Home / Culture / HR Giger 1940-2014: Farewell to the Last Great Surrealist

HR Giger 1940-2014: Farewell to the Last Great Surrealist

Swiss artist H. R. Giger dies aged 74Yesterday, social media exploded with the news that Hans Rudolph Giger, leading light of biomechanical art, had died from injuries sustained in a fall. At one point, the UK chart of trending Twitter topics was so violently thrown by the artist’s departure that his name sat just below a hashtag pertaining to some ridiculous scrap in a lift between Jay-Z and Solange Knowles, almost as though he’d unleashed a biomechanical serpent in the lift shaft itself that had threatened to consume the warring musos – cabin, cables and all.

It was a neat encapsulation of Giger’s own influence on the pop cultural landscape: a condition that fell somewhere between lurking just under the surface – on the edges of vision – and parading before rapturously disturbed audiences on 30-foot-high screens filled with ghastly, yet maddeningly compulsive imagery. On one hand, Giger was the darkest and most sinister of aesthetic bogeymen; on the other, de facto chairman of showbiz glamour’s imaginary S&M suite.

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How he ever got to that point was something he’d probably given up puzzling over a long time ago. But for the rest of the world, that puzzling has only just begun. It will take decades for intellects in the overlapping worlds of art, entertainment and academia to properly square up to and grapple with Giger’s devastating talent, his daunting body of work and the bewildering singularity of his vision. There is an ocean of dense, troubling code to traverse, and a lot of snobbery already weighing down the boat. In Douglas E Winter’s The Dark Fantastic – a biography of horror polymath Clive Barker – the subject relates an offhand quip from a director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art: ‘The only way HR Giger gets into this museum is if he pays for a ticket.’

It’s typical of an attitude that mistakes Giger for an empty illustrator or Hollywood production stylist just because he conceived the look of Ridley Scott’s Alien. But as if that achievement were not grand enough, Giger was far more than that. He was the last, great Surrealist, channelling a sensibility that blended the horrifying allure of Max Ernst with the vivid meticulousness of Dali. It is impossible to look at something like Ernst’s 1940 work The Robing of the Bride and Giger’s 1976, pre-Alien painting Master and Margerita without grasping that you are seeing two versions of the same thing – not a copying, but the evolution of one outlook into a simpatico, but entirely fresh and unique perspective. That single Giger piece reveals much about the totality of his work: malevolently sexual, in a way that oscillates queasily between total consent and a total lack of consent; fanatically obsessed with The Line, and how it can ensnare and command the onlooker’s eye; and hewing with militant zeal to a drained colour palette that reeks of desolation, disease and sin.

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Hardly the stuff of pop culture, one might think. And yet if it did not reflect with such brutal honesty a range of secret desires that we all harbour, I wouldn’t even be writing this.

Giger was born on 5 February 1940 in the Swiss town of Chur. Trained as a draughtsman by his late teens, he soon began sketching his first skewed images in the margins of architectural plans. Those cartoony inks were his first mutants, or as he called them ‘Atomkinder’: nuclear children. Seeking more professional outlets for his brood, Giger eventually sketched the creatures for local agit-prop magazines Hotcha and Clou. In essence, the Atomkinder were absurdist theatre on the page, using their physical distortions to play blackly funny practical jokes on each other, in ways that comically subverted readers’ fears about the looming nuclear shadow.

With that sardonic wit in place, Giger’s skills leapt exponentially, and in little time he took on sculptural projects, together with more sophisticated pencil drawings that tapped into the very heart of Surrealism. Here, his taste for spacious layouts awash with detail began to flourish, and the figures he presented became rooted to the environment around them via crude forms of mechanical linkage or impalement. The style we would come to know as ‘Gigeresque’ was slowly crawling out of its birthing sac. However, it wasn’t until Giger took up the airbrush that his imagination and his draughtsmanship would become truly symbiotic. The union unleashed a flood of challenging, erotic images motivated by a vision that was hard to attribute to any influences, and that refused to treat beauty and horror as mutually exclusive.

