HR Giger and the alien in the castle

HR Giger, the Swiss painter and surrealist, died 10 years ago on May 12, 2014 after falling down a flight of stairs. However, his dark nightmare worlds live on, both in films such as Alien, Dune and Poltergeist and in the HR Giger Museum, which he founded in Gruyères in 1998.

Das mittelalterliche Städtchen Gruyères, mit Schloss Greyerz, liegt im Kanton Freiburg auf einem Hügel am Fuß der Voralpen. Der Ort ist autofrei, verfügt über vier Museen und wurde 2021 von der UNWTO mit dem Titel „Best Tourism Villages“ ausgezeichnet / © Foto: Georg Berg
The medieval town of Gruyères was awarded the title of Best Tourism Villages by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in 2021 / © Photo: Georg Berg

The contrast could not be greater, as the medieval town of Gruyères lies in a lovely landscape on a hill on the edge of the Pre-Alps It is a tiny place that has a surprising number of sights to offer. Gruyères gives its name to the famous Gruyerz cheese, Gruyères has two castles, four museums and plenty of restaurants. Gruyères is car-free, but due to the many attractions, there are large parking lots on the way up to the town. In the castle of St. Germain, every corner is filled with the morbid and often disturbing creatures of the painter Hans-Ruedi Giger. For science fiction fans, a visit is a must, for everyone else it is more of a test of courage.

Eingang zum Museum HR Giger im Schloss St. Germain in Gruyères rechts. Im Haus links ist seit 2003 die Giger Bar untergebracht. Die Bar ist komplett in einem elfenbeinfarbenen Alien-Look gestaltet. Die Gäste sitzen auf Hakoonen-Sesseln und unter der Gewölbedecke spannen sich skelettierte Wirbelsäulen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Entrance to the HR Giger Museum in St. Germain Castle in Gruyères on the right. The Giger Bar has been housed in the building on the left since 2003. Guests sit here on Hakoonen armchairs and skeletonized spinal columns stretch under the vaulted ceiling / © Photo: Georg Berg

Gloomy interior views

If you venture into the H.R. Giger Museum, you are first greeted by staff in black outfits. They are by far the friendliest people in the entire building. Then it gets dark and you are immersed in the morbid world of Hans-Ruedi Giger. His themes are birth, suffering, violence, war, fear and death. At the beginning of the 1970s, Giger discovered the airbrush technique for himself and created his first machine-like creatures and biomechanical landscapes. The Biomechanoids and later the Erotomechanics became his trademark. The invention of the Alien for the 1979 science fiction film of the same name by Ridley Scott became his greatest success and brought him worldwide fame and an Oscar.

H.R. Giger aus der Serie Biomechanoid, Dauerausstellung im HR Giger Museum, Schloss St. Germain in Gruyères / © Foto: Georg Berg
H.R. Giger from the Biomechanoid series, permanent exhibition at the HR Giger Museum, St. Germain Castle in Gruyères / © Photo: Georg Berg
Museum HR Giger in Gruyeres. Seit 1998 sind in dem Museum eine Vielzahl von Gigers wichtigsten Werken aus den verschiedenen Schaffensperioden ausgestellt (Biomechanoid, Erotomechanics). Neben Schlüsselwerken wie „The Spell“ und „Passagen“ finden sich auch viele Werke aus dem Film-Design. Unter anderem „Alien“ und „Alien 3“, „Dune“, „Species“, „Poltergeist 2“ oder „The Mystery of San Gottardo“ / © Foto: Georg Berg
HR Giger Museum in Gruyeres. Since 1998, a large number of Giger’s most important works from the various creative periods have been exhibited in the museum (Biomechanoid, Erotomechanics) / © Photo: Georg Berg

Biomechanoid objects

I was completely unprepared for the dark worlds in St. Germain Castle. I was not familiar with the artist’s works, nor had I ever seen the movie Alien. The second floor of the museum is dedicated to the movie Alien and several painting cycles. The black floor is covered with the pattern of Giger’s biomechanical matrix. Countless variations of the fusion of flesh and machine hang on the walls. There are cast-iron creatures, mostly slender female figures with penis heads and large breasts, surrounded by machines and penetrated by tubes. For me, this sight is hard to bear and the explanation of the role of women in Giger’s work, which I can read in the museum flyer, doesn’t make it any better. It says: “The role of women in his works is paramount, representing the spiritual and divine side of HR Giger’s world. He paints her as mother, goddess, seductress and object of temptation, possessing an almost absolute power in this universe.” I doubt that the depiction of women in Giger’s work contributes to changing the balance of power in our universe in favor of women. My favorite work in the exhibition is the painting Salad by Till Novak. It shows an alien made up of vegetables in the style of Giuseppe Arcimboldo looking at a piece of meat. That has humor!

