A look inside At Home with Monsters

Too steeped in genre for the art crowd, yet too artful to be purely commercial, Guillermo del Toro has always been something of an outsider. Plucking inspiration from art indiscriminately, his movies end up looking like Vermeer paintings while telling the story of a vampire, a devil, or a ghost. It’s this interest in the fantastic which has earned him his fame—besides his refreshing passion for practical effects—and, now, del Toro has brought his creatures and fantasies to the AGO. A complex look at del Toro’s films and the art which has inspired him, At Home with Monsters, makes its last stop in Toronto.

For those who might not know of him, del Toro is a filmmaker who began his career in Mexico before settling into the outskirts of Hollywood. His first feature film, Cronos, tells the tale of a grandfather who is accidentally granted eternal life after being pierced by a gold mechanical bug. It’s a vampire story in its iconography, but a family drama in structure. From there, del Toro has gone on to create Spanish Civil War ghost stories, comic book adaptations, a Kaiju film, and a gothic romance.

What remains consistent is his love for monsters. Ghouls, gods, and demons make up del Toro’s worlds, and it’s their conflict with humans, or lack thereof, which often acts as a catalyst for his stories. This exhibition is not horrific or frightening—del Toro’s monsters are always sympathetic, if not the heroes of their stories. They are embodiments of cultural fears as much as they are personifications of our own imperfections. To accept them, rather than to run in fright, is a political act, as in The Devil’s Backbone.

The exhibition greets you with a floor-to-ceiling photo of the real entrance to Bleak House—the home del Toro has created in California, from which many of the artworks have been borrowed. It’s also the first of many prints which stretch from floor to ceiling but almost disappear behind the immediacy of all the artworks on display. The exhibition space takes on a number of roles at once: it’s a replica of Bleak House, a spiritual sanctuary to the grotesque, and an attempt to dissolve distinctions between high and low art.

There’s an abundance of art hung on the crimson walls, all loosely grouped by theme: Childhood Innocence; Death & the Afterlife; and so on. Fans keen on finding del Toro’s art will have to browse through illustrations and paintings done by other artists. One of the exhibition’s strengths is just how well these disparate pieces play off of each other. Side by side, it’s delightful to see the resemblances between two books of illustrations—one from the 18th century and one inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth.

I was ready to write about the scope of del Toro’s practical abilities—he worked as a special effects artist to raise funds for Cronos—as well as the range of his output. However, this exhibition is about more than the individual. Curator Jim Shedden and del Toro have brought together a collection of artists, mapping the context of del Toro’s genres into a visible history. This curatorial decision adds depth to his work, while welcoming anyone unfamiliar with his movies.

Some of this artistic history will be more surprising than others. There’s a handful of Disney prints mounted beside sketches of insects and decay. There’s a wall of books next to a wax statue of Edgar Allan Poe, and then a wall plastered with comic books. The range of art on display is reflective of del Toro’s eclecticism and his commitment to actively consuming art. To him, this means finding inspiration no matter the context; there’s darkness in Disney as much as there is beauty in Frankenstein.

But there’s even more to see—and not on the walls—thanks to exhibition designer Katy Chey. Full-scale figures from del Toro’s worlds wait around every corner. Costumes, including the extravagant dresses from Crimson Peak, stand out from the props stuck behind safety glass. A number of black cases of curiosities litter the exhibition, holding skulls, trinkets, and other macabre knick-knacks. Even the floors are covered by vivid carpets, rolled out for the exhibition.

In short, before I give everything away, there’s plenty of art to discover. The range of media is a testament to the collaborative nature of film. Amidst the beauty of all the finished pieces, one display stood out, precisely because it was unfinished. A few of del Toro’s notebooks are displayed like any other book in the exhibition. But, with them are scanned copies on tablets, letting you flip through page after page of notes and sketches. They’re filled to the margins, testaments to the amount of drafting that has gone into each one of his movies.

At Home with Monsters tries its best to take you out of the art gallery. It’s almost an extended experiment in atmosphere, almost a horrific home, but not quite. Not only is the exhibition an attempt to normalize monsters and investigate the grotesque, but also a curation that searches to undo artistic hierarchies. Del Toro spoke about how his Bleak House is not a hobby or hoarder’s collection, but a kind of church. It’s a “compression chamber of inspiration,” and for a moment we’re granted access. Go, get inspired, and maybe discover something about your own fears.

At Home with Monsters runs until January 7th at the AGO.