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Beauty in the grotesque

The AGO's exhibit celebrating Guillermo del Toro's fantastical sense of horror pays tribute to the director's fundamental philosophies about art and the power of human connection, David Berry writes

A life-sized representation of the Pale Man, from Guillermo del Toro’s seminal film Pan’s Labyrinth, is the first statue to welcome guests who visit the exhibition celebrating the director at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

You couldn't help but detect a note of defensiveness in the first moments of the Art Gallery of Ontario's opening of its newest showroom spectacle, Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters.There was AGO chief executive Stephan Jost, pitching the collection on the last leg of a three-city tour – in a place that has increasingly become del Toro's creative base of operations, at that – explaining, perhaps a touch more brightly than necessary, that creativity comes in many, many forms, noting that the gallery expected a lot of people who had never darkened their spiral staircase before, even cracking a Marie Antoinette-y joke about taxpayer money going to Guillermo del Toro, the celebrated Mexican-American auteur whose dark fantasies and horror-inflected blockbusters have grossed $450-million (U.S.) worldwide.

Art is whatever the people who are paying want to call art, but I gather some of them were squinting hard at the institution putting up a menagerie of phantasmagorical beasts, horror-movie memorabilia and fantasy-inspired ephemera, even if it did promise to capture the essence of one of the more cerebral fantasists to put his imagination up on screen.

The first question posed to del Toro expressly asked him to explain his love of monsters. Now, there's always a mote of touchy defensiveness when horror nerds feel as though they're surrounded, but this is essentially the question del Toro has spent his entire life answering, sketching, crafting, posing, meticulously filming, filling a pair of suburban L.A. mansions and three art galleries with, and answering again.

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The exhibition contains 22 full-scale monster sculptures and mannequins.

You might as well ask the Pope to justify Catholicism, and del Toro explains it in roughly the same terms:

"I am not a collector," he told the gathered. "This is an altar, a church." One adherent's life-sized casting of the Pale Man – the palm-eyed demon of del Toro's seminal 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth, who greets you at the start of the exhibition – is another's Pieta.

If it's a grand – although, from watching del Toro's films as much as talking to him, obviously deeply sincere – gesture, it's probably because iconographic religion is not the only problematic tradition from which the collection is drawing. Even the expansive display at the AGO is but a fraction of what usually lives in Bleak House, del Toro's overstuffed personal memorabilia museum/working space outside Los Angeles that he himself once likened to the ultimate man cave, and a disbelieving New Yorker profiler described as something The 40-Year-Old Virgin would create if given a decorating budget of $3-million. (Honestly, from the pictures alone, that's probably a conservative estimate.)

Exhibit curator Jim Shedden poses against a wall displaying hundreds of influential comic books.

These are both knowingly deprecating descriptions of a space that also seems to function as an instantiation of del Toro's brain, including 13 carefully organized reference libraries that he draws on while creating his films.

Still, while del Toro is unquestionably one of the most respected horror-fantasy auteurs in film history, there's a degree to which this is just the apex of a meticulously catalogued collection of figurines and first-run comics, with all the stunted development and withdrawal from the real world that conjures. Certainly, among his fans and collaborators, del Toro's deep-geek credentials are a major appeal.

That said, one of the essential messages of the show – and del Toro himself – is that it's not what you have on your shelf, physical or metaphorical, but what you do with it. Speaking in a private room at the AGO, del Toro gives the impression that idol worship of these artifacts doesn't sit particularly well with him either.

"I think that pop culture is very dangerous just to consume, or collect, or worship without processing or analyzing it," he explains. "I think that the only way that culture moves forth is by people that actually make it their own, and transform it, you know? But I think the same could be said of high art. To consume either without any judgment is deadly for art."

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The immersive exhibition contains works from many of del Toro’s films, as well as material that influenced his creative process.

