Back in the heady days of my youth, the one thing I was determined to be was an artist. I loved drawing and painting (mostly the former), but the idea of actually doing those things for a living was nothing more than a nebulous concept in my head, something which was more of an unconcretised notion than anything solid. For instance, I didn’t really know what kind of artist I wanted to be: I was interested in wildlife back then, and I thought that combining the two interests would be ideal. I also liked science fiction and fantasy art, and creating such material was another possibility. One other arena of art appealed to me too: surrealism – René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali had opened my eyes to broad and insane probabilities. However, one day, my father took me to the local newsagents and from that point on everything changed.
I picked up a copy of the very first issue of OMNI magazine – a high quality phantasmagoric blend of science fact, fiction, and art. That was my entrée into the mind-bending world of the European Fantastic Realist school, an amalgamation of fine art and popular culture. Artists of the calibre of Matti Klarwein, Gottfried Helnwein, Ernst Fuchs, and Di Matteo, as well as comics artists Moebius and Enki Bilal, broadened my artistic horizons as no creators had done before (with the possible exception of the original Surrealists). BUT, there was one artist and visionary whose oeuvre practically gave me an aneurysm when I first saw his work: Hans Ruedi Giger.
I had never seen anything like it: here was a man who has captured the essence of ‘alien’ and had transcribed it onto canvas with such stark precision and power, and yet imbued it with a monstrous beauty that is truly astonishing and otherworldly. His vision is dynamic, kinetic, and transgressive, and sometimes pornographic, a shocking antidote to much of the anodyne which was prevalent in certain quarters of the art world. The alien, according to Giger, is not about sleek spaceships, impossible skyscrapers, silver spacesuits, or chromed hovercars. Instead, it’s about nightmarish clashes and collisions between metal, bone, and flesh, about disease, deformation, and emaciation. It’s as much to do with spiritual degradation as it is physical, and perhaps it’s also about the human condition itself, albeit magnified through a grossly distorted lens only capable of telling truth. Nevertheless, the dark side of homo sapiens is here exhibited in all its ugly manifestations: sex, death, atrocity, spiritual malaise, dirt, filth, violence, horror, and, above all, the miasmas of virulent disease.
So who was this man who visited hellish worlds in his sleep and then made concrete what he’d seen in acrylic paintings? Hans Ruedi Giger was born February 5th 1940 in Chur, Switzerland. It seems he wanted to pursue art as a career from an early age, but his father (a chemist) disapproved, calling it a ‘breadless profession’. Nevertheless, HR went on to study architecture and industrial design in Zurich. These two aspects of his studies, architecture and the industrial, certainly provided influences which informed his work throughout his career. He is most famous for his huge airbrushed canvases, all executed using a freehand technique. This allowed him to create entire paintings in a single night, working from one corner of the bright white material until the entirety of it was filled.
He suffered from night terrors, which provided the inspiration for much of what he painted. Looking at any of his artworks, they possess an immediacy which many others fail to nail down, making these horrific visions appear all the more real. It’s the textural nature of those works which emphasises that realism – as a young would-be artist back in the 70s, I was fascinated by his complete mastery of and facility with the airbrush, especially as he refused to use masks. I remember reading somewhere that he believed that masks were a form of tyranny, in that they didn’t allow for free and impromptu expression, that they effectively constrained the artist (although, in his later New York works, he did use masks, especially to emphasise the vertical and horizontal nature of a modern city filled with skyscrapers). I had taken up the airbrush some years before I’d discovered Giger (I had been inspired by seeing paintjobs on custom cars, and that’s what I wanted to do), but once I’d been exposed to the Swiss artist’s work and philosophy I, too, abandoned masks as a technique.
His breakthrough moment came when he was asked to design the titular alien creature in the film Alien (1979). In fact, here was a truly inspired creation – completely unlike any kind of ‘monster’ ever seen before in cinema, with a biology that was just as shocking as anything the adult creature itself could inflict on weak humans. The scene of the Chestburster ripping through John Hurt’s stomach is one of the most memorable sequences in science fiction/horror cinema. Let’s face it, that xenomorphic creature is the most instantly unforgettable and truly new monstrous creation to deservedly join the hallowed ranks of cinema’s Horror Hall of Fame, after the likes of Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Mummy. Science fiction film was never the same after that first Alien outing.
Naturally, he’s had many imitators since his rise to prominence, and I am not ashamed to count myself among them, especially when I started my art career in earnest. He was, and still is, my biggest influence, although I have attempted to move away from the overtly Gigeresque to something which is identifiably my own. By studying his paintings I learnt a great deal: after all, this is how most artists perfect their techniques, by closely studying those who have gone before. Some of his imitators have come close to what the master himself achieved, but that closeness can only be realistically measured in light-years. Most are straight copyists: the themes are there but the execution and intent are entirely plastic, and nothing but pale shadows.
Like most artists, I have numerous influences, all mixed-up and either clashing or co-operating. I was only talking about Giger yesterday when I learnt that another influence of mine, Patrick Woodroffe, had died a few days before. You can imagine, then, my shock at hearing that Giger had also died, as a result of injuries sustained from a fall down the stairs at his home. Somehow, the fact that he didn’t slip away quietly in his sleep was typical of the man. He was a profoundly large character in life, and is now an even larger one in death.
RIP Hans Ruedi Giger, artist, 5th February 1940 – 12th May 2014.