Museum HR Giger in Gruyeres. Seit 1998 sind in dem Museum eine Vielzahl von Gigers wichtigsten Werken aus den verschiedenen Schaffensperioden (Biomechanoid, Erotomechanics) ausgestellt. Temporäre Ausstellungen anderer Künstler sind ebenfalls zu sehen. Hier im Stil von Giuseppe Arcimboldo ein Alien zusammengesetzt aus Gemüse / © Foto: Georg Berg
Interpretation of Giger’s alien. Salad motif by Till Novak, part of a special exhibition to mark the 25th anniversary of the HR Giger Museum in 2023 / © Photo: Georg Berg

Giger: bizarre and frighteningly topical

Even if it is difficult to escape the animalistic, instinctual and sexually charged messages in Giger’s paintings, there is a second level to his works. With his biomechanical creatures, he was already addressing the creeping technological penetration of human beings in the 1970s. In view of the rapid developments in the field of artificial intelligence, his work is frighteningly topical today. The definition of AI sounds just as uncanny as Giger’s biomechanoid creatures look: Artificial intelligence describes the ability of machines, based on algorithms, to perform tasks autonomously. It imitates the problem-solving and decision-making abilities of the human mind.(Definition of AI on the website of the German government).

Portrait des jungen Hans-Ruedi Giger auf einer Staffelei im Museum HR Giger in Gruyères. Für seine Mitwirkung an Alien erhielt Giger 1980 einen Oscar / © Foto: Georg Berg
Portrait of the young Hans-Ruedi Giger on an easel in the HR Giger Museum in Gruyères. Giger received an Oscar for his work on Alien in 1980 / © Photo: Georg Berg

Conclusion: For science fiction fans, cineastes and gothic fans, a brilliant surrealist died in 2014. Giger’s Oscar award for the film Alien made him world-famous, but he lost acceptance in the art world as a result. He created a monument to himself with the Giger Museum in Gruyères. Even his tombstone bears the design of the biomechanical matrix, which is also present at every turn in the museum. Without any prior knowledge of the artist and his work, a visit to the museum is like a ride on a ghost train. My tip: watch the movie Alien beforehand and not afterwards like I did.

Grabplatte HR Giger, 1940 bis 2014 auf dem Friedhof von Gruyères. Der schwarze Granitstein trägt ein Motiv aus der Serie Biomechanoid, Biomechanical Matrix / © Foto: Georg Berg
HR Giger gravestone, 1940 to 2014 in the Gruyères cemetery. The black granite stone bears a motif from the Biomechanoid, Biomechanical Matrix series / © Photo: Georg Berg

What else is there to discover in Gruyères?

If you’re more interested in history than fiction, Gruyères Castle is the place for you. It has stood at the highest point of the small village since the 13th century and is now a museum. Fantastic stories can also be found here, as the Gruyère region is rich in legends, such as the one about the beautiful Luzia, the lame Hans or the courageous Gruyère women who used their goats as weapons. There is also the Tibet Museum of the collector Alain Bordier and a show dairy at the foot of the village. The biggest attraction is certainly the many restaurants along the picturesque village street. Here you can enjoy the region’s famous specialties, first and foremost cheese fondue. But you can also try rösti or meringue with heavy cream. In September and October, at the end of the summer grazing and the Alpine cattle drives, you can even enjoy a traditional Kilbi menu.

Hauptstraße der mittelalterlichen Stadt Gruyères mit vielen Restaurants, in denen die Spezialität Käsefondue Moité-Moité angeboten werden. Schloss St. Germain und Schloss Gryerz liegen in hinteren Teil des kleinen Ortes, der 2021 von der UNWTO mit dem Titel „Best Tourism Villages“ ausgezeichnet / © Foto: Georg Berg
Main street of the medieval town of Gruyères with many restaurants serving moité-moité cheese fondue. St. Germain Castle and Gryerz Castle are at the end of the street / © Photo: Georg Berg

The research was supported by the Fribourg Tourism Association

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