Li Tobler with Voice of America figures (1968)
|Died||19 May 1975 (age 27)
|Occupation||Actress, artist, model|
|Partner(s)||H. R. Giger|
Li Tobler (1948 – 19 May 1975) was a Swiss stage actress, better-known as the lover and muse of surrealist painter H. R. Giger, who featured her in much of his work. Two of his major paintings were portraits of Li, and her face can also be recognised in some of his semi-abstract subjects where man and machine are fused into one.
Li and Giger first lived together in squalor, often in condemned buildings. Although theirs was an open relationship, it remained deeply intense, and creatively inspiring to Giger. But Li suffered from emotional insecurity, heavy drug-dependence and physical exhaustion from theatrical tours. Her constant depression led her to commit suicide by gunshot at twenty-seven. Some claimed that she was affected by the morbid atmosphere of Giger's works. According to Giger, she had wished her life to be short and intense.
Acting and early years with Giger: 1966–1971
Not much is known of Li Tobler's early life. She was born in Switzerland in 1948. In 1966, at the age of eighteen, she met surrealist artist H. R. Giger while she was studying acting in K. Rellstab's drama studio in Zürich. According to Giger, she had "an enormous vitality and a great appetite for life" and wished her life to be "short and intense". Tobler was living in a very small and dirty apartment with her then-boyfriend, actor Paul Weibel, a friend of Giger. Giger, having only just graduated from the School of Arts and working as a designer, asked to move in with them, which they promptly accepted. Tobler, Giger and Weibel, in terrible economic conditions, shared the apartment in the following months, despite its numerous inconveniences. After Weibel left abroad for professional reasons, the friendship between Tobler and Giger gradually developed into a romance. In 1967, the couple moved to the attic of a condemned building nearby. After it was torn down in 1968, they moved to another condemned house.
Meanwhile, following her graduation from K. Rellstab's drama school, Tobler started working in the Neumarkt. In 1969, she was chosen by the Stadtheater theatre of St. Gallen, a city almost 50 km from Zürich. During this period they could only meet up at weekends. Tobler remained a member of the Stadtheater stage for two seasons and in 1970 she returned to Zürich. Due to her ongoing financial problems, she was obliged to move in with a friend of hers, though Giger was also living in a flat nearby. However, a few months later, on April, a small inheritance left to Giger by an uncle of his allowed the couple to buy a house in the suburbs (specifically, in Oerlikon) and settle together again. Tobler went on to act for the Kellertheater theatre in Baden canton Aargau.
There were reportedly tumultuous goings-on, involving promiscuity by both partners and frequent use of drugs. On one occasion, Tobler failed to appear at the house and Giger, terrified, started frantically looking for her on highways. Eventually, he received a phone call from Tobler, three days later, who informed him that she had to make a trip of extreme urgency (probably with another boyfriend of hers, as remarked by Giger years later). According to the painter, "as of that moment she did, more or less, what she wanted". Giger, who was always madly in love with her, was unable to help in her personal agonies and lack of control in her life, given his own psychological problems and agony over his artwork. Giger later stated that he was cheered simply by the fact that Li had found another lover, as that would make her happy and also improve Giger and Li's life together. It has been acknowledged, however, that Giger also used to see other women, much as Li Tobler had parallel affairs during those years.
Depression and suicide: 1971–1975
In 1971, Giger and Tobler visited director Fredi M. Murer in London. Murer filmed a TV documentary, entitled Passagen (1972), about Giger's work. The documentary also featured interviews by both Giger and Tobler. In the 1972–1973 season, Tobler gained a part in the play My Woman, My Leader and had to travel all around Switzerland. Physically and mentally exhausted after 130 performances of the play, weary after the hectic schedule that required extensive touring around the country, and confused by her promiscuous erotic life, Tobler decided to take a leave of absence from the acting profession, as well as from her relationship with Giger. In 1974, she opted for leaving him and moving to San Francisco with her new American boyfriend. However, 30 days later, she returned to Zürich, claiming to be disappointed over the United States (as well as incapable of adapting to American lifestyle, according to Giger) and resuming her relationship with the painter.
Following this incident, Tobler started becoming heavily depressed. In sharp contrast to Giger, who was undergoing one of his most energetic artistic periods, Tobler was gradually dissolving in depression and apathy. Giger's energy only seemed to depress her more. She started contemplating suicide. One of her friends, Jörg Stummer, advised her to open her own gallery, as a means of becoming active again. Her gallery presented several modern artists, including works by Manon, Walter Pfeiffer and Jürgen Klauke. At her last exhibition, entitled Schuhwerke (German for Shoe Works), the guests were invited to appear wearing bizarre shoe creations. Giger filmed the guests while wearing a pair of "shoes" hollowed out of fresh loaves of bread. Despite Tobler's initial enthusiasm with her new project, after a short period of creative stir, she fell into a lethargic state and committed suicide at the age of 27, on Whit Monday 1975 by shooting herself while in bed, leaving a large note on the floor written "Adieu", per the documentary Dark Star.
Giger was accused by some people as negatively influencing Tobler (who was regularly dealing with depression) with the bleakness and morbidity of his work. Nevertheless, Giger was devastated by Tobler's death and felt an emptiness in his life, which was reflected by the even darker tone his work assumed from that point onwards. In 1976, the event known as "The Second Celebration of the Four" was held, with Giger and his friends attending, in Ueli Steinle's Ugly Club in Richterswil. The happening functioned simultaneously as the inauguration of the club and a memorial for Tobler. The happening included the worshipping of the Four Elements and was claimed as being close to Satanist and Lovecraftian aesthetics.
Tobler as a symbol in Giger's work
Several articles have been written on Tobler's function as a symbol and reflection in most of Giger's early professional works. Nevill Drury, who interviewed Giger in 1985 (Shadowzone # 5), observes the following:
"Li is the prototype for the many ethereal women in his paintings who peer forth from the torment of snakes, needles and stifling bone prisons – to a world beyond. Giger painted Li's body several times with an airbrush and there are several photographs of her posing naked – like a woman of mystery struggling to emerge from the nightmare that has possessed her soul". Drury concludes his article by remarking: "It may be too simplistic to say that Li haunts Giger still, for his life is full of beautiful and exotic women who are fascinated by his art and by his bohemian lifestyle. But there is no doubting that the simultaneous agony and joy of life with Li Tobler established the dynamic of fear and transcendence which is present in many of his paintings".
Many of the female faces that can be seen in Giger's early work are based on Li's face. Arguably the most famous paintings depicting Li (and the only ones doing so explicitly) are two eponymous paintings, that is, Li I and Li II both 1974, two of Giger's most well-known and recognizable works. Allegedly, Li was shocked when she first saw the painting (Li I) that was supposed to represent her and proceeded to break the frame and tear its fabric. Giger consequently reconstructed the torn painting.
- Interview: At Home with Giger, first published in Shadowplay # 5 (1985)
- The Church of Doktor Williams
- A Smile Disappears Translated from Spanish in: 
- H. R. Giger: A Master of Fantastic Art Translated from Spanish in: 
- Giger: Works of the Master Translated from French in: 
- Interview: At Home with Giger
- H. R. Giger – Artist