“Inside every creative person, there’s a Bleak House.” It’s something I said to Gabriel Ritter, the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia for short), when discussing my recent trip to the museum to see “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters,” a very limited-engagement show that was partially developed by the team in Minneapolis, and has become a blockbuster.
It was the first and most prominent thing in my head after walking through a wonderland of curiosities that make up the very fabric of who Guillermo Del Toro is, and will make perfect sense to anyone who finds themselves at Mia for this reason. I was excited to hear about this exhibition just based on my admiration for Del Toro’s rich visual style and finesse, but seeing it in person, it was so much more than fan service to a well-known and liked director. Instead, At Home with Monsters is a journey straight into the mind and aesthetics of the man. Every room, every piece, is there by design, and ties together into what he then puts out into the world. But it’s not just about his films…it’s much more intimate than that. At Home, a representation of Del Toro’s massive Victorian estate in the Los Angeles outskirts, Bleak House, is a look at all the individual things that make up who he is. It’s like peeking inside someone’s head.
This directly ties into the core principles of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, says Ritter.
“You can introduce people to Guillermo, you can introduce people to his world… you can introduce them to his collecting and then kind of walk through them theme by theme…what’s interesting about this show is it doesn’t really speak directly to his filmmaking. I think that’s one of the important distinctions for bringing a show like this to an encyclopedic museum like Mia. It’s one of our core themes as a museum- fueling curiosity. We’re trying to explore in new avenues, and when you look at someone like del Toro, who is equally interested in Simpsons bobbleheads as he is in the work of someone like Francis Bacon, it’s not the easiest thing to try and bring that all into a cohesive story.”
And yet, this is exactly what the creators of the exhibit were able to do. At Home With Monsters takes on all of the influences in Del Toro’s work by theme, each room a study on its own subject, from childhood and innocence to insects, the supernatural, and death. And yet, nothing is compartmentalized. It all flows together to form the tapestry of Del Toro himself. A man who always felt different and was picked on, but who loved the things he loved obsessively and collected them passionately, eventually creating the incubator for his inspiration, Bleak House, which Mia’s exhibit emulates.
“What people don’t know,” says Ritter, “is how this collection can become the incubator for his thinking, you know? He lives with this collection. He’s surrounded by it, and I think it really fuels his storytelling, his thinking. It keeps him inspired, and that’s very unique.”
“He said there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. For him that’s pretty much how he lives. If he sees something, if something out in the world gives you pleasure, you should embrace that. It’s not an impulse you should deny or work against. And I think when you go through the show, you can see that.”
Travelling through the rooms, visitors will find all manner of things, from original Disney animation cells from Alice in Wonderland, Night on Bald Mountain, and Sleeping Beauty to Gorey illustrations and complex/creepy anatomical models. Rows upon rows of shelving hold everything from comic books and sculptures to those bobbleheads, and Mia has put its own footprint throughout, with over 40 pieces from its own collection amongst the riches of Bleak house, hand chosen by the man himself.
And while Ritter admits that staff was worried that perhaps the grim-dark of the worlds del Toro creates could be off-putting to some, it doesn’t seem to be the case. He again points to the focus on the world of del Toro himself and not just his films as a reason for this, adding that even in the films, though the creatures he creates are “quite terrifying, much of the violence in his films is person to person, and kind of makes the viewer question what is monstrous.”
Because of his difficult upbringing, Del Toro in fact has an affection and soft spot for monsters, most obvious in his extensive collection of Frankenstein memorabilia, but also in his collection of lifelike statues of the stars of the 1932 film, Freaks.
“These were living breathing people,” Ritter points out. “They were only labelled as freaks or monsters by society. I’m sure that’s not how they saw themselves and that’s definitely not how Del Toro sees them and intuits them. It’s exactly the opposite. He really feels a kinship with these individuals, whether it’s through his worldview or, if you go into his biography, growing up he was bullied. He considered himself… and was a kind of outcast.”
Personally, I could not recommend this exhibit enough, and if I had to list a few reasons why you should consider making a trip up north to Minnesota to see it, one would be the intimacy of the thing. These are items cherished by their owner. Guillermo personally finds and purchases the items, whether from private sellers or auctions. He lives with them, and in fact, has a hard time being without them, commenting to Mia that one of the two buildings that make up Bleak House and which has been near completely emptied during the exhibit is “too depressing” to go into.
But it’s more than that. At Home is infinitely interesting. So much is tucked into every corner, and there are so many objects to take in. It’s an incredibly rare chance to physically travel through an artist’s influences and see how they take shape in his works. Whether you knew him or his films or not before you walked in, walking out you will feel a sense of understanding and even affection for him you probably didn’t have before.
I look at this exhibit as less pop culture and more a learning experience about what shapes creative people and makes them who they are. It looks at what is important to them and how it translates into what they do. And it, like Del Toro’s works themselves, is truly a masterpiece.
If you do find yourself in the Twin Cities, you would do yourself a disservice not to make Mia a stop, and certainly a disservice not to see this frightfully fantastic look at one filmmaker’s life and influences.
Guillermo Del Toro: At Home With Monsters opened at Mia March 5 and will run through May 28. Admission to Mia is by donation, but tickets to this exhibit are sold separately at $20 per person, and can be acquired online or at the museum itself.