The exhibit makes this pretty explicit, laid in themes that apply just as comfortably to the pieces from del Toro's collection as to his body of work, giving particular films prominence where it's most appropriate. If occasionally stretched a little thin – one section, circling around Crimson Peak costumes, is labelled "Victorian," which is true enough, I guess, although hardly carrying the weight of, say, the section titled "Death and Decay" – the connection between what del Toro was pouring into his brain and what he in turn splattered out of it is pretty impossible to miss.

This, in its way, feels appropriately del Torian. Thematic subtlety has never been one of his particular interests: He works in the world of fable, where visceral reaction and simple truth spark a flame that you can tend to or drift into smoke. As the exhibition lays out, he does this because he's always tended these himself, used the things that made an immediate impression as lights into the dark morass that is all of our internal lives.

"The culture we're in, the thing that people have the hardest time connecting with is their emotions," he explains. "In order to admit 'the feels' is a huge effort – you have to almost use that phrase, which in itself is an irony, and distances you from it. In the last decade, a lot of teenagers found it only permissible to talk about romance again with Mormon vampires," he adds. "And it's because that's emotionally draining – it's a side that is vulnerable and imperfect. You sublimate it through fable and fantasy."

Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that the themes that are identified here are all fairly elemental, albeit drawn from the side of us that we tend to like to play down, ignore and dismiss: del Toro plays in the primordial ooze of self that we are generally eager to shake off and leave in the puddle.

The exhibit runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario from Sept. 30 to Jan. 7.

Central to this – and, naturally, the first section you walk into – is childhood, which in del Toro's hands is innocence, although a kind that is constantly and frequently put in peril. Pan's Labyrinth, probably the reason del Toro is regarded as something much more than a mere genre artist, is the gold standard here: It's a movie that features a child desperately trying to escape the harshness of the real world, only to find one that is more horrifying, if only because it is so utterly indifferent to her. It's a metaphor for growing up, weaved into a warning about what might happen if you don't – an idea that is quite central to del Toro's artistic worldview.

"Maybe I'm distorting my own information, but I think you spend 50 years of your life trying to correct the first six," he says. "You are basically destroyed and put together when you are 6. Whatever forges you is what you need to disassemble and deconstruct the rest of your life."

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If the implication is that all of del Toro's interests have ultimately sprung from childhood, the one that looms largest is the notion of being an outsider, the ultimate trauma to anyone under 20, one so powerful it can follow you even through a career as a celebrated auteur opening a gallery with a collection of your stuff.

The section devoted to the theme is organized around a wall of Hellboy artifacts and a collection of life-sized figures from Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks. The former is the character del Toro has most often publicly identified with. The latter he suggests as a key source to a fairly central philosophy: that there is beauty in the grotesque, and grotesqueness in beauty.

The exhibit includes a life-size mannequin of “The Angel of Death” from del Toro’s film, Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

It is another relatively simple idea, if also one that people of a certain stripe repeatedly return to, finding some profound power in it again and again. Del Toro finds it in everything from Taoist philosophy to celebrated comic-book artist Jack Kirby, symbolist poetry to James Whale (the tortured director of the original 1931 film version of Frankenstein), although personally the overarching thing he seems to draw from it is its overwhelming sense of connection – the fact that there is no fundamental difference in us, that we are all bound in the necessity of our beauty and grotesqueness, whether or not we care to admit to them.

The other figure who seems to embody this most purely to del Toro is Frankenstein's monster, who looms over the final section of the show. It is a metaphorical bow on a lot of the exhibit's ideas – what is the act of creation if not stitching together a series of scavenged parts and calling it alive? – although the most crucial seems to be that drive for connection. Frankenstein's monster is, after all, a born outsider, but even it cannot help but search for a place with humanity, driven mad when it doesn't arrive.

It is another simple idea, and yet it might be the one we are all most yearning to hear, the desire for it echoing through the words of an art-gallery director, across the films of a Mexican horror nerd, around the wedding-feast table of a group of circus freaks: We accept you.

Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario from Sept. 30 to Jan. 7.

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