Journeys Through Life: Guillermo Del Toro – At Home With Monsters Exhibition

When I was growing up in the safety of suburban Iowa, it was the works of filmmaker Tim Burton, that brought a strange intrusion of the bizarre and the macabre into my life, with his imagery of clowns, swirls, and striped monstrosities.

In the last few decades, another intriguing filmmaker emerged…one who has channeled his own personal and eclectic tastes (many of them similar to Burton’s), into films and projects that appeal to his love of The Victorian Era, steampunk, and creature features.

AHWM-2That person, is filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (see left).

The writer and director of films such as Hellboy and Crimson Peak, Del Toro is also a connoisseur of collecting items, some of which, are strange and unusual to many.

On his property in Los Angeles, there is a place he refers to as The Bleak House (named after the novel by Charles Dickens). Within it’s walls, he has curated a vast collection of personal mementos, as well as toys, collectibles, rare production art, and items from the various films he’s worked on. Being a fan of horror and science fiction, he has often remarked that he based his private abode on “The Ackermansion,” the home of Famous Monsters of Filmland‘s editor, Forrest J Ackerman.

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A promotional image, showing the interior of Guillermo Del Toro’s “Bleak House,” in Los Angeles, California.

When word and imagery of Del Toro’s private abode reached the mainstream media, there were quite a few that were enthralled by what they saw. Key among them was Kaywin Feldman, the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (aka MIA). After reading an article about Bleak House in 2011, Feldman wanted to find a way to share some of Del Toro’s collection with the world, via an exhibit, that became what is now known as: At Home With Monsters.

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Entrance to the exhibit, at MIA.

Working with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), MIA coordinated a 3-city tour (now 4 cities!), to showcase the exhibit from 2016 through 2018.

Monsters arrived at MIA in March 2017, and recently, I decided to take it in. I will admit, that it did feel like a ‘homecoming’ was taking place, when I headed back up to Minneapolis.

17 years ago, while attending college in the state of Iowa, a classmate and I drove up to MIA, to view the traveling exhibit, Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. It was one of the first exhibits regarding film and entertainment items that I ever saw, and in a sense, At Home with Monsters is very close to that previous exhibit in terms of it’s content.

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For the At Home with Monsters exhibit in Minneapolis, a portion of The Bleak House collection is distributed through eight different areas, each one with a specific theme.

Each section also contains several audio/visual items that help offer atmosphere to specific portions of the collection. There are specially-mixed series of sounds to help provide mood, and flat-screen television sets provide videos that tie into each room’s themes. A few rooms even have projected visuals to enhance portions of the collection.

There are also interactive iPad displays throughout, that give glimpses into several of Del Toro’s personal journals. Plus, the exhibit is bi-lingual, with each room’s summary presented in both English, and Spanish.

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Concept watercolor painting for Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio.” Art by Gustaf Tenggren

Of the various areas, I found myself most enamored with the one titled Childhood and Innocence. In most of Del Toro’s films that include a child or children, they are often never fully-protected from danger, whether it be Mako Mori as a child in Pacific Rim, or the young Carlos in Devil’s Backbone. Oftentimes, the children in his films try desperately to cling to something safe, but find the world around them to be an unforgiving place, much like in the old Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Notable in this room, were a number of original concept art pieces Del Toro owns, some from his own films (like Pan’s Labyrinth), and others from early animated Disney features. Like Hansel and Gretel amazed by the witch’s candy house, I couldn’t help but ‘eat up’ the inspiring concept art of such Disney artists like Gustaf Tenggren, Eyvind Earle, and even Mary Blair!

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The Faun from “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Concept, production, and original art pieces are a major highlight of the collection. Along with some of Del Toro’s own art, there are pieces by the likes of James Cameron, Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, and many more. There are also a number of art pieces from the last decade, some of them digital, but often tying into Del Toro’s love of the macabre, or the unusual.

Also of note, are a number of full-size figures from Del Toro’s films (such as the faun from Pan’s Labyrinth at right), along with several, specially-created wax figures. Two of the most notable, are wax figures of H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allen Poe. Del Toro has claimed that both authors have had a great presence in his life’s work, and that presence is also felt throughout the exhibit.

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Albino Penguin maquette, from Spectral Motion.

Over the years, Del Toro has often talked of wanting to make a film adaptation of Lovecraft’s famous novella, At the Mountains of Madness. Around 2011, he had attempted to get the film made, but sadly, it sounds like his passion project may never come to pass.

However, a reminder of what could have been is included in the exhibition, in the form of a 2-foot tall maquette (see left) by the production company Spectral Motion. Made in 2011, it gives us a taste of what the six-foot-tall albino penguins in Lovecraft’s novel may have looked like! I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read anything by Lovecraft, but this definitely has me intrigued to know more about the famous story.

Out of all the films that Del Toro has directed, it feels that the two that stand out greatly in the exhibit, are Hellboy, and Pan’s Labyrinth.  I will admit that while plenty of space had been given over to some of his more elaborate and memorable films, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more concept or prop art related to Pacific Rim.

