Guillermo del Toro Exhibit at LACMA
“The underground of the city is like what’s underground in people. Beneath the surface, it’s boiling with monsters.”
– Guillermo del Toro.
As part of my low-key birthday weekend, I decided to indulge myself in some of the things that bring me the most joy. New restaurants were a must (post on those coming tomorrow), as was an art exhibit that I had been wanting to see since it first opened at the beginning of August.
So, bright and early on Saturday morning we headed to the underground of LA and straight into Guillermo del Toro’s “At Home With Monsters” exhibit at the LACMA.
For a quick bio: Guillermo del Toro is a Mexican film director, screenwriter, producer, and novelist who has a life-long love and obsession with fantasy and monsters, which he considers symbols of great power. He is also known for his extensive use of insectile, religious imagery, the themes of Catholicism and celebrating imperfection, and underworld & clockwork motifs.
His most celebrated movies are Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Hellboy (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Pacific Rim (2013), and Crimson Peak (2015). And through his movies del Toro recreates the lucid dreams he had as a child in Guadalajara, Mexico.
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Despite the fact that tickets are timed on a 30-minute basis (and are $25 each), the hefty exhibit was packed. Clearly I wasn’t the only person with the inspired idea to go and see a rather macabre exhibit about monsters over Halloween weekend.
I was first introduced to del Toro’s work in a Spanish Film class I took in high-school. I remember vividly watching Pan’s Labyrinth absolutely mesmerized, but also scared shitless of how I was supposed to intelligently decipher it in a foreign language.
Apparently, when the filmmaker was directing this fantasy, he told his art department to conjure a make-believe world more real than the actual world. He was referring to the alternative realm into which his protagonist disappears in order to avoid the harsh realities of fascist Spain. Yet, as I began walking around the exhibit, I realized that he could just as well have been talking about his own Bleak House, a personal residence in the suburbs of LA that is crammed full of mementoes, toys, illustrations, models, literature and art, all centered on the macabre.
This is a photo of what you would see if you were to enter Bleak House.
Possibly not the warmest welcome with this face towering down above you…
So while the house is not open for public visits, an ample sampling of the Bleak House collection makes up a large part of the exhibit. In addition, there are elements from his films, drawings from his notebooks, and around 60 objects from LACMA’s permanent collection. Over 500 objects are in there — including sculpture, paintings, photography, costumes, ancient artifacts, books, maquettes, and film.
I would say it was more like a cabinet of curiosities.
The show is divided into eight themes or motifs: Childhood and Innocence; Victoriana; Rain Room; Magic, Alchemy and the Occult; Movie, Comics, Pop Culture; Frankenstein and Horror; Freaks and Monsters; and Death and the Afterlife.
Childhood and Innocence explores the central role children play in many of his films. These young characters are never insulated from negative happenings, but are often able to perceive alternate realities and express emotions in ways that the adults cannot.
Victoriana pays homage to the Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian ages and del Toro’s interest in the Victorian relationship to science, in which humans attempted to exert dominion over nature through meticulous categorization. In fact, Charles Dickens (the quintessential Victorian writer) inspired the name of del Toro’s Bleak House!
Different from this Rain Room at LACMA, del Toro’s Rain Room is a version of one he has at Bleak House, where a false window and special effects were installed to simulate a perpetual thunderstorm.
Magic, Alchemy, and the Occult explores del Toro’s love of puzzles and secret keys and explains why many of his characters are scientists on quests for forbidden knowledge.
Movies, Comics, Pop Culture demonstrates del Toro’s enthusiasm for film, comic books and illustrators, and shows his refusal to abide by traditional hierarchies between high and low culture.
Frankenstein and Horror uncovers the director’s obsession with the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Reading the story was a benchmark for the young del Toro, who greatly identified with the outsider status of the monster.
Freaks and Monsters celebrates all types of monsters — those that he sees as heroic in their vulnerability and individuality, those he views as tragic, and those that mirror the hypocrisies of society and bring to light destructive standards of perfection.
The exhibit wraps up with a section on Death and the Afterlife. While del Toro was growing up, his strict Catholic grandmother instilled in him the notion of original sin and even submitted him to exorcisms in a futile attemt to eradicate his love of monsters and fantasy. These experiences are reflected in his work by misguided, arrogant characters whose downfall comes as a result of their futile pursuit of immortality.
What I liked about the way the exhibit was organized was that the references to del Toro’s films were scattered throughout the various sections and so the focus was also just as much on the sources of del Toro’s inspiration.
For example, these spooky images.
The painting on the left is by Zdzisław Beksiński, a Polish artist known for doing dystopian surrealism. The one on the right is an illustration by Stephen Gammell from the children’s book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Quite happy that I wasn’t read that as a child…
But del Toro is quite the talented artist himself. Above is his own storyboard for The Devil’s Backbone. Below is concept art by Mike Mignola for del Toro’s Hellboy.
One of my favourite parts of the exhibit was the chance to get up close and personal with del Toro’s private journal. You could flip through the whole digitized thing on an iPad, but here is a look at the actual real-life, he-put-pen-to-this-very-paper copy.
A glance at the manically loaded notebooks offers early attempts at various creatures that del Toro dramatically developed over time.
“To find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal. To be moved by genre. These things are vital for my storytelling,” said del Toro. “This exhibition presents a small fraction of the things that have moved me, inspired me, and consoled me as I transit through life. It’s a devotional sampling of the enormous love that is required to create, maintain, and love monsters in our lives.”
Now hold up a minute. That’s not one of del Toro’s monsters! That’s just me! Looking slightly hungover in this vintage paintbrush blouse which has the coolest detailing on the sleeves, H&M green pants, and my new red Zara booties that I first took for a spin in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago.
I don’t believe I have ever owned green pants before, so I am excited to wear them over the holidays and pair them with a sparkly red sweater, in hopes of looking like a walking Christmas tree.
Anyways, enough of those shennanigans. If you are in LA, you should most certainly pop over to LACMA to check the exhibit out. It’s a fun date spot or outing with friends or part of a weekend birthday celebration and something a little bit different to do before all the holiday gatherings begin.
Catch “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters” until Nov 27th 2016.
Photos by Tristan Marsh and Jenny Heyside