alien_007In 1977, three years on from designing vehicles and landscapes for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed bid to film Frank Herbert’s Dune, Giger published a collection of airbrushed paintings under the title Necronomicon. With some of the pieces partly inspired by the stories of HP Lovecraft, that genre connection ushered the book into the hands of fantasy-art obsessives who were already fixated on the science-fiction drawings of Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, as regularly published in high-octane comic book Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal). Giger’s work also chimed with the cult acclaim directed at artists such as Rodney Matthews, Chris Foss, Roger Dean and photographic genius Storm Thorgerson. Ironically, Necronomicon – meaning ‘Book of the Dead’ – proved to inject Giger’s art with new life, for it was a copy of that book which found its way to one Ridley Scott: a young adman in deep prep on a film called Alien – only his second feature – and desperately fretting about the design for its eponymous creature. In Giger, Scott found a tireless visual ally, and in Alien, Giger found scope to begin an audacious multimedia ram-raid that, given the content, style and substance of his work, remains remarkable to this day.

As Alien and its sequels continued to feed a burgeoning demand for his art books, Giger picked up further production-design jobs, notably with Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Species (1995). Unfortunately, the directors concerned did not share Scott’s level of sensitivity towards his output, leaving him dissatisfied with the results. However, the films did embed his daring visual style even further into the cinematic subconscious, and guaranteed that imitation would follow. Comic-book artist Geof Darrow, for example, is a fierce talent in his own right – but it is impossible to think that his machine-world designs for the Matrix trilogy would have looked quite the way they did without Giger’s influence. Similarly, the violent biomechanical transformations of Shinya Tsukamoto’s unsettling Tetsuo trilogy seem almost like self-conscious and knowing attempts to out-Giger Giger. Meanwhile, Alex Proyas’s 1998 cult classic Dark City is veritably fuelled by Giger worship.

Although Giger’s work rate slowed dramatically in the years up to his death – with the exception of a brief return to the Alien universe for Scott’s controversial Prometheus – his imposing catalogue is sure to attract emotional and forensic re-examination for generations to come. And we have every faith that his powerful, baleful eye will glare right back down the ages… enigmatic, piercing and deathless.

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HR GIGER’S ALTERNATIVE TENTACLES

The artist’s sidelines show that he left barely an inch of pop culture untouched…

ALBUM COVERS Giger’s intense popularity among rock musicians led him to provide existing works or create bespoke pieces for a huge variety of bands. Among the most famous albums to feature his cover art were Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery, Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion and Carcass’s Heartwork.

POP VIDEO As an extension of his album-design work, Giger was invited to add his unique touch to photographs of Blondie star Debbie Harry for her 1981 solo album Koo Koo. Working freehand with his airbrush, Giger added piercings and other head adornments to giant blow-ups of Harry’s face, not thinking about the result until he decided he was finished. Delighted with the dramatic remix of her features, Harry hired Giger to direct videos for the Koo Koo tracks ‘Backfired’ and ‘Now I Know You Know’.

ENTERTAINMENT LAW In unquestionably his most extreme union with a musical act, Giger authorised Californian punk band Dead Kennedys to give away a poster of his highly confrontational piece Landscape XX (more commonly known as ‘Penis Landscape’) with copies of their 1985 album Frankenchrist. The band and its label, Alternative Tentacles, were subsequently prosecuted for ‘distributing harmful material to minors’, with authorities raising concerns about the effect that the painting could have on the band’s younger fans. While Dead Kennedys emerged victorious from a lengthy trial in 1987, by then they had already split as an artistic unit thanks to the toll the case had taken.

PORN Upon the occasion of the 1980 Academy Awards, where Giger was nominated for his Alien endeavours, Penthouse owner Bob Guccione paid fulsome tribute to the artist by devoting a 14-page chunk of the magazine to a retrospective of his most erotic works. The Alien production-design team of which Giger was part went on to bag the Oscar.

STAGE GEAR In a move that we somehow don’t think Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst would repeat, Giger struck a deal with guitar manufacturer Ibanez allowing the firm to launch a signature line of axes under his name. The extensively artworked instruments were immediately seized upon by extreme Metal acts. More famously, though, Giger also designed a sensual, biomechanical mic stand for Korn singer Jonathan Davis. The sexy stand is most prominently showcased in the band’s video for its 2002 single ‘Here To Stay’.

Words> Matt Packer

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