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El Santo’s Screen Actor’s Guild card.

One small part of the exhibit that had me most intrigued, involved references to Del Toro’s love of Luchadores (aka Mexican wrestlers). Wrestling is an influence in the fights within Pacific Rim, and in the TV series The Strain, where a luchador known as The Silver Angel, helps it’s heroes fight vampires.

The Silver Angel may be a reference to one of the most famous of all Mexican wrestlers (who also wore a silver-colored mask!), El Santo. Going through the section labelled Magic, Alchemy, and The Occult, I was very surprised to see on it’s walls, a framed piece that contained Santo’s Screen Actor’s Guild membership papers and membership card, which revealed his true identity (many never saw Santo’s face, until after he retired in 1982)!

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The head of Frankenstein’s monster (sculpted by Mike Hill).

Of course, a highlight of the show, are the numerous references to famous movie monsters, from Nosferatu, to The Metaluna Mutant (from the 1955 film, This Island Earth), and most famous of all: Frankenstein’s monster.

It is Frankenstein’s monster that is most prevalent throughout the exhibit, with one of the most eye-opening pieces, being the huge, 7-foot-tall head that famously hung above The Bleak House‘s entryway.

It truly is an amazing sight, seeing the pores, stubble, let alone all the little creases and details! Artist Mike Hill, who fashioned the likeness from Boris Karloff’s depiction of the monster, also contributes his talents to other figures throughout the exhibit, including several based around likenesses of characters from the 1932 film, Freaks.

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“Big Baby” prop gun, from “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

Yes, there’s plenty to see throughout the exhibit, and I won’t lie: I spent over 5 hours going through it, 3 times over! However, I will admit that after seeing other exhibitions and shows in my lifetime, there was definitely room for a little improvement.

What struck me most, was the rather helter-skelter way that certain items from the collection were labeled…and sometimes, not labeled at all.

Having visited The Art Institute of Chicago, I am often used to seeing an art piece’s label, that gives it’s name, artist, and medium (aka what was used to make the image). Surprisingly, none of the art pieces here (that were a part of the Bleak House collection) mentioned their ‘medium.’ I felt this was rather odd, as a few times, I couldn’t be sure if what I was seeing was a licensed print, or an ‘original’ art piece.

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Infant Dren prop, from the film, “Splice.”

Some items are set up to seem almost like typical ‘oddities on shelves,’ and have no label whatsoever. It struck me as a little odd for a few, as I doubt the average museum guest would have recognized the infant Dren from the Del Toro-produced film Splice, or the Prince Nuada puppet maquette from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, settled amongst a group of marionettes.

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Figure of Santi, from “The Devil’s Backbone.”

Despite some hiccups here and there, I was very impressed by what had been brought to the Midwest.

Personally, Minneapolis is not a place that I would have imagined displaying The Bleak House’s trappings, much less find one of MIA‘s directors being the ‘mastermind’ behind the whole touring exhibition!

This is also the first exhibit I’ve seen, that actually has an R-rating, and trust me, it is definitely warranted (note: the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth is ‘anatomically-correct!’).

This was another factor that impressed me: the museum was willing to display an exhibit like this, with restricted access.

In Chicago, entertainment-related exhibits that display items from popular culture like Harry Potter, The Muppets, as well as the life of Walt Disney, often find their way to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. However, the museum is often stuck with the addendum to make exhibits like these, an all-ages experience.

MIA’s ability to not ‘cheapen’ the experience, was definitely a welcome sight, as the culture in Middle-America can often be somewhat prudish and narrow-minded, when it comes to what Del Toro’s Bleak House contains.

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As of the time of this review, the exhibit is in it’s final weeks before it closes at MIA, on May 28, 2017.

Following it’s closure in Minnesota, it will then go on to The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where it will be on display from September 30th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

AHWM-8AGO was originally to be it’s last stop, but in recent months, the touring exhibition has been extended to include Mexico City, for the year 2018 (however, no museum location or start/end date for the city has been set yet).

If you have an open mind and are somewhat fascinated by the strange and unusual, then At Home with Monsters is a highly recommended show to take in!

Of course, if you are unable to make it to any of the exhibition showings, a companion book to it’s catalogue has also been released (see right), with a number of images showing some of what is on display, as well as anecdotes and notes from Del Toro himself, on his personal collection.

While the book is a wonderful little memento of the exhibition, I still say that nothing compares to being inches away from it’s wax figures, elaborate costumes, original artwork, and much, much more!

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About MWH1980

Growing up in the state of Iowa, one would assume I'd be enamored with pigs and corn. Well, I wasn't. Instead, I grew fascinated by many things that were entertainment-related. Things like movies, animation, toys, books, and many more kept my attention. This blog I hope to use to express myself regarding my varied obsessions. (P.S. There's no Photoshop involved in that Gravatar-I really am holding an Oscar)

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