At Home With Monsters: Guillermo del Toro at the AGO

Monsters, monsters everywhere.  It’s Halloween season, and we’re inundated with monsters, but if Guillermo del Toro had his way, monsters would surround us year-round.

I don’t really care much for the idea of ‘normal’ — that’s very abstract to me.  I think that perfection is practically unattainable, but imperfection is right at hand.  So that’s why I love monsters: because they represent a side of us that we should actually embrace and celebrate.

The celebrated director of films such as Hellboy (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and Crimson Peak (2015), Del Toro has taken his empathy and passion for monsters and amassed an enormous collection of art, artefacts, books, and props that explore, explain and celebrate the monstrous.  His home Bleak House in the suburbs of Los Angeles is where the collection is housed, and true to its Dickensian name, it is Victorian excess in the extreme.

If your image of a Hollywood director’s home is one of Scandinavian white minimalism, think again.  In Bleak House, collection and commemoration are the ruling principles, and in spite of the vast number of objects he has amassed, there is an intelligence, discipline and order at work in the collection.  All that is hidden and dark in our psyches and stories is out on display on the walls and the shelves, always close to hand.  It is a library in which all the books are open.  You walk through this exhibit and sense that the director would never have to reach far for inspiration.  All that informs his work is on show.  That show is now on the road, and the AGO is one of three museums in North America that will play host to del Toro’s rooms of monsters.

At Home with Monsters is organized thematically, beginning with visions of childhood and innocence (spoiler alert: it’s not all innocence!) and the Victorian era; continuing through explorations of death and the afterlife, the sinister world of Disney, insects, magic, occultism, alchemy, outsiders, Frankenstein and horror, monsters, and concluding with a celebration of comics, movies and popular culture.  Each section feels like a chapter in a book, but there is a lot of overlap and continuity between sections, and one of the pleasures of walking through the exhibit is tracing those continuities.

Even more satisfying is seeing how the AGO has pulled items from its own permanent collection to complement del Toro’s already exhaustive collections.  In the Insect section, for example, the drawing Giant Insect (1985) by Innuit artist Victoria Mamnguqsualuk hangs alongside a montage of the insects that appear in del Toro’s films.  In the Frankenstein section, Charles Pachter’s illustrations for a limited edition of Margaret Atwood’s Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein are on display on the wall and in an interactive computer display.  An illustration by Seth of a group of houses nestles in the Horror section.  These Canadian additions make del Toro’s monsters even more at home in Canada.

In the section called “Outsiders,” there is film of an interview with del Toro, who sees himself as a “patron saint of imperfection.”

The real monsters are not the people who were born with a difference. The real monsters are the ones who notice that difference and exploit it.

If there was ever an apt observation about what ails us as a society today, this is it.  This is a message that perfectly identifies the MO of the bullies and fear-mongers who are debasing our politics.  I went alone to this exhibit, and I thought how much I’d enjoy taking my boys through it.  I know that they would enjoy the spectacle of the monstrous, but there is so much more to the show than spectacle.  There is intelligence, compassion and enthusiasm.  I hope that the message of what is truly monstrous will resonate with them.

You emerge from this exhibit with a sense of a man with a singular vision born of many visions.  Given how rich the exhibit is, how layered and crowded and full of excess, the messaging is tight: we are all monsters.

I absolutely loved this show, and I will be going back many times.  There is a lot to take in, so if you can only go once, allow yourself a good, long visit.

At Home with Monsters is on at the AGO until January 7, 2018.

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