The Peaceful Nightmares of H.R. Giger

BY Christian Sager / POSTED May 16, 2014
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© Fadeichev Sergei/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

In David N. Jahn’s documentary on H.R. Giger, the artist ruminates on how he can tell who the most influential families in Prague are by how large their gravestones are in the local cemeteries. If the same holds true for Giger’s own resting place, it should be marked by a massive, opulent mausoleum. Giger’s impact on both the art world and cultural imagination is immense. He has influenced thousands with his paintings, album art, music videos, concept designs, film special effects, art installations and even the construction of furniture and musical equipment. He will be remembered as a quintessential 21st century artist, combining the biological and the mechanical in a way that captured our nightmares.

Qualifying his work is impossible, so I’ll stop trying to explain it with words. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you explore Giger’s vast portfolio (perhaps starting with my colleague Robert Lamb’s excellent article on “How Xenomorphs Work”) and then return here so we can review his life together.

Born on February 5, 1940 in Chur, Switzerland, Hans Ruedi Giger was the son of a pharmacist. He trained early on with an architect before attending military college to learn to be a mortar gunner. By 1962 he was a student in Zurich at the School of Applied Arts, studying interior and industrial design. During this time he produced one of his first enduring works with a series of ink drawings titled “Atomkinder (Atomic Children).” The strange anatomical figures represented Giger’s ideas about nuclear war and the mutating effects it could have on humanity. Before graduating, Giger became interested in the theories of Sigmund Freud, starting to keep a diary of his dreams. Surely this diary was a resource he mined for years to come.

Upon graduation Giger began work for Andreas Christen, designing office furniture for the Knoll International company. Between working a nine-to-five day job and creating art late into the night, Giger met his first muse, actress Li Tobler. Many of Giger’s female renderings were inspired by Tobler and she even allowed him to paint her body in his signature biomechanoid styling. Within a year of graduating, Giger had his first solo gallery exhibition and began working together with film-makers and poets, progressing beyond illustration into multi-media and sculpture. In 1968 an old friend from his hometown persuaded him to give up his day job so he can commit fully to his art. Immediately following, Giger created his first extraterrestrial monster effect for a short Swiss film. Later in life, monster concepts were primarily what Giger was recognized for. But in the late 1960s he was steeped in the evolving world of fine art and painting, even dabbling in theatrical costumes and make-up.

Although the early 1970s were a productive time for Giger, they were also filled with tragedy. In 1973, his friend and artistic peer Friedrich Kuhn died. Two years later, after a nine-year tumultuous relationship, Tobler committed suicide. Giger later admitted her death left a “terrible emptiness” in his life. In 1976 he and his friends threw the “Second Celebration of the Four” as a memorial for his lost love.

Subsequently, Giger’s career and notoriety exploded, beginning with his 1976 design work on the never-released adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” by Alexandro Jodorowsky. In 1977 his art book “Necronomicon” was published, a copy of which found its way to the production of 20th Century Fox’s “Alien.” Both screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott were enamoured with Giger’s work and hired him to design concepts for the film’s monstrous antagonist, based on his painting “Necronom IV.” Giger joined the production and spent 7 months building mysterious aliens and spaceships. While the practical effects were engineered by Carlo Rambaldi, Giger’s imagination is where the classic xenomorph was born. On April 14, 1980 this was recognized when Giger received the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for his work on “Alien.”

Through the 1980s Giger worked on several high profile projects, including “Harkonnen” furniture based on his “Dune” designs and more film work, leading to his dissatisfaction with the end results of his contribution to “Poltergeist II.” He also developed controversial album art for artists like Debbie Harry and the Dead Kennedys. More commissions and art books followed until 1990, when he returned to the “Alien” franchise and worked on his own film, “The Mystery of San Gottardo,” eventually produced as a graphic novel.

Heading into the 1990s, Giger’s works were used in the computer game “Dark Seed,” while he continued to travel with exhibitions of his art. In 1995 he returned to cinema with designs for another alien horror franchise titled “Species.” Three years later a museum dedicated to collecting Giger’s work opened in the Chateau St. Germain of Gruyeres, Switzerland and also housed his private collection of other artists’ works. Adjoined in 2003 is the HR Giger Museum Bar, featuring his uncanny interior design.

Giger died on May 13, 2014 after sustaining injuries from a fatal fall. He was survived by his wife Carmen Maria Scheifele Giger, who is the director of the museum in Gruyeres. In Jahn’s documentary, artist Andre Lassen says of Giger, “If one man can inspire the whole world like that, than he must be a genius.” For centuries to come, Giger will be remembered for his unique vision, capable of reproducing our worst horrors and making them beautiful again.

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