An artist’s mind is a treasure trove. One wonders why certain ideas or images alight there, hibernate, gestate and grow. Visiting Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters makes the visitor entertain these thoughts. The exhibit sounded interesting ,with more than 500 photos, movie props, art objects, costumes, sculptures and books and because my elder daughter is an affectionado, I decided we would go . Years ago, I had found del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, magical, frightening, even beautiful, yet I had not responded to his Hellboy.
But having the opportunity to visit segments of his reconstructed house at the AGO provided an experience that went far beyond the films and explored the sources from which the filmmaker’s genius arises. This traveling exhibit that resembles an immersion into the red recesses of his brain certainly enhances the process of penetrating sources of creativity. Divided into sections entitled Victoriana, Magic, Alchemy, Outsiders, Death and Afterlife, for example, lures the viewer into a unique consciousness, inklings from where artistic inspiration has sprung.
My favourite of the dark crimson settings was the Rain Room, the perpetual sound of rain hitting the windows deepening the feeling of mystery and provoking the opening line,” It was a dark and scary night…” in which ( the Halloween I attended)a group of students huddled at the feet of their teacher and extended the feeling of being huddled in a cosy environment where outside the weather rages, secure from Heathcliffe beating on the windows, and we are held safe and dry by the fireplace. To deepen the eeriness of contributing sensations actual playing of moody sonatas on a real grand piano in another room underscored the spooky experience.
Here is a plethora of works from etchings by Goya, drawings by Ensor and paintings by Tissot as well as bronze sculptures, masks and maquettes and movie props from del Toro’s oeuvre, many beyond life size. As we enter, the amphibian man who sat before a bounteous feast in Pan’s Labyrinth , skin hanging like drapery from his limbs and eyeballs in his searching elongated palms, greets us. It is creepy. Later, Pan’s fawn stands tall and del Toro’s narrative explains how the creature has aged backwards in the movie, a combination of menacing and friendly, but I’m focused on the roots at his feet and the cloven hood that recall Narnia’s centaur.
A Frankenstein sculpture sits besides his bride, another distorted! Frankenstein head hangs overhead. It is suspended long as if squeezed between the jaws of an anvil and , another more recognizable icon has welcomed us into this environment for the misunderstood and feared by society. In a corner are the Tod Brown’s Freaks from his 1932 film beside photographs of circus performers such as the bearded lady and snake charmer, most smiling. Del Toro speaks to society’s perception of outsiders and misfits, but identifies their audiences as the ones with ugliness within who would judge and alienate these “ freaks” from society. Del Toro’s so- called monsters have lost their ability to terrify or frighten here. Instead they now fascinate as they project the extent, compassion and insights of the inner workings of the filmmaker’s mind. They are as friendly as my grandson’s oh-oh bear. As a child, an outsider himself, del Toro, comprehended the visceral loneliness, the plight of those who do not belong. He writes he hopes “ [to] find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal”. In spite of the overload of the oddities and unusual here, one feels a kind of kinship and comfort, relaxing before the works of this horror- fantasy auteur who has shared his diverse collection of inspiration.: what he identifies as beautiful. All is normalized in this place, only the trappings of rain and moody music creating a backdrop of suspicion.
On the cell phone guide and with numerous signs, the exhibit describes the artist’s fascination with this transformation of insects and bugs,Disney’s dark side, the impact of Victorian times, especially the lacy darkness of the Gothic, the never far away impact of his grandmother’s repressive Catholicism and his Mexican ancestry that proclaims that we live with death and it is not the end. Although signs are informative, the viewer is reading rather than looking and like me, no doubt, missing the impact of some of the visual by the necessary detraction of the written word. This is always a balance for the curator, providing important information to unravel the art works while not allowing the interpretation to overtake what is being displayed. However, everywhere we look, from curiosity cabinets to shelves and walls , there are objects to contemplate and intrigue. Long knobbly legged insects find a parallel in a costume worn by a sculpture, whose sleeves suggest butterfly wings and the possibility of changing form. I’m thinking of Opelia in Pan’s Labyrinth and the fairies that emerge from her initial encounter with bits of wood that resemble flying grasshoppers.
And how Pinocchio ‘s nose grows into a twig : indicative perhaps of the possibility of an idea overtaking essence of matter and transforming into something completely different. Even a glimmer of fear will cause a body to shake like a bowl full jello on a plate or a beam of light transform into a thesis on evolution.
My favourite , that Rain Room, room is filled with del Toro’s well read and colourfully bound books, an unending resource that reaches from ceiling to floor, all he has stored and read, leaning side by side: from H.P.Lovecraft to Ruskin and HGWells to Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe to Bald Mountain and the Nibelungen. Other walls display drawings by Arthur Rackham, Edward Gorey, Moebius, Robert Crumb, and del Toro’s own, and more : fodder for the curious mind. As well, all the versions, images and publications one might imagine of Frankenstein are displayed here , and still another wall is covered completely with comic books. The exhibit indeed proclaims the strength of these as the seeds for the artist’s imagination, for they are indispensable to del Toro’s artistic growth of o relapping visions.
And still much of the exhibit is a tribute to childhood with memorabilia that fascinates and terrifies. Del Toro explains how formative the first six years of a child’s life are. At Disney, Bambi loses a mother, the dark foreboding castles appropriated from Europe by Disney, the dragons and scary uninvited hag who casts her spell on Sleeping Beauty are memories locked in intractable images in every child’s head. And I recall Bruno Bettelheim on Fairytales reminding us we need both the dark and the light, horrifying gremlins to reflect the darkness of our souls along with shining princesses and their magic wands of goodness and forgiveness.
I think of the recent threat to close art schools in Toronto and the lack of understanding of the power of art on children and adolescents- and adults in technology, filmmaking, art- making, And for our developing students at school how art invites a bridge from sad, alienated lives to acceptance of selves and delight in the creative. Eliot Eisner wrote ceaselessly on this transformation. On Friday this week too in The Globe, Russell Smith’s article ,A Picture is worth 1,000 meaningless words, dismisses artspeak as research.Think of our public spaces without art, what art communicates and how it can lighten the mind and spirit, how art teaches problem solving, how art excites the brain and the hands, how art connects with ourselves and others. But this is my old saw.
Even the strange and wonder- ful art of Guillermo del Toro, that may initially repulse some, has the power to fascinate, to tell a story of the misunderstood other, to withstand oppression. Watch Pan’s Labyrinth and you will understand what I mean.