Many thanks to Leo Plaw, for commenting on this post regarding the H. R. Giger retrospective exhibition, which ends today in Vienna. This site has images of Giger's artworks in that show.
There are also video interviews in German with Giger on that site, concerning his inspirations. In the first video, the Swiss artist comments that he was inspired by reading Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung). The artist then translated some of Freud's concepts using his own symbols. The curator, Dr. Andreas Hirsch, remarks that the exhibition reflects the primal visual motifs in Giger's major works; the compiler of the exhibition catalogue points particularly to Giger's intertwined themes of Thanatos and Eros. In the second video, Giger briefly answers some questions about the Alien movies and Hollywood. A better understanding of the themes Giger employs in his work may add some new dimensions to how we see the blockbuster film franchise.
It doesn't surprise me that Freud's text, first published in 1899, inspired Giger to bring us his dark futuristic visions. The opening of that text states:
In the following pages, I shall demonstrate that there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that on the application of this technique, every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state. Further, I shall endeavour to elucidate the processes which underlie the strangeness and obscurity of dreams, and to deduce from these processes the nature of the psychic forces whose conflict or co-operation is responsible for our dreams.You can read The Interpretation of Dreams, which outlined Freud's belief that all dreams were a form of wish fulfillment, here.
Another image of Harry, envisioned by Giger © H. R. Giger. Image Source: Wurzeltod.
Beyond Freud, the German literature from the late 1800s up into the interwar period abounded with romantic images of death that were connected to the regeneration of life and beauty. Ultimately, this preoccupation involved a deeper investigation of emotions, sleep and dreams. Before the First World War, German writers were conjured up grisly images; this trend intensified when post-war writers began to write of their wartime experiences and the terrible juxtaposition of death and beauty, or death and love. They used shocking imagery, such as mountains of bodies, or delicate flowers growing from the skulls of dead maidens.
These necrotic symbols merged with Expressionism, which helped entrench the chief vice of the 20th century, an excess of subjectivity. The notion that we are trapped in our own heads and cannot escape is a common trope, something I've blogged about in relation to Millennial anomie here and here. This merged artistic style boiled everything down to the most basic of human sensations and feelings, and lined those impulses up with the drama of the environment (the continuing popularity of this subtext could help explain why 'the environment' has become a prime political cause around the turn of the Millennium: it's our seemingly inescapable subjectivity, projected large upon the world). In the tempests and dire circumstances of the Natural World, we perceive the fog of our own internal perspectives and mini existential crises. That only adds to the subjective frustration, however, because the outside world ought to be autonomous. If we see only our personal upsets in it, it means we do not see it at all.
As a result, there are three branches to this as Modern and Postmodern artists seek to understand the human condition: first, you have human life reduced to its most primal experiences, including death, love and rebirth; second, you have the inability to gain any clarity on how our instincts play roles in sparking that cyclical, biological process. Again, this is a question of what kind of imprint we leave, if any, on objective outside reality. There is a sense that death somehow involves our transition out into that outside objectivity, but we do not comprehend that pathway. Third, this is where dreams come in. The notion that our subconscious or unconscious minds can give us symbolic clues to what the hell is going on in the relationship between our brains, spirits, souls on the one hand, and our environment on the other, is the driving principle to Germanic and related artistic efforts over the past century. Artists and writers in these movements slowly developed a desire not just to project our psychological quandaries upon the broader world (known as natural sympathy in literature) but to depict the missing link between subjective and objective realities through the interpretation of dreams.
Some examples. Gottfried Benn's Morgue (1912), a collection of morbid poems about physical decay. This is literally a mediation on 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust,' as human bodies return to the earth, whence they came. The collection represents Benn's struggle to understand what that transition means.
Jakob van Hoddis's Weltende (1918: World End). The poem depicts huge floods crashing into the coastlines of a great empire. Meanwhile, in the heart of the capital city, the only indication of the coming disaster is a light breeze that blows a citizen's hat off as he walks in the park. This poem, while describing the arrival of the apocalypse with a laid-back, tongue-in-cheek, here-we-go irony, is nonetheless grimly preoccupied with the elements roiling in natural sympathy with an unseen, but impending, catastrophe. That's a mood many of us can likely appreciate these days. A rough translation of the poem is at Wiki.
Johannes R. Becher's Mensch steh auf! (1920: Human, Stand Up!) actually opens with an address to the chaotic, cursed century, in which people are suspended in anguish, illuminated by flashes of hazy illusions (for background on Becher's life, go here).
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