It’s extraordinary when one of the most talented, original and acclaimed filmmakers of his time moves from the artificial canvas of theater screens to traditional museum exhibits. But who expects the ordinary from Guillermo del Toro?
Every Del Toro film is a ravishing one of a kind. In artfully designed, genre-defying fantasies such as “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Pacific Rim” and “Crimson Peak,” the Mexican-born director/writer/producer transports audiences to brutal and bewitching territory.
Now he is moving from pop culture to the art gallery through “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters,” running at the Minneapolis Institute of Art from Sunday through May 28.
An elaborate haunted-house display showcases his private treasury of memorabilia from fantasy and science fiction films. The exhibit is presented in atmospheric spaces inspired by Del Toro’s Bleak House, a sprawling Los Angeles mansion he transformed into an Edwardian house of horrors to contain his vast holdings.
The displays include gothic paintings, sculptures of ogres life-size and larger, Del Toro’s own sketchbooks, unsettling costumes, beastly photographs, eerie illustrations and preproduction scale models of characters that are iconoclastic works of art in their own right. The inventory, about one-fifth of his personal collection, is balanced between historic art and Del Toro’s original commissioned works.
His body of work, ranging from film to novels and children’s animated TV, appeals to scholars and fanboys alike. Juli Kroll, an associate professor of world cinema, Latin American culture and Spanish at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, calls Del Toro “an alchemist” of dreamlike narratives, akin to iconic surrealist director Luis Buñuel. She’s enthusiastic about the chance to examine his creative treasure trove.
“I want to see the show to explore the continuity between haunting classic horror films like ‘Frankenstein’ that have inspired him,” she said, “and how this fantastic filmmaker transforms those images into his own beautiful, uncanny work.”
It’s rare to see a major film-related exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which does not collect movies or animation art. The last movie-themed presentation was 2000’s “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth,” including artwork, props and models. But putting Del Toro center stage after the museum’s popular Martin Luther show makes sense, said Gabriel Ritter, curator of contemporary art. He said the idea came to the institute’s director, Kaywin Feldman, as she read a New Yorker profile of Del Toro and was intrigued by his connection to the foreboding art of Goya and Hieronymus Bosch.
That was six years ago. In the meantime, the institute worked on the exhibit with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
“This is an exhibition that explores how curiosity is fueled and inspires a filmmaker to create,” Ritter said. The presentation opens through a Gothic arch entryway “so cinematic and strange it looks like a portal, with inlaid monstrous eyes that follow and track you as you enter the exhibition. It scares the bejesus out of you,” in case the turn-of-the-century wax re-creation of the Angel of Death isn’t sufficient. The exhibit includes numerous macabre pieces from the institute’s encyclopedic collection.
Opening sold out in hours
The show is structured thematically. It opens with images of birth and innocence, progresses through studies of witchcraft, occultism, anxiety and monsters, and concludes with representations of death and the afterlife.
Eighteenth-century Italian illustrator Giovanni Battista Piranesi is on display through a print of a ruinous imaginary prison, alongside droll, ominous work by American illustrator and writer Edward Gorey and original pen-and-ink Frankenstein pages by comic book horror artist Bernie Wrightson.
To give the sumptuous exhibit the proper mood, it is set in several rooms against blood-red walls including a library occupied by lifelike statues of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft and near two large windows spattered by artificial rainfall and lightning.
As the exhibit progresses through other themed rooms, it also salutes Del Toro’s film work. Video screens offer segments of his features, and the institute’s Pillsbury Auditorium will screen “The Devil’s Backbone” (March 10), “Pan’s Labyrinth” (April 7), “Crimson Peak” (May 5) and Del Toro’s inspiration, James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (March 26).
“The opening sold out in hours, which is unusual,” Ritter said. “There’s a lot of interest in this show.”
Del Toro, who is visiting Minneapolis for opening weekend, says the show is meant to mirror his viewpoint.
“The one place you can see every aspect of my interest, high and low, is the house,” he said by phone from Los Angeles. “Each movie shows you only one side, if it’s a big-budget action movie or an intimate, strange, artsy movie. But the house contains all of that. It’s a shrine to everything I love.”
The display contains the first book he bought, at age 7. Now 52, he has been collecting ever since, “like an ant carrying into the nest little pieces of glass and shreds of ribbon.”
Monsters have fascinated him since his youth because “they let us breathe a sigh of relief. They, in a way, make people feel more at ease with the monstrosity of their imperfection. Commercials and romantic movies make you feel imperfect, and they sell you products to make you feel more perfect. To not sweat, to be more tanned, to look thinner. Monsters just are what they are.”
At the beginning of his career, a film industry mentor warned him not to make films that would get him “catalogued as a weird filmmaker.”
“But that’s exactly what I did want,” Del Toro said. “I belong completely to the creatures I create. There’s a kinship that is entirely genuine and spiritual to me. It’s beyond affection. There is a link between those creations and me. I love making them. I am very moved by the fantastic.”
He likens those feelings to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” which shows the Spanish nun in a state of euphoric spiritual union with holy spirits.
“I really feel like that’s me contemplating a monster,” he said. “I really am ecstatic at seeing a creature. I get enraptured by these creatures in a way that I’m sure has a perfectly plausible psychological reason. It’s fascinating, the cohabitation of the grotesque and the sublime. Throughout the history of art, we’ve had to do portraiture of angels alongside portraits of demons and monsters. They are a theater of the mind.”
He hopes that visitors to the exhibit will see him as something other than a horror film director.
“I am a horror director in terms of kinship with the monsters,” Del Toro said. “But I’m not interested in hating them and fearing them. I believe in loving them. In most movies, your kinship is the humans and the monsters are the scary creatures. In my movies, the scary things are the humans.”