CGSociety :: Special Feature
2 May 2013
The EXPOSÉ 8 Grand Master had an overwhelming influence on not just the art world, but also on movie-going audiences of any science-fiction movie made since ‘Alien’ in 1979. H. R. Giger’s most memorable works fall into the category of “biomechanoid” art, describing the merging of human anatomy with mechanical elements in dark, sexual, nightmarish worlds inspired by the night terrors that haunted him from childhood. Check out even more of this enthralling interview in the Ballistic Digital Art Annual EXPOSÉ 8.
H. R. Giger is recognized as one of the world’s foremost artists of Fantastic Realism. Born in 1940 to a chemist’s family in Chur, Switzerland, he moved in 1962 to Zurich, where he studied architecture and industrial design at the School of Applied Arts. By 1964 he was producing his first artworks, mostly ink drawings and oil paintings, resulting in his first solo exhibition in 1966, followed by the publication and world-wide distribution of his first poster edition in 1969. Shortly after, he discovered the airbrush and, along with it, his own unique freehand painting style, leading to the creation of many of his most well-known works—the surrealistic Biomechanical dreamscapes, which formed the cornerstone of his fame. From the onset of his career, Giger also worked in sculpture and had an abiding desire to extend the core elements of his artistic vision beyond the confines of paper into the 3D reality of his surroundings. To date, more than 20 books have been published about Giger’s art and in recent years he has also been honored in a series of major museum retrospectives.
Giger found inspiration for his art in the night terrors he experienced beginning in his childhood. Painting his dark and disturbing visions provided a kind of self-therapy: “I don’t have these dreams anymore. Well, maybe I do but I don’t make sketches of them. I draw some of the things I have dreamt. For example, there’s a rather unpleasant dream where I am stuck in a tomb and the only way out is a very narrow passage. There are huge stones and I am totally stuck. I cannot move at all. So terrifying, claustrophobic nightmares. I made some drawings of them, and every time I look at them, it puts me back into that terrible situation. Looking at these pictures bothers me so much, that I don’t look at them anymore.”
Giger’s first step into film
By the mid-1970s, Giger’s work was being exhibited internationally, and came to the attention of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, thanks to writer Dan O’Bannon who brought him to an exhibition. Jodorowsky was working on a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, and enlisted Giger to produce concepts for the production: “Jodorowsky said that he would like me to try some designs— I could create a whole planet, and I would have a completely free hand.” Despite completing numerous paintings for the project between 1975 and 1976, the film didn’t go into production. In 1979, when Dino de Laurentiis acquired the rights to ‘Dune’, he sought Giger out as the production designer for the movie, and set his sights on Ridley Scott as Director. Giger’s work focused on Harkonnen furniture pieces (which now reside in the Giger Museum). ‘Dune’ was shelved again, only to be revived in 1984 by Director David Lynch. Despite Giger’s work on the previous productions, Lynch opted for a new creative team to deliver his vision. Dan O’Bannon was not so easily diverted: “His paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”
In 1977, Dan O’Bannon was preparing to pitch his script titled ‘Alien’ to Brandywine Productions. Having already worked with Giger previously, he commissioned him to create two paintings (the Face Hugger and the Alien Eggs) for the sum of $1,000. “The idea that came to me looking at Giger’s paintings,” explained O’Bannon, “was if somebody could get this guy to design a monster movie, you’d have something completely original, that no one had seen before.”
