Weeks ahead of the scariest holiday of the year, the Art Gallery of Ontario launches Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters, a biographical exhibition with the atmosphere of a haunted house, co-curated by Jim Shedden of the AGO, Britt Salvesen of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and Matthew Welch of Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia). Expect no cheap thrills or jump scares. Here, you face paintings of dark, ominous scenes and life-size sculptures of mythical creatures and disfigured humans, the images of which might stay with you and haunt you in your dream state. As del Toro ends his audio tour, “May the monsters follow you home.”
At Home with Monsters explores eight themes in eight rooms that dominate Guillermo del Toro’s filmography. It combines elements from the filmmaker’s work—full scale models, videoclip compilations, storyboard art, costume—with items from his personal museum. With a wide range of media from comics to ancient artifacts, the show captures the broad scope of his inspiration from various genres and complements it with pieces from the permanent collections of the institutions involved, handpicked by del Toro himself, including ten cabinets of curiosities from Mia. There is no shortage of sculptures of nightmarish characters, busts of prolific genre authors, horror movie memorabilia, comics, and other collected artwork. The full collection creates the quintessential cabinet of curiosities.
This exhibition goes beyond simply showcasing a remarkable collection of nearly 500 objects that are key to del Toro’s career. Never mind the clean, pristine white walls and minimal spotlights of traditional galleries. Walls are painted crimson and covered with Gothic wallpaper, wrought iron suspension lamps, candelabras, and flameless LED candles set the mood, and area rugs borrowed from Grange House carpet the floor of the exhibition. The excellent ambiance is thoughtfully crafted by Katy Chey, Exhibition Designer at the AGO. It’s almost as if you’re browsing curious, otherworldly possessions in a Victorian home where the host is away and where perhaps you’re not quite welcomed.
The dark ambiance is intentional. At Home with Monsters is an approximation of Bleak House, del Toro’s LA home studio. To the beloved genre filmmaker, “It’s everything. It’s the single thing that I have done that expresses me the most completely, more than any of my films. Bleak House is the best thing I’ve done.” For him, it is “a compression chamber for imagination.” The exhibition includes a recreation of del Toro’s favourite space to work, a childhood dream come true to have a room where it rains 24 hours a day. A sculpture of Edgar Allan Poe sits in the Rain Room in front of false windows that are rigged with special effects to simulate a perpetual thunderstorm.
One piece that cannot be missed is British-born, LA-based artist Mike Hill’s portrait of Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster, which normally looms at the entrance of Bleak House. He is “the ultimate patron saint of Bleak House.” This impressive seven foot portrait sculpture welcomes you into the final room, devoted to perhaps the most recognizable monster, a tragically misunderstood creature with whom, among all the monsters, del Toro feels the deepest connection. Nearby is a tableau, also sculpted by Mike Hill, that depicts the final scene of Bride of Frankenstein, in which the Bride rebuffs the desolate monster and he cries “She hate me! Like others.” His search for companionship is all too human.
On the other end of the spectrum, the first full scale monster to greet visitors is that of the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth. With displaced eyes and a face that resembles the belly of a manta ray, it is a vaguely human looking monster that scares even del Toro, its creator. The Pale Man devours children and his callous appetite stands in for the inevitable loss of innocence. Del Toro does not shy away from the dark reality behind fairy tales and fantasies. Children are central to many of his works, and not even they are sheltered from the grotesque.
Co-curator Jim Shedden states, “Guillermo del Toro believes that we need monsters.” Del Toro is empathetic towards the tragic monster, an outsider like Frankenstein’s monster, but is still fascinated by the unrelentingly terrifying monsters like the Pale Man. The underlying appeal of monsters is their imperfection as obvious outcasts defined immediately by their appearance. Del Toro knows perfection is unattainable and is sometimes frustrated by the world that demands it. He takes comfort in the presence of these strange creatures. Monsters make up his family, and Bleak House is their home.
Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters offers audiences a rare glimpse into the monster-filled mind of the revered writer, filmmaker, and artist. After exhibiting at LACMA and Mia earlier this year, At Home with Monsters makes its last stop in Toronto at the AGO and runs from September 30, 2017 to January 7, 2018. Timed-entry tickets are $25 for adults, $16.50 for students and youth, $21.50 for seniors, and free for AGO members and are available online at AGO.ca, in person, and by phone.
To extend your exhibition experience, the AGO is also hosting a series of screenings of five beloved films by del Toro as well as ten most terrifying horror movies chosen by the director at the Jackman Hall cinema.
Photos by Amy Bae for Best of Toronto except where indicated.