultaneously fascinated and horrified, aroused and repulsed. “My paintings seem to make the strongest impression on people who are, well, who are crazy,” Giger said in a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone.
But entirely rational people do like his work [including this author], foremost among them Hollywood producer Dan O’Bannon, who in 1978 was looking for a unique monster for his latest film project. He showed Giger’s art book, Necronomicon, to the director Ridley Scott. Paying particular attention to the lithographs Necronom IV and V, Scott “just about fell off the desk and said, ‘That’s it!’ Why look farther? I’ve never been so certain about anything in my life… I realized it made a lot of sense to have Giger design everything that had to do with the alien. That includes the landscape and the spacecraft.” (Alien DVD extra).
Scott’s instincts proved correct; the movie was a huge hit. Even twenty years later the Alien ranked highly in a 2001 Media Psychology Lab survey of America’s favorite monsters. While the xenomorph only hit #10, it should be noted that those surveyed were as young as six and old as ninety. This no doubt explains why the majority of top entries skewed towards the iconic, being both kid-friendly and less-violent: #1 Dracula, #3 Frankenstein, #4 Godzilla, #5 King Kong.
Giger went on to win an Academy Award for his design work on Alien (Best Achievement for Visual Effects, 1980). Consequently he became very much in demand in Hollywood.
Bedfellow of Controversy
Working with Giger was never an easy proposition. He was terrified of flying and, as a resident of Switzerland, had to sail repeatedly to both England and America to work on location. He would thusly remain for months at a time and seek greater input. Giger had been spoiled by the carte blanche treatment he was given on the Alien project. While the ends overwhelmingly justified the means, Hollywood producers viewed the situation differently. His demands for autonomy rubbed them the wrong way, and before long Giger was blacklisted. Giger was very pragmatic about his relationship with Hollywood. In his own, imperfect English:
“After Alien my film design was no more very good because I was not involved enough… people do what they want in the studios. You make a good design then they do what they want [with it]. I got more and more depressed and the work I did… was no good. At the end it was no more my own creations, they are all creations from the executive people and completely changed. I didn’t want to give my name for that. I probably got on the black list, if it exists, because I criticized the films I worked [on]. Who was doing this shit? They thought they owned my artwork when it was clear it was mine. They would steal my stuff and make new films with my stuff. That happened all the time. I’m happy that I’m not informed.” (Le Flair)
Ironically, after he won the Oscar the word got back to Switzerland and museums stopped buying from him because they didn’t want art from a Hollywood designer! Being a Swiss, he’s very laid back about money and influence. Should anyone get the impression he’s lamenting ‘woe is me’, facts bear out his side of things. His artistic influence is obvious in a great many Hollywood productions without ever citing him as a source or even inspiration. The inference is clear in Hellraiser’s Cenobites, Star Trek’s borg, and The Matrix’s sentinels.
Interestingly, the only Alien movie that did not have any of Giger’s input whatsoever (usually only a token nod to his creations) is the great sequel Aliens, by James Cameron. While showing the greatest respect for the artist, he made no effort to hide his awareness of Giger’s position in Hollywood in a two-page letter he wrote to the artist.
The Art: Biomechanoids and Gigerotica
But what, exactly, was the crux of what Giger painted? He was most famous for his biomechanics, when machines appear to be organic and organisms have a mechanistic quality. An example of this in architecture is his huge painting of a New York City skyscraper wherein the hundreds of windows rising higher and higher morph seamlessly into vertebra of something vaguely human. He was more famous for this fusion in people. His early ink drawings, such as 1967’s “The Atomic Children”, featured amputees and monstrosities created by the radiation of a future nuclear war, combined with mechanical additions such as respirators that are built into the sleek but malformed bodies. They are hideous because they are all-too possible.
Taking the iconography a step further, he crafted engineering marvels that looked vaguely (and all too frequently not vaguely) as if engaging in acts of coitus. He took mankind’s interdependence with machinery to an uncomfortable, though perhaps inevitable, conclusion. His imagery spoke volumes about the insistence of human biology in a coldly mechanized world. This machine/alien/human pornography became the logical extension of his hallmark biomechanicals, and has earned the title Gigerotica.
The Man: Madness and Kindness
As stated in his agent’s letter, Giger was a man unlike his work. The production designer of Alien, Michael Seymour, shared a sweet anecdote about the artist: “I always liked him. There was a sweet side to him. He brought his mother over. His mother had had hip replacements and he took care of her.”
Alas, people see what they want to see. Alien Executive Producer Ronald Shusett commented, “He was so strange. He was like Dracula… Peter Lorre or something. He was always dressed in black. He had a very soft voice. There were always these horrible stories we heard that he had the skeleton from his fiancee who’d committed suicide. He was obsessed with his work; he had bones all over the place…”. (Alien DVD extra). While rumors regarding his dead fiancee were exaggerated, Giger’s obsession for working with bones true.
