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14 Surreal Facts About H.R. Giger

When Swiss surrealist artist Hans Rudolf Giger died at the age of 74 in 2014, he left behind an impressive body of work. Best known for designing the lanky, drooling Xenomorph for 1979’s Alien, much of his life was devoted to studies in biomechanical visions. Here are a few things you might not have known about the man behind the horror.

1. EARLY AUDIENCES SPIT ON HIS WORK.

Growing up in Chur, Switzerland, young Giger was urged to enter the family business and become a pharmacist. He preferred art, entering the School of Applied Arts in Zurich and creating works based on his adolescent love of Egyptian iconography like mummies and sarcophaguses. During some of his first gallery shows that displayed his preference for quasi-sexual imagery, neighbors were so appalled that they spit on the gallery’s windows when they walked by.

2. HE MADE AN ALIEN FILM BEFORE ALIEN.

Nearly 10 years prior to beginning work on Alien, Giger was invited to design costumes and sets for a small Swiss film titled Swiss Made [PDF]. Released in 1969, the film is about a humanoid extraterrestrial who visits Earth with his alien dog companion. “I used a real dog,” Giger said, “and I made the clothes in polyester.” Although crude, the design of the alien (above) hints at the banana-shaped cranium he’d later make famous.

3. A BOOK GOT HIM THE ALIEN JOB.

Ridley Scott had no idea how he was going to proceed with the art direction for Alien, a script he agreed to direct about a space crew that inadvertently picks up a dangerous, acid-blooded passenger. When he visited the Fox lot for a meeting, he spotted Giger’s book, Necronomicon, which collected many of his darkly fantastic paintings. “I took one look at it, and I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life,” Scott said. Giger designed the creature in its four stages: the egg, a face-hugger, a chest-burster, and a full-grown adult with assistance from model maker Roger Dicken. Both artists were on set to provide touch-ups; Giger hand-sculpted the “space jockey” out of clay.

4. HE CRAFTED THE ALIEN OUT OF MEAT, TOY SLIME, AND CONDOMS.

Fox

Discussing his craftsmanship on Alien with Starlog in 1979 [PDF], Giger shared that the eggs from which the aliens hatch were made of some very practical materials. In addition to plastic, the artist used store-bought, neon-green toy Slime that was popular in the 1970s as well as “some real [animal] flesh inside.” For the stretching tendons seen when the adult alien opens its maw to devour a victim, Giger said he used “shredded latex contraceptives.”

5. JAMES CAMERON WROTE HIM A LETTER OF APOLOGY.

For reasons that were not immediately clear to Giger, the artist was not asked back by Fox or director James Cameron for 1986’s Aliens—this despite the fact that Giger won an Academy Award for his work on the original. Closer to the film’s release, he found out why via a letter written by Cameron himself. The director explained that Giger’s “bizarre, psycho-sexual landscape” is what attracted the director to the sequel, but that he “felt I had to put my own unique stamp on the project … I felt the risk of being overwhelmed by [Giger].” Cameron went on to ask Giger’s forgiveness for the slight.

6. FOX FORGOT TO GIVE HIM A CREDIT ON ALIEN 3.

Fox

Giger was invited to return to the franchise with 1992’s David Fincher-directed Alien 3. While contributing to the new design work, Giger clashed with the effects team and found the experience unsatisfactory—even more so when he screened the film and noticed Fox had both ignored his contractual specification that he be credited for work on the sequel (instead of just “original design by”) and left his name out of the closing credits. The mistakes were corrected for the film's home video release.

7. THE STUDIO PURPOSELY LEFT HIS NAME OFF ALIEN: RESURRECTION.

Although he didn’t work on the Alien franchise’s fourth installment, Giger certainly had a legitimate claim that any design work owed an incredible debt to his original designs. Fox, however, seemed to disagree, omitting his name from the credits entirely. An angry Giger sent off a letter to Fox. “The creatures in Alien: Resurrection are even closer to my original Alien designs than the ones which appear in Aliens and Alien 3,” he wrote. “Why does Fox not give me the credit I rightfully earned? ... All I can wish them is an Alien breeding inside their chests.”

8. HE WAS UNHAPPY WITH HIS WORK ON POLTERGEIST II.

Rather than be invited to work on Aliens, Fox installed Giger on another sequel project: 1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, a follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film about a family burdened by malevolent spirits. Giger was disappointed in how his Great Beast design appeared in the film and expressed that he would’ve preferred to work on Aliens—in production around the same time—instead. “Perhaps the Poltergeist people wanted to keep me away from Aliens for fear of losing me” he told Cinefantastique [PDF] in 1988. “I was horrified by Poltergeist II.”  

9. HE DESIGNED A BATMOBILE.

In 1994, Giger was invited to submit a design for a revamped Batmobile for Batman Forever, the second sequel to Tim Burton’s 1989 original. While a pairing of Burton and Giger would have been interesting, the filmmaker had left the series by this time, replaced by Joel Schumacher. Giger’s lobster-claw-shaped vehicle was a radical departure for the franchise; it never made it past the sketch stage.

