Vampirism. Lycanthropy. Wraithlike remnants of the soul, trapped eternally in their own suffering. Demons. Monsters.
These are staple elements of lore across time and culture, shadow puppets of our reality—of us. Stories that tell stories that we don’t want to openly tell. The lust and seduction of bloodletting, the tragedy of immortality, the relatable fear of some hidden self released and unrestrained. Stories that, at their core, are undeniably human. It is no surprise that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s personal collection, opening at the Minneapolis Institute of Art on March 5, 2017, prominently features Frankenstein’s monster throughout. A creature forged and formed by man in man’s own image, hated and destroyed for the same.
Del Toro was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, an imaginative outsider raised by a strict Catholic grandmother and surrounded by violence and death. He found solace in fantasy, within story, worlds within worlds. On a tour through the exhibition, Gabriel Ritter, Mia’s contemporary art curator, describes del Toro being bullied extensively as he points to a small photograph of Guillermo as a child. Del Toro’s retreat into his fictional world was not without consequences in his real one; his grandmother punished his daydreaming and fascinations harshly, even having him exorcised. The death and violence surrounding them impacted him deeply, as did social ostracizing. The traits others found so distasteful were reinforced by his environment and those who raised him. Del Toro’s relationship with Frankenstein’s monster is clear.
The collection is a curated assemblage of strange and sometimes eerie items from his creative haven, Bleak House (so named for the Charles Dickens novel). Located in the suburbs of Los Angeles, it has become the home of del Toro’s extensive collection of artwork, curios, and collectibles. It is where he does his writing, a temple to inspiration. A screen near the exhibit entrance plays a video introduction featuring del Toro explaining Bleak House and his 40 years of collecting—every book he’s ever read, every toy he’s ever bought. So many of his stories focus on loss, and here is the other side.
It is a rule in visual art that the deepest dark deserves the brightest light. It is here, in that contrast, that shapes take form. Del Toro is a master of finding beauty in the things that others find horrific while never discounting the danger that lurks there. Be it an unorthodox relationship between siblings as the only source of warmth and love in their dismal world (Crimson Peak, writer and director), a benevolent demon (Hellboy, director), or the juxtaposition of fantastical horrors against real ones (Pan’s Labyrinth, writer and director), his tales are as ugly as they are beautiful, true to the purpose of fables. Painted on the walls of the exhibition is a quote from Pan’s Labyrinth: A medida que envejece vera que la vida no es como sus cuentos de hadas. El mundo es un lugar cruel. “As you get older you will see that life is not like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place.”
The themes of del Toro’s works are as clear as the archetypes he loves; the exhibit reflects this, broken into rooms by theme instead of art or object type. Starting with a room filled with paintings and objects to represent ideas of innocence, it winds around to death and the afterlife with several stops in between. A glass case houses several busts of H. P. Lovecraft (to complement the full-size wax statue). Anatomical models of conjoined twins and afflicted limbs sit on shelves. There is no distinction between high- and low-brow art here, just an incredible collection of things that mean a great deal to their owner—a peek into his creative process, into another world forged by this one.
There are several show-stopper pieces: recreations of the Faun and the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, screen-used costumes from Crimson Peak, prized and precious notebooks filled with del Toro’s drawings and thoughts, and the Angel of Death surrounded by blinking eyeballs that welcomes visitors into a world where what is and isn’t real doesn’t matter. But there are several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them pieces too, tucked into the corners of shelves, peeking out from behind the flashier stuff. There is so much to find, if you are wanting to find it. A nine-hour soundtrack, custom created by Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla, loops with sounds that include strange melodies and the beats of a slowing heart, dissonant and beautiful and dark.
When the press tour ended, most in attendance were quick to clear away, leaving the halls of the exhibit still and quiet enough to hear the steady sounds of a faux thunderstorm (a feature replicated from the Bleak House’s perpetually raining room). And as eerie glass eyes looked on, what haunted that space became clear. The man who lingered near the wall of comics, the woman who silently admired the macabre beauty of a Francis Bacon painting after the others had gone. A nod of camaraderie, a glance of “Me too.”
The exhibit is titled At Home with Monsters, and that couldn’t be any more fitting. By sharing a glimpse into his world, del Toro has given many of us a chance to do something we’ve struggled with for lifetimes, a story that has been told a hundred thousand times. Among the oddities and curios, the sense of belonging—of understanding—is palpable. And even if just for an hour or so, tucked away in the corner of a museum, those of us who feel in one way or another like outsiders have found a way home.
Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters runs March 5–May 28, 2017, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.