Dan O’Bannon showed a copy of Giger’s first book, ‘Necronomicon’, to Director Ridley Scott, who was fascinated by Giger’s artwork: “Initially, Giger wanted to design the creature from scratch. However, I was so impressed with his ‘Necronom IV’ and ‘V’ paintings from the ‘Necronomicon’ book that I insisted he follow their form. I had never been so sure of anything in my life. They were quite specific to what I envisioned for the film, particularly in the unique manner in which they conveyed both horror and beauty.” Giger adds: “I only had a short time to draw the monster which I did in Zurich, then Ridley said: ‘Please come over [to England] for three or four weeks’. I was there for seven months.” While there, Giger worked in a custom-built workspace on Stage “B” at Shepperton Studios where he created the full-size Alien sculpture. Giger also created countless designs, besides the Alien itself, including the Face Hugger, the Chestburster, the Derelict, the Space Jockey (Giger also airbrushed the entire set and “space jockey” by hand), the Egg Chamber, and planet environments. Giger’s work earned him the 1980 Oscar for the Best Achievement in Visual Effects for his designs of the film’s title character, including all the stages of its lifecycle, and the extraterrestrial environments. In Ridley Scott’s introduction to H.R. Giger’s Film Design book, he said: “I found the experience of working with Giger to be a very positive one. He threw himself into the project with great intensity, and he was always very ready to listen and come up with useful solutions to the daily challenges which we face on such a complex film. I have come close to working with Giger on a couple of projects since we did ALIEN and it is my strong hope that we can work together again in bringing something special to the screen.”
Giger ventured into permanent exhibition in 1998 with the creation of his own museum, renovated from a 400 year old, medieval chateau high atop a hill in the picturesque Swiss town of Gruyères. It houses the most comprehensive permanent display of his paintings, sculptures, furniture and film designs, spanning his entire career: “I am aware it is unusual for an artist to open his own museum,” admits Giger. “My reasons for that decision were practical. First of all, there is a continuous demand by collectors and admirers of my art to see the original creations on display. Galleries and museums could only exhibit some of my art for a couple of months a year. Most of the time the majority of my paintings sat all in storage all year around. And now that my art is on permanent display, I can control their environment and ensure that the rooms and surroundings are suitable.”
The Giger Museum also houses the Giger Bar which opened in 2003 incorporating a womb-like interior with giant skeletal arches covering the vaulted ceiling. Together with the bar’s fantastic furniture and the stone floor with its engraved hieroglyphs, it evokes the building’s original medieval character and gives the bar a cathedral-like feeling. It took Giger and his team four years to complete the bar. “I built much more on this bar with my own hands than any of the other ones I had designed,” Giger explains. “I was fascinated with concrete, because I felt that an antique building such as this needed stone, aged stone, so I used a mixture of cement and fiberglass to achieve a rock gray color for most of the interior elements. The bar is like the ‘dot on the i’ of the museum. It illustrates that art is something you can use in everyday life. ‘Art in use’ or ‘Useful art’.”
“In the beginning I worked on these [large] paintings on a roll of paper, which I fixed with two nails on the wall and I spread out just the top so I could work on it. I had to sit to work with the airbrush so I set my elbows on my knees, so they wouldn’t move. Then, I worked on a 70cm area, the upper part of the painting, and when I finished that part I would roll it up some more and fix the nails higher, moving the painting up to work on the next part. I would repeat this until I was through with the painting from top to bottom. And so, I never really had an overview of the whole painting till the end when the paper was rolled out completely. That’s when I finally saw what it looked like. While I was painting, I had only the surface I was working on in my view, I couldn’t see the rest of the painting surface, which was rolled up. This process of working makes the painting have less of a fixed perspective. If you work on something and you can see the whole image in front of you all the time, then you have to stand on a chair to work on the top area of a large painting, then to work on the middle area, on the figures, while standing up, and the lower portion of the the image sitting down. The result is more of a perspective happening in the painting. But the way I worked, that didn’t happen. In my paintings where there is a perspective, it is because the painting has been changed later, after I finished it. I built a kind of lift in my home, so I could move the paintings up and down on a hydraulic lift through a slit I cut in the floor. That way, I was able to work in my usual way, sitting down with my elbows on my knees, one section at a time, after the whole work was completed, and be able to overwork the painting.”
Though Giger’s reputation began with the confronting and explicit images springing from his subconscious, it was never his intention: “It was never in my mind to try to shock people with that sort of imagery,” explains Giger, “I like my work very much, and I’m free to realise my dreams. Everyone has the freedom to think what they want about them. I have a different feeling for things than most people. To me, skulls are something pleasant—skulls and bones. As a child, I liked to play with skulls, or with ribs and spines. But I paint these things because I see beauty in them. For me, skulls or bones are something aesthetic. Through the act of painting, I transform the ugly into something beautiful or acceptable.”