10. DEBBIE HARRY ASKED HIM TO PAINT HER ALBUM COVER.

Giger’s work was celebrated by a number of musicians, many of whom asked him to design their album cover art. For Debbie Harry’s 1981 record, KooKoo, Giger used a recent acupuncture session as inspiration, depicting Harry’s face being threaded by four needles. Harry had asked Giger during a gallery event. He accepted, but later confessed he had never heard her music. “This was due to the fact I was more interested in jazz,” he later wrote. The image was banned from advertisements in England.

11. SOME OF HIS PAINTINGS WERE STOLEN.

When Giger settled into a modestly-budgeted castle in Gruyères, Switzerland that could provide a home for all of his work, not everything was in place. According to a 2009 Vice.com interview, Giger found that some paintings had been stolen from the property; others went missing during transportation to gallery shows. “I said I’ll pay 10,000 francs if someone knows anything about them,” he said. “It upsets me so much … it’s sh*t.”

12. YOU CAN VISIT A GIGER-THEMED BAR.

Fans looking for a truly immersive Giger experience may want to visit Switzerland, where two bars designed by the artist are still in operation. The Giger Bars in Chur and Gruyères are extensions of the artist’s work in biomechanics, with columns of vertebrae and posts that have been polished so that they feel like something (almost) organic. The latter location is also adjacent to a Giger-approved museum of his works. Before his passing in 2014, Giger was in talks to bring a bar to the United States.

13. HE HELPED DESIGN TWO COMPUTER GAMES.

Giger’s aesthetic was on display in relatively low-resolution in Dark Seed, a 1992 DOS and Amiga computer point-and-click game: the artist contributed concept and background art. A sequel, Dark Seed II, followed; neither one caught on with gamers. “That was done without my real involvement,” he later told an interviewer [PDF]. “They just used my name.”

14. A FLESH-EATING PLANT WAS NAMED AFTER HIM.

Following Giger’s death in 2014, a plant breeder named Matthew Kaelin named a carnivorous species “Nepenthes H.R. Giger” because of its spikes and peristome teeth. While the plant normally dines on insects, it has been known to digest small animals that happen to fall into its mouth. Resembling something from a hostile alien world, it's a fitting tribute to the artist.

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A Secret Room Full of Michelangelo's Sketches Will Soon Open in Florence
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images

Parents all over the world have chastised their children for drawing on the walls. But when you're Michelangelo, you've got some leeway. According to The Local, the Medici Chapels, part of the Bargello museum in Florence, Italy, has announced that it plans to open a largely unseen room full of the artist's sketches to the public by 2020.

Roughly 40 years ago, curators of the chapels at the Basilica di San Lorenzo had a very Dan Brown moment when they discovered a trap door in a wardrobe leading to an underground room that appeared to have works from Michelangelo covering its walls. The tiny retreat is thought to be a place where the artist hid out in 1530 after upsetting the Medicis—his patrons—by joining a revolt against their control of Florence. While in self-imposed exile for several months, he apparently spent his time drawing on whatever surfaces were available.

A drawing by Michelangelo under the Medici Chapels in Florence
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images

Museum officials previously believed the room and the charcoal drawings were too fragile to risk visitors, but have since had a change of heart, leading to their plan to renovate the building and create new attractions. While not all of the work is thought to be attributable to the famed artist, there's enough of it in the subterranean chamber—including drawings of Jesus and even recreations of portions of the Sistine Chapel—to make a trip worthwhile.

[h/t The Local]

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15 Things You Should Know About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still lifes are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born 130 years ago today, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. FLOWER PAINTINGS MAKE UP A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF O'KEEFFE'S BODY OF WORK.

Though O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. SHE REJECTED SEXUAL INTERPRETATIONS OF HER PAINTINGS.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. SHE WAS NOT A NATIVE OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. HER FAVORITE STUDIO WAS THE BACKSEAT OF A MODEL-A FORD.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. O'KEEFFE ALSO PAINTED SKYSCRAPERS.

While nature was her main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. O'KEEFFE IMMERSED HERSELF IN NATURE ...

While in New Mexico O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. …WHATEVER THE WEATHER.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

8. SHE MARRIED THE MAN BEHIND HER FIRST GALLERY SHOW.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. O'KEEFFE AND STIEGLITZ WROTE 25,000 PAGES OF LOVE LETTERS TO EACH OTHER.

When the pair met in 1916, he was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. SHE SERVED AS A MUSE TO OTHER ARTISTS.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than sixty years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then.

11. SHE QUIT PAINTING THREE TIMES.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. AFTER GOING BLIND, SHE TURNED TO SCULPTING.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. SHE'S THE MOTHER OF AMERICAN MODERNISM.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. SHE BLAZED NEW TRAILS FOR FEMALE ARTISTS.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. SHE WASN'T FEARLESS, BUT SHE REJECTED FEAR.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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