Don Bachardy: Part 2 of 3

Wednesday, August 18 2010 02:30:36 PM
Born in 1934, renowned portrait artist Don Bachardy, now 76, was only 18 when his 33-year relationship began in 1953 with writer Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986). They first met on a beach in Santa Monica, California. After renting from my aunt in the Santa Monica canyon, they moved into the Santa Monica bungalow in 1959 where Don still lives, and paints, today.

These days, if Bachardy is willing to paint someone, compensation for his portraits, normally done in acrylic over the course of a roughly two-hour sitting, is in the form of a contribution to the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. On the walls of his studio are samples of his work over many years, including many stars and other important Hollywood people and personal friends.

Aldous Huxley, he said, commanded one of his most challenging efforts, because he was so famous and he, Bachardy, was so early in his painting career at the time.

Over the course of many encounters with Huxley, as Isherwood wrote in his diaries, a clear differentiation between the two famous figures emerged. Huxley insisted “spiritual enlightenment” could come simply from ingesting mescaline, and Isherwood reported few and unpleasant experiences with drugs, preferring spiritual exercises prescribed by his allegiance to the Vedanta Society.

“I would say the best way to describe Huxley was that he was an intellectual,” Bachardy told me. “Chris would never think of himself that way, although of course he had a very keen intellect.”

The divergence between the two – Huxley and Isherwood – would become very important in the course of the 1970s social unhinging of the youth-inspired social justice struggles of the previous decade. Huxley fed directly into the radical hedonistic surge that drowned a lot of idealistic progressive social currents in a tidal wave of unrestrained “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”

By contrast, Isherwood, and Bachardy, in the manner of Tennessee Williams, while surrounded by that new paradigm, stood for their their own creative efforts elevating the validity of genuine human connectivity, depth and empathy. As Isherwood continued to write into the 1980s before succumbing to a five-year battle with prostate cancer, Bachardy doggedly honed his artistic skills. His portraits became remarkable for drawing out the “inner souls” of their subjects, a quality that distinguishes great art from mere photographs.

One portrait on Bachardy’s studio wall jumped out at me when I was there earlier this month. It was no one very famous, but important to both Isherwood and Bacardy, a personal friend who looked so young, intense and complex. It was Rick Sandford. He’d only began to realize his potential with the publication of his first novel, but died from AIDS in 1995.

That squandered potential in such a beautiful young man is the epitome of the tragedy represented by the deadly AIDS epidemic overall.

Bachardy told me that he was worried when Tom Ford’s production of Isherwood’s short novel, “A Single Man,” hit the theaters last fall. The story was written in 1962 when the relations between the two were temporarily on the rocks, and Bachardy said it was written out of Isherwood’s fear their relationship would end entirely.

“I was afraid to see the film version, because I did not want to tell Tom Ford, a friend of mine, that I didn’t like it,” Bachardy said. “So, I was delighted when I saw it and I liked it very, very much.”

Asked about ways in which the film altered aspects of Isherwood’s story, Bachardy said that Isherwood would not have minded that. “He always said that it is the duty of the artist when taking someone else’s creative work to make it his own.”

The film version introduces suicidal intentions to the lead character, played by Colin Firth, that are not present in the novel. “Perhaps it was necessary to make the story sensible to a mass audience,” Bachardy said. “But as for the gun, you will never find a gun in any story by Chris.”

A 1953 Bachardy, as when Isherwood first met him, could be equated in the film with the youth, vitality and physical appearance of the student character played by Nicholas Hoult.