A monster of a collection

Guillermo del Toro’s amazing, colossal obsessions

Guillermo del Toro and a full-size model of Frankenstein's monster from the movie director's massive personal collection. Submitted photo

Maybe there’s a pop culture-obsessed collector in your life: the coworker whose cubicle is guarded by a brigade of fully articulated action figures; the friend whose comic book library has engulfed the home office; the neighbor who keeps a closet full of “Star Trek” regalia.

Few of those fanatics could match appetite and acquisitive resources of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose Bleak House in Los Angeles is a walk-through wunderkammer dedicated to some of the oddest and most grotesque expressions of both fine art and genre entertainment. Del Toro recently agreed to temporarily part with a small portion of his horror, science fiction and fantasy cache — just, oh, 500 objects or so — and in March it was installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

“Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters” makes the case that Bleak House and its collections are the font of del Toro’s creativity — not just a reflection of obsessions that date to his youth in Guadalajara, Mexico, but a man-made reservoir of ideas and inspiration. It is a counterpart to his illustrated journals, where the plots and imagery of his twilit big-screen fantasies first take shape.

There’s a dichotomy that splits the world of pop-culture fandom into collectors and creators, those who impulsively consume genre entertainments and those who produce them. It’s a porous barrier; ’zines, fan-fiction and cosplay are just some of the ways that fans write their own storylines.

Like a geek colossus, del Toro straddles that same divide.

Bleak House. Submitted photo
Bleak House. Submitted photo

The fanboy-turned-fan-favorite is known for movies that are often dark and always visually inventive, including “Pan’s Labyrinth” — a fable set in Franco-era Spain that earned del Toro Academy Awards nominations for best screenplay and best foreign language film — and the supernatural adventure series “Hellboy,” based on Mike Mignola’s comic books.

“At Home with Monsters” debuted in August at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and next travels to Art Gallery of Ontario, but it originated in the mind of Mia Director Kaywin Feldman. Inspiration hit mid-workout; Feldman was reading a 2011 New Yorker profile of del Toro while training on an elliptical machine and was taken with reporter Daniel Zalewski’s characterization of the director as someone who drew inspiration from both Alfred Hitchcock and Hieronymus Bosch — but perhaps more from the latter.

Just as Bleak House mixes fine art with movie props and pop-culture collectibles, the Mia exhibition is peppered with pieces from the museum’s collection, each selected by del Toro. In some cases, it works.

Philip Guston’s 1942 painting of four costumed trick-or-treaters, “Halloween Party,” is a delight in any context, and here it’s hung salon-style in a room dedicated to del Toro’s childhood. Just across the way is a family photo of the director as a child, dressed as a monster and crouched over his victim

The bold linework of a German Expressionist print harmonizes nicely with the original comic book art scattered throughout the exhibition. Del Toro has a connoisseur’s eye for cartooning, displaying several drawings by Moebius (the nom de plume of French artist Jean Giraud); horror-specialist Bernie Wrightson’s chiaroscuro drawings for an illustrated edition of “Frankenstein”; and even a cell from “Gertie the Dinosaur,” the pioneering 1914 animated short hand drawn in cartoonist Winsor McCay’s inimitable clear-line style.

But some of the juxtapositions are awkward. Among the Mia pieces selected by del Toro is Francis Bacon’s 1953 painting “Study for Portrait VI,” part of the artist’s so-called “screaming popes” series and a dark jewel of the museum’s collection. It makes everything in its proximity seem a little silly by comparison, including a full-size model of the Pale Man monster from “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

The horror of Bacon’s painting is ambiguous, creeping toward existential dread, and that gives it its power. Fantasy artist Wayne Barlowe’s magma-seared hellscape (from his book “Barlowe’s Inferno,” itself a sought-after collectible) unsettles with the specificity of its gory details, but Bacon’s screaming pope stabs at a deeper place.

There are moments like this in “At Home with Monsters,” when a door opens and the ghouls of the del Toro-verse dissolve in the daylight. Bleak House is best experienced with the door locked and the blinds drawn.


Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters

When: Through May 28

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art

Info: artsmia.org, 870-3000