In the wonderland of Guillermo del Toro

By: 

Kate Pehrson

First in a series of articles exploring film, creativity, inspiration and process through the work and collections of movie director, writer and producer, Guillermo del Toro.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia), has been a cultural staple in Minnesota for just over a century. Started by 25 citizens as the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, Mia has grown from a collection of about 800 works to over 89,000 objects that symbolize 20,000 years of human creativity around the world.

An encyclopedic institution, Mia collects, displays, educates and exposes over half a million people each year to works in seven curatorial areas: Arts of Africa & the Americas; Contemporary Art; Decorative Arts, Textiles & Sculpture; Asian Art; Paintings; Photography and New Media; and Prints and Drawings. So why am I telling you this in my monthly column about film? Because Mia has done something extraordinary, and you need to know about it.

Also because I am a nerd girl, and Mia has made some of my nerdy dreams come true.

For those of us who love movies (and I assume that includes you), who hasn’t wanted to sit down with one of our favorite directors and pick his or her brain? To ask “What was your inspiration for this?” “Can I see your house? I bet you have some cool stuff!” “Let’s talk, for like, the next 6 hours!”

Usually, this is the kind of thing that might lead to a restraining order, but when you are the Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President of Mia like Kaywin Feldman is, you have the ability and clout to do something like that.

It turns out that Feldman was inspired by a nerdy article in The New Yorker that I too had read, called “Show the Monster”. Published in 2011, and written by Daniel Zalewski, the article takes a look into the stuff that makes Guillermo del Toro tick.

One of the true artistic geniuses of our age, Guillermo del Toro is the director/madman behind films such as HellboyPacific RimPan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak. He is a producer behind films too many to count, (including Kung Fu Panda 3, which featured an actor covered in last month’s SoMinn Scene, James Hong), a writer, a sculptor, a makeup effects artist, an illustrator, an avid journal-keeper, and a collector.

Apparently while distracting her mind from the “elliptical torture device” that she was working out on one day, Ms. Feldman read the article and a name jumped out at her – Hieronymous Bosch. She said “My heart beats for Bosch, and suddenly it was pounding.”

Guillermo del Toro mentioned the 15th century painter of bizarre and wondrous otherworldly landscapes in the article when talking about his philosophy and creativity. He spoke about he has a special place – literally – where he gathers strength and inspiration. Feldman thought this place deserved a wider audience and a third dimension. And so, an exhibition was born: “Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters”.

Somewhere in Los Angeles, there is a house called “Bleak House”. Del Toro named it after a story by Charles Dickens, and it is the most glorified, intricate, spooky-ass man cave you have ever imagined. A lifelong obsessive collector, gatherer and fanboy, Del Toro has amassed a collection of comic books, paintings, sculptures, film props, prints, drawings, collectibles, figures, gewgaws, doodads and what-the-hells the likes the world has never seen. Inspired by one of his heroes – Forest J. Ackerman, the man who pretty much invented the world of comic-cons and fanboy clubs as we know it – Del Toro has said that “Bleak House is an exploded view of my brain”. And part of it is now on display in Minneapolis.

Now, a moment. Not everyone is going to dig this.

Del Toro has said "I have a sort of a fetish for insects, clockwork, monsters, dark places, and unborn things”, and these are themes that show up in his films with regularity. They also show up in this exhibition.

As an example: years ago, I worked as an administrative assistant at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I talked to a couple of my old colleagues there, and they both admitted this was not their thing at all. One of them sent a friend to preview Hellboy for them, thinking it might be one of the director’s more accessible films that she would be willing to see. The friend walked out after 20 minutes and said “Nope. This is not for us.”

Another example, earlier this week, I was one of a lucky few who joined a group on a press preview of the exhibit and I geeked out. Hard. But I saw a tweet from another member of the press that simply said “This is some intensely nerdy stuff”. And it is.

If you know del Toro and his films, you know that there is something seriously dark and funky happening. In the forward to the exhibition catalog, del Toro wrote: "I believe that we are all birthed with a certain quality of glass within us, and that we resonate with specific vibrations – notes – of the universe. The note I resonate with is low, dark, and full of monsters."

Now, I don’t pretend to have the obsessiveness, depth of darkness, nor the resources to collect at his level, but I can appreciate the urge to surround oneself with inspiration, objects to consider, contemplate and rearrange. As I write and create, I must be surrounded by visual and audio inspiration. I have to see and touch the stuff I love. So, I think what attracted me to del Toro’s work in the first place about a decade ago is that I recognized a kindred soul.

At my own house, I have collections and tableaux of little things and stuff I’ve gathered over the years, and my family and friends are forever making jokes about how I’ve rearranged the house since the last time they came over. And some of this stuff is admittedly a little out there. Sometimes I catch my kids’ friends looking at things in our living room and I find myself wondering “Do I want to answer a 9-year-old’s questions about that? But screw it. Life is short. This is who I am.

And this is who del Toro is.

As I walked through the exhibition there, in front of me, welcoming me was The Angel of Death, from Hellboy 2. Is that the overcoat Ron Perlman wore in Hellboy? There’s a Polaroid photograph of del Toro as a 7-year-old. He’s in zombie makeup and is attacking his sister. Over there is a custom commissioned life-size statue of HP Lovecraft – inventor of the Cthulhu mythos. Hey, is that original Disney concept art from Sleeping Beauty? Are those actual copies of Heavy Metal comics from the 1970s? I think Edgar Allan Poe is reading in that wing-back chair in the corner…and do I hear lightning and rain? Is that the dragon-topped walking stick that Gary Oldman held as Vlad Dracul in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula? The Pale Man is right behind me, isn’t he?

The answer to all those questions is “Yes.”

In fact, there are over 400 objects from del Toro’s personal collections at Bleak House that are on display, and scattered among them are objects from Mia’s collection that Del Toro selected to be hung alongside his own.

Guillermo del Toro has said that his mission is “evangelical. I’m a sharer.” He has done us the honor of making his mind and inspiration open to our own interpretations. Vulnerable to our criticisms. You may not resonate with the same low dark note as del Toro, but I challenge you to expand your mind and go see this exhibit. Then go home and watch Hellboy, currently streaming on Netflix, and tell me what YOU see.

On their website, Mia says their vision is “Inspiring wonder through the power of art.”

When I walked through the exhibit still under construction, there were a few open spots in the galleries, places where something was missing. I was told that these spots were set aside for objects that del Toro was HAND CARRYING to Minneapolis. The curators were actually worried he might show up with more than he told them he would. “We don’t have any more room!” Said Gabriel Ritter, the site curator for the exhibit.

God Bless Gabe, because I don’t think del Toro gives a shit. In fact, if I have any disappointment from this show, it’s that I wanted to see more.

So, here’s to hoping del Toro’s carry-ons are bursting.

Go. See art. Be inspired. Wonder.

Hell, yeah.

Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters is on display March 5 through May 28, 2017 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. For more information visit www.artsmia.org

 

Kate Pehrson is a celebrated Twin Cities musician, writer, humorist, educator, mother, wife, fire prevention partner and film aficionado. Contact her on Twitter@k8pehrson