The Nightmarish Works of H.R. Giger, the Artist behind “Alien”
If you don’t know the xenomorph by name, you know it by sight: the black, eggplant-shaped head; the dripping stalactite teeth; the sleek, spiky body that can appear strangely human; the weaponized tail. The xenomorph is like Saturn from Saturn Devouring His Son come to life, but as an alien from the furthest, most despairing reaches of space.
Hans Ruedi Giger is best known for shaping Alien’s visual direction, which turns 40 this month. His unique vision continues to inspire, even five years after his death—as proved by the North Bergen High School students whose production of Alien: The Play went viral in March. But Giger’s work as a visual artist extends beyond the sci-fi franchise, combining horror and the grotesque and tapping into our unending fascination of the things that frighten us the most.
Giger’s art practice was molded from an early fascination with “skulls and mummies and things like that,” as he said in 2009, as well as his own childhood fears. Born in 1940 in Chur, Switzerland, he began sketching and drawing as a boy in order to channel his fright from recurring nightmares and strange dreams. “He repeatedly spoke about that,” said Andreas Hirsch, who curated the 2011 show “H.R. Giger Träume und Visionen” (translated as H.R Giger Dreams and Vision) at the Kunst Haus Wien in Vienna and became friends with the artist. According to Hirsch, the Giger family home in Chur fueled his anxieties. “[He] recalled open windows that went to dark alleys, the cellars of that old building that sparked fears in him very early on,” he said. “Those fears were matched with an early fascination that those things had for him.”
Giger also cited growing up in Switzerland during World War II, in close proximity to Nazi Germany, as the source for some of the darkness in his work. As he said to Vice in 2011: “I could feel the atmosphere when my parents were afraid. The lamps were always a bluish dark so the planes would not bomb us.” As Giger came of age during the Cold War, the threats of atomic warfare loomed. “He reacted to it by creating visions that sort of transformed those fears—but not to a happy ending, but in an artistic way that he could handle,” Hirsch said.
Despite protestations from his father, who wanted him to follow his own career path as a pharmacist, Giger studied architecture and industrial design at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich. Upon graduating in the mid-1960s, he set out on a career as an interior designer, but soon decided to pursue visual art full time. He moved first from ink drawings and oil paintings to eventually using an airbrush to create his work.
By the early 1970s, word of Giger’s talent had spread. “He started with exhibitions at galleries or at bars or social spaces,” Hirsch said. “But he quickly somehow developed beyond the confines of the art world.” The artist, who described his style as “biomechanical,” popularized the biomechanical art aesthetic. Notably, his work was featured on the album cover for Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1973 record, Brain Salad Surgery, which is widely regarded as a landmark in progressive rock.
Giger even managed to gain the attention of one of the 20th century’s most important artists: ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune (1965). Jodorowsky enlisted Giger to help with concept art for Dune, but when the project stalled, Giger’s foray into the world of film temporarily came to a halt.
Then, in 1977, Giger published the Necronomicon, the first major collection of his drawings, considered today to be his second-most influential output next to Alien. The title, a reference to a fictional book of magic from the world of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, sets the tone for images that are still startling today: strange mechanical gremlins perch on towering lead pillars; skeletal alien beings look out on mist-covered wastelands; and mutilated, fleshy bodies are hooked up to hulking machinery. All of the drawings are balanced between ghostly white tones—the color of moonlight on concrete—and dark hues that, at times, border on a deep shade of abyss.
Director Ridley Scott encountered the Necronomicon when he saw a copy laying on a desk at the offices of 20th Century Fox, just after he signed on to Alien. “I took one look at it,” Scott told Starlog, a monthly science-fiction magazine, in 1979, “and I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life. I was convinced I’d have to have him on the film.”
The basis for the xenomorph came from two lithographs in the Necronomicon that featured a dark, metallic-looking being with the oblong head that would come to characterize the monster. “They were quite specific to what I envisioned for the film, particularly in the unique manner in which they conveyed both horror and beauty,” Scott wrote in the introduction for the book H.R. Giger’s Film Design (1996). The xenomorph became a cultural icon, appearing in eight films as part of both the core Alien franchise and spin-offs, as well as video games, short films, and countless other pop culture references.
By many accounts, Giger’s experience working on Alien was a positive one, but his new level of fame made it harder for him to choose which projects would be worth his time and talent as an artist. He continued his work in film, contributing designs to Poltergeist II (1986), Species (1995), and Batman Forever (1995), but he often created work for films that went unused or for projects that never got off the ground. So Giger found new ways to pursue and put his work out into the world.
One of these ways was through his Giger Bars—venues in Chur and Gruyere, Switzerland, that feel like stepping into the artist’s world (a third bar in Tokyo and a “Giger Room” in New York’s now-closed Limelight club no longer exist). For the bar in Gruyere, part of the renovated medieval chateau that houses the H.R. Giger Museum, the artist incorporated his own designs of spine-like alien skeletons into the stonework. At the tables and counters, Giger placed his Harkonnen Chairs—black, aluminum thrones originally designed for Jodorowsky’s lost Dune film back in the 1970s.
“He did not stop creating art—he just turned his attention or his scope of his art to environments, to larger contexts,” Hirsch said. “I think that is one of the closing cycles of the young interior designer finding his way in the art world and the later, mature artist, creating the spaces for his creatures to inhabit.”
It seems fitting that Giger’s pursuit of art was in part driven by the dreams and nightmares he had has a child, finding that his terrors resonated with the wider world. “He addressed his personal fears but also collective fears,” Hirsch said. What’s compelling he added, is how Giger’s art allows us to come to terms with that darkness—as frightened or as hopeless as his creations may make us feel, we are still drawn back for more. There was nothing more terrifying than the image of the xenomorph’s wet jaws opening, revealing its inner mouth to a shaking Ellen Ripley. Today, teenagers in New Jersey act out the scene in homemade costumes for their school play, and Sigourney Weaver shows up for the encore. Sometimes recurring nightmares can be good for us.
Matt Domino is Artsy’s Director of Editorial Operations & Growth.