Giger’s presence was prolific not only in the world of feature films and television but also in the music scene. He created album cover art for over a dozen musicians in both Europe and America. Of particular note were his two album covers for Emerson, Lake and Palmer and his extensive work with Blondie front woman Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein. The former created entire films with Giger, and the latter toured using a guitar adorned with Giger artwork. Korn frontman Jonathan Davis commissioned Giger to design a microphone stand, which he still uses. Giger’s final commission was in 1989 for Steve Stevens’ Atomic Playboys. Thereafter his artwork was used via licensing agreements. A partial list of album covers:
- Walpurgis, The Shiver (1969)
- Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery (1973)
- Floh de Cologne, Mumien – Kantate für Rockband (1974)
- Magma, Attakh (1978)
- Debbie Harry, Koo Koo (1981)
- Celtic Frost, To Mega Therion (1985)
- Pankow, Freiheit fuer die Sklaven (1987)
- Steve Stevens, Atomic Playboys (1989)
- Atrocity, Hallucinations (1990)
- Sacrosanct, Recesses for the Depraved (1991)
- Danzig, Danzig III: How the Gods Kill (1992)
- Carcass, Heartwork (1993)
- Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Then and Now (1998)
- Triptykon, Eparistera Daimones (2010)
But, as always, it’s the controversy we remember most! As reported in Rolling Stone: “Punk group the Dead Kennedys included a poster of Giger’s Landscape #XX, also known as Penis Landscape as it depicted rows of erect phalluses in coitus, in the packaging of their 1985 album Frankenchrist, and were subsequently put on trial for obscenity. When a 14-year-old girl bought the album for her 11-year-old brother, her parents filed a complaint with the California attorney general. The Dead Kennedys had included a sticker on their album art bearing a warning about the poster: “Some people may find [it] shocking, repulsive or offensive – life can sometimes be that way.” The group later removed the poster and included a voucher fans could mail in for it. The obscenity case ended in a mistrial.”
Also of note was Giger’s contribution to computer video games, specifically Cyberdreams’ Dark Seed and its sequel, Dark Seed II. Luke Plunkett’s review for Kotaku says it best: “… as a work of art, it was amazing. Giger’s nightmarish art lent the game… a look that wasn’t just fresh for adventure games at the time, but for all games, from any time.”
Despite the controversies that swirled around him, or the trauma his work induced in unprepared viewers, H.R. Giger led a largely untroubled life in Switzerland. He surrounded himself in art, finding it everywhere he looked. Like most prolific creators, he utilized any and every means to channel his creativity, from pencil and ink to acrylic to clay. Once he put a cheeseburger in the oven to reheat it and forgot it for four hours. The resulting charcoal brick of seeded bun and beef was placed on his doorstep leading to the garden as art. (Jahn)
While his preferred weapon was the airbrush, Giger enjoyed creating entire, immersive art projects. He built his own train with the railway following a circuitous route through his sculpture-filled garden and even through his house [a ride for which this author would pay dearly]. He constructed entire bars featuring his xenomorph architecture and furnished with “Alien” tables and chairs. Indeed, you can buy an entire “Alien” dining set. The former can be found in Gruyere and Chateau St. Germain, Switzerland. The latter can be ordered online.
Beyond his Academy Award, Giger received a total of 22 awards and nominations in the fantasy art world. Highlights include Grandmaster of Spectrum Awards in 2005 and entry into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2013, where he joined the who’s who of fantasy legends such as George Orwell, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron, and J.R.R. Tolkein (to name a very few). The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City staged an exhibition series The Unseen Cinema of HR Giger in May 2015.
Permanent Giger museums exist in Chateau St. Germain and Gruyere, Switzerland. They are not for the faint of heart. The museum in Gruyere features on the first floor a Red Room, depicting all his Gigerotica. The second floor has the Spell Room, where he showcases his work regarding the demonic, much inspired by Charles Manson and such. The third floor has the New York City Room, featuring his unnerving, twisted cityscapes.
- Gigeresque is an adjective in the dictionary, meaning “Reminiscent of H. R. Giger (born 1940), Swiss surrealist painter best known for nightmarish biomechanical imagery.”
- 15 original artworks by H.R. Giger are missing (some stolen), among the list are paintings, drawings, sculptures, and the original painting for the cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery (stolen from the National Technical Museum in Prague). For us monster lovers, perhaps the more sorrowful loss is the 1968 Armor for a Dog, made of polyester.
- No less than 17 official documentary films were made about Giger and his work, from 1967 to 2007.
- For a video of his artwork to music: https://youtu.be/IoKWge4Yz_s
Sources and Citations
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Dwedic. “Behind-The-Scenes Images Of H.R. Giger Working On ‘Alien’”. Stitched Together Pictures. http://www.stitchedtogetherpictures.com/2014/04/17/behind-the-scenes-images-of-h-r-giger-working-on-alien/ (accessed 3-22-17).
Grof, Stanislav. “HR Giger and the Soul of the Twentieth Century.” Icons, Taschen GmbH, Hohenzollernring, Koln. 2002.
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