How H.R. Giger Invented Sci-Fi's Most Terrifying Monster
Taschen's monograph on the late genius H.R. Giger took ten years to complete and is one of the most comprehensive examinations of the artist's inimitable work. In this excerpt, writer Andreas J. Hirsch explains why Giger's work is like a "Rosetta Stone."
The following excerpt from Taschen's monograph on the late H.R. Giger is by Andreas J. Hirsch, a photographer and writer who's curated multiple exhibitions on H.R. Giger's work. All images courtesy of Taschen.
In the spring of 1978, having just turned 38 years old, the Swiss artist H.R. Giger jotted these lines in his diary:
May 18, 1978. Work on the film is in full swing. The construction of the spaceship is almost finished. It looks good. Small models of the landscape and the entrance area of the spacecraft were made. The people who built these have no clue about my architecture. I said that they should get bones and build a model with plasticine...
At that time, H.R. Giger was already a successful painter whose bleak visions in a style that he termed biomechanics were widely distributed: in the form of popular poster editions that appeared in the late 1960s; in the large-format illustrated book Necronomicon, which he designed himself; and on album covers such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer's 1973 release Brain Salad Surgery. But the project he was now working on would make him both a worldwide cult figure and an Oscar winner. Director Ridley Scott had hired Giger to create the monster in the movie Alien. So the artist went to the Shepperton Film Studios near London to realize his designs for the world of the Alien with his own hand.
It was a painting in Giger's Necronomicon that had immediately convinced Scott to get him involved in shaping the alien creature: Necronom IV (1976), one of the key works in the artist's oeuvre. It shows in profile the upper body of a being with only remotely humanoid traits. Its skull is extremely elongated, and its face is almost exclusively reduced to bared teeth and huge insect-like eyes. Hoses extend from its neck, and its back is dominated by tubular extensions and reptilian tails. The male sexual organ is significantly extended and curved upwards over the head. It opens out into a transparent bulge in which a skeletonized being is visible like a little saint resting in a glass coffin.
The entire body appears to be under a tension that is maintained with ease. Only the powerful arms are still close to the human form, although wires and mechanical tracks are visible under their translucent skin and their material is less reminiscent of tissue than of the grain of medieval woodcarvings. The position of the hands in the top right corner of the image is also noteworthy: they appear to have been taken from the iconography of medieval altarpieces. The elegantly slender fingers contrast sharply with the creature's merciless mien. The hands seem in the process of taking something that is out of sight, as if trying out a grip or magically manipulating something far off.
As a matter of course, the figure takes up the entire picture plane and allows but a little glimpse at the organic background, which is dominated by slimy forms and without any spatial depth. Although there is no indication as to where the creature may be in space and time, it is still obvious that it cannot come from the world as we know it.
In order to turn this painted creature into a monster for a movie, the artist had to submit it to a complex transformation. The original painting fascinated Ridley Scott so much that he had Giger develop a complete "natural history" based on Dan O'Bannon's screenplay, which ultimately produced the final monster of the film. The creature's latent deadliness, which was already perceptible in the painting, turns into a sort of applied lethality that it acts out through dynamic motion in the film. Between these two stages stood the creative and artistic process of designing and producing the necessary figures, which Giger did primarily by himself. The process results in that mixture of fascination and disgust with which we encounter the Necronom and—with an even greater sense of dread—the Alien. Giger's monster represents a turning point in science fiction and horror movies, to which Alien brought a deadly life form from space that had never been seen before.
The myriad traces that Giger's work has left in so many different areas—painting and film, album covers, and tattoo culture, as well as in the genres of science fiction and fantasy—make it like a "Rosetta Stone," combining several "languages" that still have to be decrypted. Giger's work today appears like a code that has been far from fully broken.
Seen in art-historical terms, we have an artist whose work, although inspired by Surrealism and Symbolism, was highly autonomous and ultimately difficult to classify. He had already made a distinctive contribution to the fantastic art of the 20th century with his work before Alien. His biomechanical ideas are still developed independently in disciplines like media art and bio art, less as an aesthetic influence than as ideas influencing a conceptual approach.
Then there is the reading of Giger's work focusing on mythology and psychology, examining the role of individual and collective fears in his approach, which is not merely figurative and narrative but can also be understood in a modern way as the creation of a mythology. A work so densely populated with archetypes and beings from a post-human future, which is well beyond accepted notions of reality and which is so rich in symbols, shapes, and themes from occult traditions, also calls for a reading that includes interpretations from the fields of alchemy, astrology, and magic.
The diversity of the readings of these archetypal themes sketched out above, of dream and trauma, birth and death, means that one could easily fill a whole library— a "bibliotheca gigeriana," albeit fictitious for the time being—on the draftsman, painter, sculptor, filmmaker, and designer H.R. Giger.
Andreas J. Hirsch is a photographer, writer, and curator based in Vienna, Austria, where he has curated exhibits on H.R. Giger's work, as well as Pablo Picasso and Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
Taschen's publishing history with H.R. Giger goes back to the mid-1980s and includes the limited editions of 'Hologramm' and www.hrgiger.com. Project work for this SUMO-sized monograph dates back ten years and included close curatorial and design collaboration with Giger, as well as new photography of leading artworks held in private collections all over the globe. Due to his untimely death in 2014, Giger was unable to witness the final printing and binding of his opus magnum, but it stands in his memory as testimony to his prolific output and extraordinary vision.
The limited-edition monograph of H.R. Giger is available to pre-order on Taschen's website now.
See more images from the text below.
Biomechanoid 75 (1975)